In his book The Other Side of Love (Moody), Gary Chapman describes anger as "a cluster of emotions involving such feelings as disappointment, hurt, rejection, embarrassment and other similar feelings. … It is the opposite of love. Love draws you toward the person; anger sets you against the person."
His description sounds about right for those of us who have struggled with anger in our marriages. But then Chapman goes on to write something downright startling: "Anger is not evil; anger is not sinful; anger is not part of our fallen nature; anger is not Satan at work in our lives. Quite the contrary. Anger is evidence that we are made in God's image; it demonstrates that we still have some concern for justice and righteousness despite our fallen estate."
So what are we to believe—that anger erects barriers between loved ones or that it's part of God's holy imprint on us? Both, says Chapman, a pastor, counselor and popular seminar leader. Knowing there had to be a lot more to it, we asked him to clarify the sources of anger, its effects on marriage and what we should do about it. Here's what he had to say.
You maintain that anger isn't the evil force we assume it to be, but it still wreaks a lot of havoc in marriage. What are we to make of that?
Well, let's be honest and recognize that anger, like every other gift from God, has been distorted by sin. That's what causes problems. It's that "distorted anger" that we don't know how to deal with.
Where do we go wrong in the ways that we tend to handle anger?
Anger should be motivated by our sense of outrage over a wrong that someone else commits. However, we often lash out at a loved one who hasn't done anything wrong. This is usually caused by a misapplication of pent-up anger. Think about the husband—who's frustrated because his car won't start—blowing up at his wife when she suggests they ask her brother, the mechanic, for some help.
So what made this guy lash out?
He was acting on distorted anger. He had pent-up frustration over his inability to fix the car, and maybe even pent-up anger over his wife's seeming dependence on her family. This pent-up anger is sinful. Ephesians 4:26 says, "'In your anger do not sin': Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry."
The mistake is that many Christians believe any anger is sinful, so we don't admit it. But by denying it, we fail to process it. And this failure to process anger builds resentment, bitterness and hate.
We've all seen the destructive forces of anger in our society, but that's not God's intention. I really believe that God wants anger to be used to correct wrongs and to bring about good, not destruction. God also intends anger to be a visitor, not a resident. If we can learn how to make it a visitor that comes and goes, and not let it live in our hearts, we'll create a climate in our marriages and families where we can deal in a positive way with things that go wrong.
Are you saying anger can have positive effects on a marriage?
Certainly. Let's talk about the guy who was mad because his car wouldn't start. It was unfair of him to blow up at his wife. Now she's angry and with good reason. But if her anger leads her to confront her husband about his unfair behavior and if he apologizes, it's an opportunity for them to experience human forgiveness. That's why I say that anger, once processed, should bring us together.
But if that guy's wife is really mad, she might just blow up at him. How should she process her anger?
Basically, I see five quick steps that enable us to process our anger appropriately. First, consciously acknowledge to yourself that you are angry. Don't try to hide it or deny it, since it's not sinful to feel angry.
Second, restrain your immediate response. If you act on your first impulse, you will likely say or do some thing that you might regret later.
Third, locate the focus of your anger. Did your husband actually treat you unfairly, or were you smarting from something your boss did and your husband's innocent comment was what finally pushed you over the edge?
Fourth, analyze your options. You have the power to choose how and when you will respond to the things that make you angry. Among the options are many positive and God-honoring ways to deal with anger. Choose one of those as your response.
And fifth, take constructive action. Don't just stew over the situation, and don't try to bury the anger. It might go away for a while, but it will surface again. So go ahead and deal with it now by taking action.
Which means what?
There's a little card I asked the publisher to put in the back of my book, some thing people can tear out and put on the refrigerator. It says: "I'm feeling angry right now but don't worry, I'm not going to attack you. But I do need your help. Is this a good time to talk?"
This is a good way to begin taking constructive action when your mate does something that really steams you. You take the card off the fridge and read it to your spouse. It creates a little humor and breaks the ice. Once your spouse has agreed it's a good time to talk, then you can say, "Here's what I'm feeling, and here's the way I'm interpreting what happened. If I'm seeing it wrong, please tell me."
What you're saying is, "I want to deal with this because I don't want it to harm our relationship." Talking about your anger is the most positive thing you can do because it lets you deal with the wrong that was committed against you.
Let's flip things around. What if your spouse is mad at you—justly or unjustly? What's the best way to respond to him or her?
This is important because often we end up making things worse when we encounter an angry person. Many times, we don't get around to resolving an issue with an angry spouse because we jump in and argue with his or her statements from the very beginning. He says, "You came home from work 30 minutes late and you knew I needed the car." And you say, "I was not 30 minutes late, I was only 15 minutes late." After one statement you're into an argument, and you won't get anything resolved by arguing.
If your spouse is angry with you, it's time to do three things. Number one, listen. Number two, listen. Number three, listen. I make a point of that because I think we need to hear the person's story at least three times.
Three times? Are you serious?
Absolutely. The first time your spouse tells you why he's angry, say, "OK. I think I'm hearing you. Is this what you're saying?" You paraphrase what he said, then you ask him to clarify it. Let him get it off his chest. Then say, "OK. I think it's coming through. It seems to me you're angry about . …" Then let him clarify it again.
Around the third time, he'll begin to lower his voice, and now you can talk about the issue. You have heard him out, and he knows that. That's a big issue when you're angry—you want to be heard.
Then what should his wife say?
It's good to begin by expressing understanding. "You know, I can see how you would be angry about that. If I had the perception that you have of this situation, I would probably be angry too. Now, let me tell you my perception of what happened." Then you share your side, and together you work out a solution.
In your book you talk about different types of anger: implosive and explosive. What's the difference between the two?
Explosive anger is more common—it's the anger we can see and hear. A person explodes with words of rage or violent actions.
Implosive anger is what's inside us. It's the anger that says, "You did me wrong, but I'm holding it inside. And if anyone asks about it, I'll deny that it's there. I might not even admit it to myself." This is dangerous, because the longer you hold anger inside, the more likely it is to turn to bitterness and hatred.
Implosive anger either leads to depression or to a major explosion. The pressure builds up, and when it results in an explosion it's a lot bigger than it would have been earlier. This is where the person who gets fired from his job broods on it for nine months, then goes back and shoots his former supervisor.
Is implosive anger actually more dangerous?
I think they are equally dangerous. It's easier to see the damaging effects of explosive anger. But the implosive type is just as detrimental because it doesn't deal with the anger, and you not only destroy yourself, you destroy the relationship. You cannot have intimacy when you've got anger inside.
We all desire to draw closer to our spouses, and that's one reason it's so important to process our anger as it happens. Try it a few times and you'll see—getting rid of all that built-up anger can have a revolutionary effect on your marriage.
Here are Gary Chapman's top five tips for processing anger properly:
- 1. Acknowledge that you are angry.
- 2. Restrain your immediate response.
- 3. Locate the focus of your anger.
- 4. Analyze your options.
- 5. Take constructive action.
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