By Amy Alkon
Q: My boyfriend of a year used to fly into rages. He and his ex had huge, ugly screaming fights. He now uses “mental tricks” to stay calmer. Obviously, rage is a bad thing, but it’s also a passionate thing. Is it crazy to worry that he doesn’t care enough about me to get really angry?—Fretting
A: When the cops come to the door, it usually isn’t to say, “Your neighbors called and said they heard you loving each other really loudly.”
Rage isn’t a sign of love; it’s a sign of bad emotion management. Research by doctor and behavioral neuroscientist Emil Coccaro finds that people who are prone to angry outbursts—responding to every slight like somebody just nuked Rhode Island—have exaggerated activity in part of the brain called the amygdala. This is a set of lima bean-sized structures that basically work as a security guard, identifying threats (or potential threats). As neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux explains it, the amygdala makes a “quick and dirty” assessment that danger is afoot—before rational thought can get involved—and releases chemical messengers to get us to leap into action, as in, “DO SOMETHING BEFORE YOU DIE!”
But because the amygdala is an evolutionarily ancient structure—one we share with sheep and hamsters—it’s not all that discerning. In fact, it makes a lot of mistakes. That’s because our chances of survival are better if we jump out of our skin at a rustling in the leaves that turns out to be nothing—rather than being all, “Yeah, that could be a deadly poisonous snake, but I’m not letting it get in the way of a good bong hit.” Still, socially, a hypersensitive amygdala can pose problems—like our going all Kill Bill on somebody’s ass when they, oh, graze our arm reaching for a coffee lid.
Chances are that what your boyfriend has learned to do through these “mental tricks” is redirect his attention from the amygdala to the newer, thinkier “frontal” parts of the brain. Yes, your brain is about as easily fooled as Aida, my 6-pound Chinese crested. The vet holds out a treat in one hand so Aida won’t get hopped up about the other—which is en route to her butt with the same size thermometer they use on the Great Dane.
Your boyfriend’s newfound cool is a sign—showing that he gets that rage is to problem-solving as a chain saw is to hangnail eradication. Of course, many people realize that they’re doing something totally counterproductive—and remain all pedal to the metal down Stupid Avenue instead of investing the effort your boyfriend did (and does) to respond differently. As for the notion that his not blowing his top means that he doesn’t care about you … right. Nothing says you’ve got the lukewarmies for somebody like treating them with love, patience and respect instead of giving in to your initial impulse to stab them in the neck with a fork.
Q: I’m a woman with a high sex drive. My boyfriend and I live a long plane ride apart. Months can go by between visits. On our first day together, he typically has erectile dysfunction. The next day, everything’s good. However, it’s hard to not take the first day personally. After we’re apart for a while, shouldn’t he be raring to go?—Concerned
A: A classic car that’s been garaged for the winter can also be hard to start, but that probably isn’t a sign that you need to lose a few pounds and sex up the undies.
Luckily for the car, it just needs a battery jump, not reassurance from the tow truck driver: “You’ve still got it, Impala!” For a man, however, first-day-back jitters can easily turn Mr. Happy into Mr. I Dunno What Happened. This occurs because emotions aren’t just feeling-flavored thoughts; they have physiological underpinnings. Anxiety is a cousin of fear. The same area in the brain—the amygdala—sounds the alarm, chemically messaging your body to prepare it to fight or flee. Your body, in turn, shuts down processes not required for that, like digestion, and diverts blood flow where it’s needed most: To your heart and the large muscles (in your arms and legs) that you’d use to hit back or run. (Sadly, the “third leg” does not count as an actual leg.)
The thing is, if your boyfriend doesn’t feel pressured to put on a big show, the show might just happen. On your first day together, tell him that you just want to cuddle and reconnect—and act like you mean it. Your overriding goal should be making him feel comfortable—though not the way an ER nurse would, by cutting off his jeans while he’s asleep with a big pair of surgical scissors.