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Mad About You!

Make anger work for your marriage

Steve and Karen had been married two years, and both expressed love for each other and a commitment to their marriage. When they came to us for counseling, it didn't take long for one of their core concerns to emerge: Steve struggled with anger.

"I can go for a while and it doesn't bother me," he said. "Then all of a sudden I lose my temper and say things I'm sorry for later. I'm not the only one in my family with an anger problem. My father, a wonderful Christian, has a reputation for being hot-headed. He doesn't get angry often, but when he does, watch out."

After a brief pause Steve continued. "I didn't realize my anger was so bad until Karen and I got married." He then began to relate an all-too-common story of little hurts and frustrations that built and exploded into painful expressions of unhealthy anger that wounded the person he loved most. We explained to Steve and Karen that marriage probably generates more anger than they'll experience in any other relationship. When two people live together with a commitment to increasing closeness, vulnerability, and intimacy, the potential for fear, hurt, frustration, and misunderstanding is enormous. So is the potential for anger.

Steve slumped in his seat and asked, "Is there any way I can get rid of my anger?" Our response caught him by surprise. "Steve, the problem isn't anger. The problem is that you don't understand your anger and haven't learned how to cultivate healthy anger." He immediately responded, "Healthy anger? You've got to be kidding me! I've heard anger referred to in many ways but never as healthy."

In our experience most people tend to view anger only as a problem, something negative, something to be avoided. Of all the various emotions, why does anger have such a bad reputation? Is it possible for the energy of this "enemy" to be constructively redirected? In what ways can anger be considered a gift rather than a time bomb?

In my (Gary's) more than 25 years as a counselor, I've spent hundreds of hours with people stymied in their effort to grow and understand the God-given emotion of anger. Instead of naming the emotion and facing it squarely as a fact of life, they try to sit on it, shut it out, and silence it.

It's important to develop a plan for dealing with anger before you become angry. Here are some simple steps to help your anger work for your marriage.

Step 1: Be aware of it

If you'd met Steve at church you would not have considered him an angry person. He rarely appears angry. One of the many myths regarding anger is that if a person doesn't look angry, then he or she doesn't have a problem with anger. While Steve doesn't appear to be an angry person on the outside, he can be like a battlefield on the inside. When he feels misunderstood by Karen, or when she contradicts him in public, his anger is right there.

When you're angry, the power of that emotion can block your ability to think clearly. Recall the last time you were angry. How objective were you? How clearly were you thinking? How often are you aware of being angry? What situations might make you more vulnerable to anger? How does your body respond—what are your physical manifestations of anger?

Steve finally became aware that much of his unhealthy anger took place either during the first hour after he arrived home from work or when Karen would correct him in front of their children.

Step 2: Accept responsibility

Steve acknowledged that he grew up blaming others for his anger. When Karen corrected him in front of the kids and he lost his temper, he functioned as if it were her fault because of what she did. Through counseling and prayer, Steve realized that his response was exactly that, his response, and that he always has a choice as to how he communicates his hurt and frustration to Karen.

Someone has said that one of the major effects of original sin is seen in our tendency to blame someone else for our problems. When God confronted Eve in the garden and asked her what happened, she blamed the serpent. When God confronted Adam, Adam first blamed Eve, and then he blamed God. When we're angry it's easy for us to blame our spouse, to say, "It's your fault; you made me angry." While it's true that your mate can say or do things that cause hurt or frustration, we choose how to respond. If we're angry, it is our anger.

Step 3: Determine what is going to have control

This is a critical step. When we become aware that we're angry, we're faced with a choice. We can either allow the anger to dominate and control us, or we can, with the Holy Spirit's help, control the anger and invest it in a healthy way.

It's important to think of anger as energy. While we may have minimal control over experiencing anger, we have almost total control over how we express it. We can choose to harness, channel, and express that anger-energy in healthy, positive, and constructive ways.

We had Steve write the following sentence on a 3x5 card and read it several times a day: "I can't control when I experience anger, but with God's help I can control how and where and when I choose to express it. I can choose to be angry and not sin. I can choose to invest my anger-energy in ways that will increase our understanding and grow a healthier marriage."

As we pray about our anger, God will help us find creative and constructive ways to deal with it.

Step 4: Define it!

Identify both the source and the cause of the anger.

As we discussed some past situations that had triggered Steve's anger, he said that since the anger was so powerful that's the only emotion he was aware of. But as he reflected on it, he realized that underneath the secondary emotion of anger were the primary emotions of hurt and fear. Karen thought the problem was that he couldn't admit when he was wrong, when the real issue was his hurt from Karen's criticism and his feeling humiliated in front of his children, which quickly produced a fear that they'd see him as incompetent and think less of him. His immediate defensive reaction was to strike back in unhealthy anger.

While there's an almost limitless number of situations that can lead to anger, most fall under three categories: hurt, frustration, and fear.

Hurt makes us feel vulnerable, and for many people anger is an automatic defense mechanism. Anger toward our spouse erects a wall between us, protecting us from additional pain.

Frustration may be caused by blocked goals or desires or by unmet expectations.

In our own marriage, one situation that's frequently led to my (Gary's) expressing unhealthy anger is when I'm trying to communicate with Carrie and she doesn't understand what I'm saying. I'm especially vulnerable to frustration if I'm tired, weary, or in a hurry. When she doesn't "get it," I may assume she's not trying, she's not listening, or she doesn't care. When I let my unhealthy anger take over, I can become sarcastic, cold, and even mean. I'm not proud of it; I've apologized on numerous occasions for it, and I've made great progress with it, but it still happens.

What situations cause you to become frustrated? When are you most vulnerable to frustration? How do you usually respond?

Fear is often associated with vulnerability and weakness. Some people, especially men, are more comfortable with expressing anger than fear, and may respond to situations in which they are anxious or afraid by becoming angry. When you're angry, ask yourself, "Is there something I'm afraid of that could be triggering my anger?"

Step 5: Choose your response

As we discussed some healthy alternatives with them, Steve decided that when he or Karen first become aware of Steve raising his voice, either one of them could call for a "Time Out," which became their code for "we need to take a few minutes away from the kids and each other to think and pray about what's really going on." Over a two-week period, they discovered that this simple intervention gave Karen a chance to own when she was being inappropriately critical in front of the kids and for Steve to own when he was starting to allow his emotions to become expressed by unhealthy anger. Both Steve and Karen learned that by listening to the emotion of anger they were actually able to solve more problems and avoid some of the flare-ups that had been so detrimental to their marriage.

There are many ways to deal with anger, both positive and negative. One of the most destructive ways is to vent it on someone else. The problem is that for most of us the more we talk about it the more worked up we become. Venting anger tends to increase rather than decrease it. In his book Overcoming Frustration and Anger, Paul Hauck writes: "Attacking someone else is like throwing cactus with your bare hands; they may get hurt but so will you."

When you start to become angry, stop and ask yourself, "Is this really that important?" If it isn't then let it pass. If it is important, then ask yourself, "How can I express my anger in a biblical and God-honoring way that will increase the probability of resolution?"

The writer of Proverbs has this to say about anger: "A hot-tempered man stirs up dissension, but a patient man calms a quarrel" (Proverbs 15:18) and "A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control" (Proverbs 29:11).

It's okay to be angry; just make sure you "speak the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). Take time to acknowledge the other person's opinion and feelings. Be open to an apology or an explanation. Make your primary goal understanding and then work toward an agreement.

When Steve felt as though Karen was correcting him in inappropriate ways he would call a "Time Out" where behind closed doors he let Karen know that it hurt him when she corrected him in front of the kids. Karen became more aware of her unhealthy tendency, and Steve learned how to identify the presence of his primary emotions of hurt and fear, and use the energy of his inappropriate anger to, in love, express them to Karen in ways that built bridges of understanding and respect rather than walls of more hurt and fear.

Be angry, but ...

For many couples both the experience and expression of anger have become habit. Habits can be hard to change and may take some time. The good news is that with God's help we can change, grow, and become more than conquerors (Romans 8:37). We can stop the old unhealthy ways of responding and develop new, healthy, and biblically consistent emotional responses.

Parts of this article were adapted from The Complete Marriage Book (Revell), edited by David and Jan Stoop. ©2002 by David and Jan Stoop. Used by permission of Gary and Carrie Oliver.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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