In two studies, we examined women’s anger expression and its instrumental function in relationships by addressing the following questions: What is the relationship between women’s self-reports of instrumentality and their perceived styles of anger expression? In what ways and situations do women see their anger expression as instrumental or goal enhancing? In Study I, we expected that women’s perceived styles of anger expression would be positively related to instrumentality, as measured with the Personal Attributes Questionnaire. Although our hypothesis was not supported, a positive relationship did emerge between assertiveness and instrumentality, as predicted. In Study II, we conducted three focus group discussions to elucidate women’s experiences of anger and to provide clarification for the results of Study I. We identified group themes related to when women experienced their anger expression as instrumental as well as when women perceived themselves as non-instrumental in anger-arousing situations. In their narratives, women explained how they make decisions about expressing their anger based on relationship concerns.
The tendency to focus on cognitive and task-oriented activities along with the expectation of achieving something valued for oneself are facets of a construct historically labeled instrumentality. Instrumentality typically is discussed in relation to its supposed opposite, expressivity, or the tendency to focus one’s attention on relationships and others’ feelings. These dimensions historically have come to represent and sometimes be used interchangeably with “masculinity” and “femininity,” concepts upon which the developers of the PAQ based their notions of instrumentality and expressivity. The authors of the PAQ originally developed the scale to measure masculinity and femininity according to commonly accepted descriptions of both, for example, “very active” and “very independent” (instrumental) versus “emotional” and “able to devote self completely to others” (expressive).
There appears to be a widely accepted view of anger as either a symptom of underlying pathology or a problem to overcome. This idea is reflected in popular self-help literature with many books devoted to the “control” or minimization of anger. This conceptualization contributes to notions of anger as useless or non-instrumental, with most descriptions including ideas that anger is unhealthy and destructive to relationships.
However, Bowlby’s early writing in the area of attachment claimed that an anger of hope (versus an anger of despair) was a functional anger that was used instrumentally to discourage another’s unwanted or negative behaviors, to surmount obstacles in a relationship, and actually to maintain attachments with others. This kind of anger emerged from a state in which people experienced themselves as capable of affecting change when needed. Gilligan’s ideas about women’s development also give support to this idea as she suggests that being able to speak about one’s inner conflicts and disagreements within a relationship bridges inner and outer worlds, making possible a reconnection with lost voice. Doing so promotes both active responsibility within relationships and the necessary congruence and honesty for repairing ruptures in those relationships.
Anger Expression and Instrumentality
Recent empirical evidence for the usefulness of anger expression comes from Mikulincer’s study examining the functional anger experiences of persons with secure attachment patterns and those with insecure patterns. In contrast to insecurely attached persons, the securely attached persons demonstrated functional anger by endorsing constructive goals, showing more adaptive responses, and experiencing more positive effect during episodes of anger. Positive beliefs about the self, among Mikulincer’s participants, related to decisions to act directly and confront the targets of their anger. Persons with such beliefs, suggested the author, felt secure in the efficacy of their emotional responses and in their abilities to resolve episodes of anger. Mikulincer used the term instrumental to denote actions that securely attached persons are able to formulate, given that they are more able than insecurely attached persons to access cognitive resources for problem solving when they are angry.
The idea of instrumental anger expression also comes from authors such as Miller and Surrey. These writers assert that anger is useful in its potential to facilitate the growth of relationships in that it promotes individuals to learn to recognize their own needs as they come into conflict with those of others. This view is consistent with the findings of a phenomenological study by Thomas, Smucker, and Droppleman in which the researchers suggested that women feel empowered when they use anger to restore justice, respect, or mutuality in a relationship. In fact, some neuropsychological research suggests that anger produces brain activity consistent with approach behavior (versus withdrawal behavior) and that anger may mobilize energy for action, rendering a person more able to confront a challenge or threat directly. Thomas reveals a variety of anger behaviors that women reportedly use when they are angry: crying, engaging in physical activity, eating, reflecting on the situation, perspective taking, planning (rehearsing), experiencing physical sensations like clenched teeth and heartburn, feeling guilt or anxiety, and ignoring the target of the anger. This list of anger behaviors includes some that appear directed at solving the problem, and thus instrumental, along with some behaviors that seem less instrumental.
The potential for anger expression to be instrumental has to do with its implied and empirically demonstrated relationship with assertiveness. As part of the theoretical definition of instrumentality, assertiveness involves standing up for one’s rights, giving voice to one’s feelings (namely, anger), and other self-protective, self-promoting behaviors. Anger derives from and promotes an autonomous self-view that brings to light personal needs, wants, or perceived injustices. Conversely, “silencing the self” involves deferring to the needs of others, censoring self-expression, repressing anger, and censoring one’s experience in order to maintain relationships. Hart and Thompson reported that, among adolescents of both sexes, instrumentality negatively correlated with silencing the self or thwarting one’s direct expression of strong feelings and needs, namely, oppositional ones.
Although anger itself is said to motivate and to promote assertive self-protection, many writers both acknowledge this potential and yet view women as being socialized to negate direct anger expression, opting for more indirect yet gender-appropriate means of expression. Kopper and Epperson found that individuals, regardless of gender, who had a more masculine sex role identity were more apt to express anger outwardly. Asher and Hilton reported that women with high expressivity (femininity) scores on the PAQ had significantly more fear of relationship loss and other difficulties with their anger than did women scoring higher on instrumentality (masculinity) and androgyny. Experiencing fear in conjunction with anger could stem from feeling one has few options for handling anger to one’s benefit while also maintaining relationship harmony. So it may be that some women’s anger produces concomitant stress, as it requires them to balance self-interested opposition with relationship nurturance. This idea is consistent with Jack’s research in which she concluded that women make decisions about how and where to express their anger based on the anticipated reactions of others. Women in her study reported that they expressed their anger in relationships either directly to enhance the relationship, aggressively to hurt others, or indirectly to avoid interpersonal consequences. According to Gilligan, even adolescent girls begin to fear the loss of relationship—and to paradoxically take themselves out of relationship by keeping silent when they disagree or feel angry with others.
- Cox, DL, What’s the use in getting mad? Anger and instrumentality in women’s relationships, Health Care for Women International, Oct 2004, Vol. 25.
Reflection Exercise #9
The preceding section contained information
about anger and instrumentality in women’s relationships. Write
three case study examples regarding how you might use the content of this section
in your practice.
According to Bowlby’s early writing in the area of attachment, what is the rationale behind his claim that anger of hope (versus an anger of despair) was a functional anger? Record the letter of the correct answer