Martha Nussbaum on anger in intimate relationships

Because I can find no (affordable / accessible) copy of Martha Nussbaum’s Anger and Forgiveness (Oxford UP, 2015), here are her thoughts by way of Brain Pickings:

“Nowhere is anger more acute, nor more damaging, than in intimate relationships, where the stakes are impossibly high. Because they are so central to our flourishing and because our personal investment in them is at its deepest, the potential for betrayal there is enormous and therefore enormously vulnerable-making. Crucially, Nussbaum argues, intimate relationships involve trust, which is predicated on inevitable vulnerability. …

The damage involved in the breakdown of an intimate relationship … is internal and goes to the heart of who one is… Beyond a certain point there is really no place to go, except into your own heart — and what you find there is likely to be pretty unpleasant. So there is something lonely and isolating about these harms; they involve a profound helplessness. Once again, this helplessness can easily be deflected into anger, which gives the illusion of agency and control. … The target of anger is the person, but its focus is the act, and the person is more than the act, however difficult it is to remember this.

“Anger, Nussbaum suggests, is a mask for the profound grief we don’t want to or simply can’t let ourselves feel when confronted with an intimate betrayal:

Such breakdowns typically, and rightly, involve deep grief, and grief needs to be dealt with. Grief is amply warranted: intimate relationships are very important parts of a flourishing life. (Here the Stoics are wrong.) But grief, and the helplessness it typically brings with it, are usually not well addressed by allowing anger to take the center of the stage. All too often, anger becomes an alluring substitute for grieving, promising agency and control when one’s real situation does not offer control… The way to deal with grief is just what one might expect: mourning and, eventually, constructive forward-looking action to repair and pursue one’s life. Anger is often well-grounded, but it is too easy for it to hijack the necessary mourning process. So a Transition from anger to mourning — and, eventually, to thoughts of the future — is to be strongly preferred to anger nourished and cultivated. …

[Anger] diverts one’s thoughts from the real problem to something in the past that cannot be changed. It makes one think that progress will have been made if the betrayer suffers, when, in reality, this does nothing to solve the real problem. It eats up the personality and makes the person quite unpleasant to be with. It impedes useful introspection. It becomes its own project, displacing or forestalling other useful projects. And importantly, it almost always makes the relationship with the other person worse. There was something likable about the person, and even if marriage is no longer possible or desirable, some other form of connection might still be, and might contribute to happiness. Or it might not. But the whole question cannot be considered if angry thoughts and wishes fill up the mental landscape. Far from being required in order to shore up one’s own self-respect, anger actually impedes the assertion of self-respect in worthwhile actions and a meaningful life. …

Intimate relationships are perilous because of the exposure and lack of control they involve. Being seriously wronged is a constant possibility, and anger, therefore, a constant and profoundly human temptation. If vulnerability is a necessary consequence of giving love its proper value, then grief is often right and valuable. It does not follow, however, that anger is so.

Things we lost in the fire

A month ago, I was lying on my side in the half-light, on the floor, sleepless past one a.m. At two a.m., I got a text from a friend: Was I okay? Was I in UP? I told her I was home, asked her what was up. FC’s burning! was what she said.

I went on Facebook and found my newsfeed streaming photos in black, orange, red. I messaged my colleagues, got up and dressed and ran to the corner street and hailed a cab to UP at three a.m. — only to find my office in flames, with everything inside it already razed with the plywood walls.

There was nothing I could do but stand with my colleagues, hugging each other as our offices continued to burn. At half-past six a.m., when we thought the fire had died, we walked to Katipunan to eat and begin tracing the outlines of all that we had, until a mere six hours ago, lost.

The office I shared with Ma’am C. was on the second floor, on the side near the supposed source of the fire. All that it left us were ashes.

Things lost in the fire: about a hundred books, many of which are the dearest in my possession (Atwood, Boully, Camus, Critchley, Cruz, De Beauvoir, Donne, Eco, Foucault, Frye, Gamble, Glück, Heidegger, Le Guin, Kant, Kennedy, Nehring, Nietzsche, Plath, Plato, Polanyi, Shakespeare, Szymborska, Wallace, Wittgenstein, etc.; several Norton anthologies and other readers), my Giant Expressway folding bike and helmet, running shoes, lecture notes, annotated journal articles and other research materials, notebooks dating back to my college days whose contents I never got to digitize, important documents and certificates, student papers and records, letters and artwork from students and friends.

Much has been written on the significance of the Faculty Center / Bulwagang Rizal, not only to lives of the professors and other staff and students, to the fight for state support of higher education or to the intellectual and cultural heritage of UP, but also to the history of the nation. But being a relatively new member of the faculty of the College of Arts and Letters, I mourned mostly for my books and notes (all the notes and research materials for a paper I’m working on! Instructional materials and class notes!), the recovery and reconstruction of which would take much work, time, and money. Also my bike, which I’d acquired last year and hadn’t even managed to ride outside the campus.

Nonetheless, the personal loss is bearable; what was devastating was seeing the faculty, staff, and students agonizing over decades’ worth of research, archives, artifacts, theater props and musical instruments, computers and other electronics and equipment, entire libraries, means of livelihood. I never saw so many profs in tears. And then of course we’re all displaced, with no offices of our own, scant resources and facilities; classes in the affected buildings were also suspended for over a week, resulting in delays and difficulties in teaching.

But, as I told a former student, shit sometimes happens, life always goes on, so we have to find ways to spin with a mad world, find spaces for slowing down in the midst of frantic recovery. The week right after the fire, I attended public lectures, dined with colleagues and old friends, read books, tried to understand why hungry farmers in Kidapawan could be gunned down with such impunity. I slept too much, walked alone a lot, bought office supplies and new copies of books I needed for class. I felt tired. I felt empty. I felt grateful for the outpouring of support and sympathy from friends, students, strangers.

I know that most of the things I lost can be replaced. Those that can’t be replaced, I will soon forget. The fire reminded me that we were born with nothing, and in the end, all that we adore will turn to dust and ash, whether we like it or not.

I’m at peace with that.

In mid-February I traveled eight hours to sit by the sea

“I am unhappy. Father,” I said. “I have loved this town and the people in it. I have drunk them down with delight. But they have some poison in them which I cannot stand. If I think of them now, I vomit up my soul. Do you know of a cure for me?”

“Why yes,” he said, “I know a cure for everything. Salt water.”

“Salt water?” I asked him.

“Yes,” he said, “in one way or the other. Sweat, or tears, or the salt sea.”

– Isak Dinesen, from “The Deluge at Norderney” in Seven Gothic Tales (1934)


In mid-February I traveled eight hours to sit by the sea, hoping to float, baggage-free, along the horizon. Instead, I spent that weekend reading books and articles on wasted lives, the politics of disposability, human rights, and the death zones of humanity. I read up on the Ampatuan Massacre, I read up on the killings of the Davao Death Squad. I wound up V-Day singing saksak-puso-senti songs on karaoke with strangers at midnight in a hipster pasta place in a gentrified surf town.

I have run the gamut of saline solutions. But sadness, like seawater, is a renewable resource.






Lessons from my early twenties: Never assign a central position in your emotional life to someone who treats you as if you were dispensable. It takes a while to arrive back to where you were, and distance to see clearly through saltwater.