Watch the nightly news or listen to a conversation around the coffee machine at work and you'll hear the same question: "Why have people lost the ability to control their negative emotions?" The outbursts range from the incivility of a major league baseball player spitting in an umpire's face to the life-threatening rage of a terminated employee who returns to the office with a loaded weapon.
It seems anger is having a field day, and relationship specialist Gary Smalley is concerned about it. Anger has the power to kill, he says, and too often the victim is a marriage. Smalley has seen too many spouses turned into enemies—and too many families fractured beyond repair—because of anger.
But if we started doing just a few things differently, he says, we could reverse the trend. That's why he devoted much of his latest book, Making Love Last Forever (Word), to the problem of anger. Smalley speaks not only from what he has observed in his years as a counselor, but also from his own experience of reaching the meltdown point. Here is his strategy for disarming your anger before it explodes and hurts someone you love.
People seem to be reacting to situations with an intensity that is way out of proportion to the circumstances. Why do relatively insignificant events trigger such extreme reactions?
People have a tendency to avoid dealing with hurtful situations when they occur. Instead, they try to bury the pain. But it just builds up inside them and eventually turns into anger. Anger is a secondary emotion, which means it begins as something else—usually fear, frustration, hurt feelings or major disappointment. We can try to bury our anger, but it's always buried alive. And it's just a matter of time before it comes out.
When I explain this to people, they start looking back over their lives and a lot of issues come into sharper focus. They say, "Wow, I was hurt by something my parents did years ago. I didn't realize it, but I'm still really angry at them."
What made you decide to focus much of your current work on combating anger?
It was two different things. First, I've seen too much damage done in the lives of the couples I've counseled over the years. And the other reason is that I have suffered the devastation of anger in my own life.
When I was in my 30s, I was working on the staff of a para-church ministry—a job I really loved. I started noticing some things in the ministry that I thought needed to be addressed, so I challenged the leaders on a few matters. But instead of welcoming my input, they rejected me.
Up until then, I had never known what it felt like to be rejected. And since I didn't understand it, I responded by pressing a little harder, thinking they just weren't hearing what I was trying to say. But the more I pressed, the more negative they became toward me. I ended up being squeezed out of that organization.
You mention feeling rejected. Was that an instance of anger growing out of another emotion?
Clearly, my anger was produced by the rejection I was feeling. It hurt me deeply, and I became so angry I actually wanted to have a fistfight with one of my bosses. At the time, I didn't understand all that was going on, but I was sure experiencing the symptoms.
What were the symptoms?
A big one was that I lost interest in spiritual things. I didn't want to pray or read the Bible. My anger was diminishing the importance of God in my life.
Another symptom was that I started rehearsing the pain. I was convinced my bosses were planning to fire me, which made me feel like a victim. It was like I had a videotape that kept playing in my mind. I'd mentally berate them: "You're going to deny me the work I love. You're going to prevent me from supporting my family." I'd rehearse all of that over and over.
I even started having physical symptoms. I tried to stay away from my bosses because I'd literally become nauseated whenever I was around them. I realized I couldn't stay there, so I quit.
How did all that turmoil affect your marriage?
Well, I left that organization with a tremendous amount of bitterness. And it created a lot of distance between Norma and me. I started saying and doing a lot of hurtful things, and I didn't even know where they were coming from. I would try to excuse my behavior by saying I was upset or stressed out.
How did Norma react?
She didn't understand what was happening, and she took a lot of it personally. She tried to get me to talk about what was going on, but I was in the dark. I didn't make the connection between my anger and the emptiness I was feeling.
Things got so bad that I finally started crying out to God, asking him to release me from the burden I was under. And little by little, from reading books and talking with a lot of different people, I began to get insights into what was going on.
What was the most important thing you learned?
One of the most important lessons was that my anger was tied up with a lot of unforgiveness. Jesus told his disciples: " … if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins" (Matt. 6:15). There are dire consequences for the unforgiving person, and that's what I was back then.
What helped you get over that hurdle?
I had to put everything in context. I'd been sinned against, to be sure. But I realized that my sins against God greatly outnumbered the few offenses that others had committed against me. I could identify only about ten offenses I had suffered at the hands of my former bosses, yet I was unwilling to release them. That's when I told myself: "Smalley, God has forgiven you of all this junk you've done against him. So you have to forgive these other guys, whether you like it or not."
If you didn't want to forgive them, how did you get yourself to do it?
One thing that helps is to understand that people who offend us usually carry around a lot of pain in their own hearts. When I found out that my former bosses had both been deeply wounded by others, my compassion for them started building. After that, I committed the matter to prayer. I confessed my sin of not forgiving them, and then I said out loud, "I release you. I forgive you. God forgives you." I pictured the Lord hugging my former employers, and I just started weeping. I was a basket case for about five hours.
So forgiveness is a big part of conquering anger. What else can we do to keep anger in check?
One of the biggest causes of anger is disappointment over not getting what we expect. We expect life to work out in our favor—we want to be loved and appreciated and all that. But the truth is we'll never get everything we want or expect. If we can accept that fact, it will do a lot to minimize our big disappointments.
Second, we can't choose what others will do—we can't keep someone from hurting us. But we can always choose how we will react. We can prevent adverse circumstances from controlling us by choosing a road away from anger to forgiveness and healing.
It's not easy to choose not to get angry when every fiber in your body is gearing up for a good venting. How do you flip the "off" switch?
Part of it is realizing that you're not being singled out as a victim. We all get blasted by life—that's true no matter who we are. But we won't grow spiritually from these experiences unless we look for the good things that can come from the pain.
What's so good about pain?
It's not the pain itself that's good, but the things pain can produce in our lives. It can make us more loving, more sensitive and more empathetic if we really search for it.
No one would naturally be thankful for being rejected or for losing something they deeply value. But the Bible says "give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thess. 5:18). As we start to become grateful for circumstances that hurt us, we'll see a change in our attitudes. Our motivation changes, our self-confidence rises, a lot of things improve. One of the best ways to overcome anger is to be thankful for everything that happens.
How does this apply to marriage?
Well, we all need to start focusing on honor, which means placing a high value on your spouse. It's the opposite of being angry, and it's another of the choices we make.
When Norma does something I don't like, I may react negatively at first. But as soon as I can, I start honoring her in my mind. I pray, "God, would you help me be a source of encouragement to my wife—this woman I value so highly? Will you show me how I can help her?" It's a matter of taking control of your attitudes and emotions and steering them away from an angry response.
What are some ways you can help your spouse, especially when you're so mad you can't see straight?
One way is to control how we talk when we're mad, which not only defuses the anger but helps us arrive at solutions much more quickly. Norma and I have found a way to have an argument that brings honor to our relationship. It's based on a communication method developed at the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. I like to call it "drive-through talking," because it's similar to what happens when you order fast food at the drive-through window.
Are you saying you argue with your wife the same way you order fast food?
Something like that. Think about what happens in the drive-through lane at a burger place. You pull up to the speaker. The person inside asks for your order. Then it's your turn to express your "needs." You recite the complete order, without being interrupted. When you're done, the person inside repeats what you just said, to make sure he or she understood it.
You listen to the person repeating back your order, and you either say, "Yes, that's right" or "No, I ordered two burgers, not one."
That's great if you want lunch. But how does it solve the problem of anger?
If you're really mad at each other, you need a way to keep things under control. This method controls what you say, and how you say it. One mate "stays in the car" and expresses his or her needs and feelings. The other spouse stays inside the burger place and has only one purpose, to understand the person who is placing the order.
When the first speaker is satisfied that his or her mate understands what has been said, they trade places. Now the second spouse is in the drive-through lane, explaining his feelings and needs, and the other is listening and repeating back what is being said. They keep switching back and forth until they both feel understood. When you take the time to really listen to each other—without judging each other's feelings—you'd be amazed how it dissipates your anger.
What's wrong with just having a normal conversation? Do we have to pretend we're at a burger joint?
In most cases, a normal conversation is great. But make sure you're not using it to try to gloss over the anger you're feeling. Anger is such an unsettling emotion that we're tempted to shove it aside and not deal with it. But it won't just go away. If we don't take responsibility for our own anger, it will come back later to haunt us.
Copyright © 1997 by Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership Magazine.