Q. Both of us are expressive people and when it comes to anger, we don't hold much back. We've come to accept that, but lately it seems that anger is rearing its head too often in our young marriage. How do we keep anger from becoming a problem?
Santa Monica, California
A. Marriage and anger go together. Any relationship can generate considerable anger, but a typical marriage relationship often generates more anger than any other. The sheer amount of time spent together creates more opportunity for anger to erupt. In addition, we let our guard down with the ones we love more than we do with others. This creates opportunity not only for more intimacy but also for more frustration and anger.
But while anger comes part and parcel with most marriages, it should not be given free license. Anger without limits leads to terrible destruction. Anger must be reined in and controlled.
Successful anger management begins with recognizing that anger is a natural human experience. You aren't a bad spouse just because you feel anger toward your partner. According to marriage expert David Mace, we are not responsible for being angry, only for how we respond to and use anger once it appears. The apostle Paul understood this when he said, "In your anger do not sin" (Eph. 4:26). God created us with a capacity to experience potent emotions, including the passion of anger.
With this understanding in place, recognize and admit your anger. Most of us want to deny the presence of anger to control it. But that never works. Repressed anger has a high rate of resurrection. So 'fess up.
Once you have admitted your anger, release your vindictiveness. We fool ourselves into believing that the only way to obtain satisfaction from being offended is to repay evil for evil. Once we become consumed with balancing the score, anger takes center stage in our marriage and is destined to do damage. So practice what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount: "Turn the other cheek" (Matt. 5:38-48). Paul said in Romans 12:17: "Never pay back evil for evil." This practical principle releases revenge and is an insurance policy against resentment.
In addition to "cheek turning," here are a few more tips for keeping anger from ruling the roost:
Be specific with your anger. Exactly what is ruffling your feathers? Say, "I'm angry because … "
Return to the issue when you are calm. It is amazing what thirty minutes can do to help you collect your thoughts and diminish your anger.
Don't allow your anger to build up until you erupt like a volcano. Deal with your hurts as they arise, one at a time.
Listen. Once you acknowledge your anger, listen to your spouse and receive any explanation of apology that may be offered.
Make understanding your ultimate goal. This will help you give up your angry desire to hurt back.
If your anger has found expression in some hostile act, admit that you have crossed the line and retreat. Take time by yourself to regroup and then apologize.
If you are like most couples, anger will be a part of your marriage because you are human. But it certainly doesn't need to do damage. Remember, the "feeling" of anger is not harmful; it's what you do with it that matters to your marriage.
Q. We are both career minded. Before we even got married, we decided to respect one another's professional pursuits and support each other as a team. We are now realizing that our career pursuits can sometimes clash. So how do we figure out whose career should take priority?
A. In the age of the dual-income couple, it seems that one person's career will eventually call the couple to determine whose work takes priority. Granted, for many traditional couples that question is already settled. A couple, for example, with traditional gender-role values will see the husband as primary provider and decision-maker. But if you are asking the question of career priority, you are like the growing number of couples who are pursuing individual careers and struggling to find an answer to this quandary.
Of the 22 million people who packed up and moved for work last year, only 2 million were husbands going along with their wives. While that's double the number from 1980, it's a sluggish progression considering the large number of women who have reached middle- and upper-management positions ripe for relocation assignments. Still, the dilemma of whose career should take priority is popular enough now to have a name. "The Trailing Spouse Crisis" hit the front page of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times not long ago. One husband interviewed in these articles complained that after three moves to follow his wife, "I have never been able to remain in one position long enough to find out how successful I might have been in my own career."
The issue comes down to what you, as a couple, value most. Once you determine what matters most to both of you, your decisions on how to allocate time and priorities fall more easily into place. So permit us to ask: Would your decision to relocate for work simply be a matter of maximizing your financial well-being? A study by the Mobil Corporation found that a man generally will follow his wife only if she earns at least 40 percent more than he does. Is that true of you? What about prestige and power? Is your professional priority to climb the ladder? If so, does that mean that if your husband is moving up faster than you, then his job takes precedence over yours?
Typically the priority gap can't be explained and settled by salary and stature alone. There is much more that goes into determining the actual balance of power in your relationship. In fact, you might find that one person's career takes precedence over the other's for a period of time and then, years into the marriage, the order of priority is exchanged.
Determining whose career should take priority is a matter of each couple's personal journey. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild, author of The Second Shift, found that many people ideologically support the idea of egalitarian roles, yet in valuing each other's careers, the principle gets lost. What people say they believe about marital roles often contradicts what they seem to do about them.
So, to prioritize your respective careers you will need to do some soul searching. Be honest with each other and communicate your real feelings. Once you begin the process of discussing your desires for your different careers you will eventually come closer to balancing the power and respecting one another's goals. Remember, however, that it is a process for most couples. A quick solution on this issue is rare.
Getting the Silent Treatment
Q. When my wife disagrees with me, she often gives me the silent treatment. She won't want to talk about the issue until she is ready and sometimes that can be days later. This was easier when we were dating and weren't together all the time, but it's very difficult to deal with a silent house. What should I do?
A. Some people deal with potential conflict by simply avoiding issues about which they might disagree. They might postpone discussion about a problem until a later time or until simply ignore it all together. Some couples deny that a problem exists at all. Still other couples are prone to withdraw from conflict by shutting down or actually leaving.
Does avoiding conflict affect marriage? You bet. But the effect depends on the answers to two crucial questions: Who chooses the tactic? And how long is the problem avoided?
Husband and wife can choose the avoidance tactic jointly as a way of dealing with conflict, or, as in your case, avoidance can be chosen by one partner and then imposed on the other. Some married couples jointly agree to handle conflict by temporarily avoiding it because each feels uncomfortable fighting with the other. And these jointly agreed-upon avoidance tactics can work. But when one partner chooses avoidance and imposes it on the other, the marriage is more threatened. Such one-sided avoidance might actually become another source of conflict.
The question of how long avoidance goes on is critical to the long-term prospects for the marriage. Indefinitely avoided and thus unsolved marital conflicts can ultimately lead to further problems. So here is our suggestion. Keep track of conflict avoidance in your relationship for a couple months so that you know, objectively, how frequently and on what issues your wife seems to avoid talking about tough issues. Also, track how long it takes her to come around to a previously avoided discussion. With this data you are better equipped to intervene if necessary. However, you may find that her avoidance is not as frequent as you imagined.
If her avoidance occurs several times within two or three months and if she seldom comes back to being willing to discuss hot topics, both of you should seek the objective help of a reputable marriage counselor. A professional can intervene to help you avoid getting too entrenched in a dangerous pattern and begin to deal with tough issues in an open and healthy manner.
Leslie Parrott, Ed.D., and Les Parrott, Ph.D., are co-directors of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University and the authors of Saving Your Marriage Before It Starts, Becoming Soul Mates, and Relationships (all published by Zondervan). You can visit Les and Leslie at www.RealRelationships.com.
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