Cultivating Healthy Anger in Your Marriage
Greg and Karen had been married for two years and both expressed a deep love for each other and a strong commitment to their marriage. When they called for counseling they expressed a desire to improve their communication, but it didn’t take long for one of their core concerns to emerge.
It was in the middle of our first session when Greg finally opened up. “For many years I've struggled with the emotion of anger. It seems like I can go along for a while and it doesn't bother me, and then all of a sudden, I lose my temper and say things I'm usually sorry for later. And I'm not the only one in my family with an ‘anger problem.’ My father, who is a wonderful Christian man, has for many years had a reputation for being ‘hot-headed.’ He doesn't get angry very often, but when he does, watch out.”
After a brief pause Greg continued, “I didn’t realize it was as bad as it is until Karen and I got married.” He then began to relate an all-too-common story of little hurts and frustrations building into painful expressions of unhealthy anger that wounded the person he loved most. We explained to Greg and Karen that most newlyweds are surprised to discover that marriage probably generates in couples more anger than they will 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 the emotion of anger.
After a deep and thoughtful sigh, Greg slumped down in his seat and asked, “Is there any way I can get rid of my anger?” Our response caught him by surprise. “Greg, the problem isn’t the emotion of 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!” He continued, “I've heard anger referred to in many ways but never in the context of it being healthy.” If you are like Greg and most people that we’ve worked with you would have had the same response.
In our experience, most people tend to view anger only as a problem, something negative, something to be avoided. Why is it that out of all the various emotions anger has such a bad reputation? Why is it that so many people have a totally negative view of the emotion of anger? Is all anger bad? Is it always a sin to be angry? Is it possible for the energy of this “enemy” emotion to be constructively redirected? Can anger be used to mobilize us rather than neutralize us? In what ways can this unwelcome and potentially destructive emotion be considered a gift rather than a time-bomb?
What do you think of when you hear the word anger? In the workshops we've led dealing with emotions we will often ask for a word association to anger. The responses are invariably 95% negative. Clearly the vast majority of Christians view anger from an almost exclusively negative perspective.
In my more than 25 years in the ministry I've spent hundreds of hours with people stymied in their effort to grow and live effectively because of their failure to acknowledge, accept, and understand the God-given emotion of anger. With the evangelical taboos on anger, many Christian couples are particularly blind to the hidden agenda 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.
There several reasons why it is important for us to understand this God-given emotion:
1. Anger Is A Fact Of Life
One of the most fundamental aspects of being a person is that we were created in God's image. This means that we are image-bearers. Even though God's image in man and woman has been damaged and distorted by sin, we are still image-bearers. Part of what it means to be made in God's image is that we, like God, have a variety of emotions and are able to experience the emotions of others. One of these emotions is anger. From Genesis 4:5 through Revelation 19:15 the Bible has a lot to say about anger. In fact, in the Old Testament alone anger is mentioned approximately 455 times with 375 of those passages referring to God's anger.
What exactly is anger? There are many words we use to describe the emotion of anger. Words like rage, fury, wrath, resentment, and hostility. Webster defines anger as “emotional excitement induced by intense displeasure.” Anger is a strong feeling of irritation or displeasure. Anger involves a physical state of readiness. When we experience anger our mind and our body prepares us to act. Anger involves physical and emotional energy. It is up to us whether we use that energy in constructive ways or to abuse ourselves and/or those that we love.
2. Anger Is A Frequently Experienced Emotion
The emotion of anger is experienced much more frequently than most people would like to admit. When we begrudge, disdain others or when we are annoyed, repulsed, irritated, frustrated, offended or cross we are probably experiencing some form of anger. The results of research as well as our own experience suggest that most couples experience the emotion of anger a minimum of 8-10 times a day . . . and that’s before they have kids.
3. Anger Is One Of The Most Powerful Emotions
The emotion of anger can provide tremendous energy to right wrongs and change things for the good. But when we allow it to control us it can lead to negative destructive actions such as emotional, verbal or even physical abuse and violence. In any intimate relationship there will be times when you will be hurt or wronged. When that happens it is likely you will experience anger. The next step is that our human nature wants revenge and anger can easily distort our perspective, block our ability to love, and thus limit our ability to see things clearly. There are potentially great benefits in allowing ourselves to experience and express anger appropriately. There are also potentially devastating consequences in allowing ourselves to be controlled by our anger.
4. Anger is a secondary emotion
Most couples don’t understand that anger is a secondary emotion that is usually experienced in response to a primary emotion such as hurt, frustration, and fear. Anger can be an almost automatic response to any kind of pain. It is the emotion most of us feel shortly after we have been hurt. When your spouse corrects or talks down to you in public, it hurts, and you may respond to them in anger.
Anger is usually the first emotion we see. At the moment it may be the only emotion that we are aware of yet it is rarely the only one we have experienced. Just below the surface there are almost always other, deeper emotions that need to be identified and acknowledged. Hidden deep underneath that secondary emotion of anger is the primary emotions of the fear, the hurt, the frustration, the disappointment, the vulnerability, and the longing for connection.
5. Unhealthy Anger Has Tremendous Potential For Harm
Not only is anger an uncomfortable emotional state it is also a potentially dangerous one. Most of us have, at one time or another, been pushed so hard and become so angry that we could have or indeed have become violent. I recently came across some sobering statistics that clearly demonstrate the potential harm of anger out of control:
10 million children were beaten by angry parents, 2/3 under the age of 3,
60% of all homicides were committed by people who knew the victim,
27% of all policemen killed are killed breaking up domestic arguments,
over 70% of all murderers don't have criminal record
One psychiatrist interviewed over 100 inmates convicted of murder and concluded that most were not angry people… in most cases they had stuffed their emotions and allowed their anger to build and build and in these cases they were finally expressed in an out-of-control and violent way.
6. Healthy Anger Has Tremendous Potential For Good
For most people the emotion of anger is considered negative, a problem, something to be eliminated or solved. What we so often fail to see is that every problem is really an opportunity in disguise . . . an opportunity to learn, to grow, to mature, to be used of God to make significant changes for the good.
7. Anger is a signal
Anger is an emotion that God can use to get our attention and make us more aware of opportunities to learn, to grow, to deepen, to mature, and to make significant changes for the good. Anger, like love, is an emotion that has tremendous potential for both good and evil. That’s why it is so important for us to understand it.
In her helpful book The Dance Of Anger Harriet Lerner notes:
“Anger is a signal and one worth listening to. Our anger may be a message that we are being hurt, that our rights are being violated, that our needs or wants are not being adequately met, or simply that something isn't right. Our anger may tell us that we are not addressing an important emotional issue in our lives, or that too much of our self–our beliefs, values, desires, or ambitions–is being compromised in a relationship. Our anger may be a signal that we are doing more and giving more than we can comfortably do or give. Or our anger may warn us that others are doing too much for us, at the expense of our own competence and growth. Just as physical pain tells us to take our hand off the hot stove, the pain of our anger preserves the very integrity of our self. Our anger can motivate us to say no to the ways in which we are defined by others and “yes” to the dictates of our inner self.” 1 (Lerner, The Dance Of Anger, New York: Harper & Row, 1985 p. 1)
Anger is to our lives like a smoke detector is to a house, like a dash warning light is to a car, and like a flashing yellow light is to a driver. Each of those serve as a kind of warning or alarm to stop, look, and listen. They say, “Take caution, something might be wrong.”
It is important for us to remember that anger is energy. While we may have minimal control over the fact that we experience anger we have almost total control over how we choose to express that anger. We can either spend that energy or we can invest it. We can choose to harness and channel that anger-energy in healthy, positive, and constructive ways.
The energy of anger, when wisely invested, can provide greater focus and intensity and lead to greater productivity. Martin Luther said: “When I am angry I can write, pray and preach well, for then my whole temperament is quickened, my understanding sharpened, and all mundane vexations and temptations gone.”
As you learn creative ways to invest the God-given anger-energy, as you develop more effective anger management skills, as you learn how to approach anger from a Biblical perspective, you will find one of the most powerful sources of motivation available to mankind.
WHAT ARE SOME CONSTRUCTIVE STEPS FOR DEALING WITH ANGER
One of the most effective ways to make the emotion of anger work for you rather than against you is to decide in advance that when you experience anger you will choose to invest the anger-energy and express it in a healthy way. When we are angry the power of that emotion can block our ability to think clearly. Think back to the last time you experienced strong anger. How objective were you? How clearly were you thinking? It is important to develop a plan for dealing with anger before we get angry. Here are some simple steps that you can take to help your anger work for you.
Step 1: Be aware of it:
If you had met Greg at church you would not have considered him to be an angry person. He rarely appears to be angry. One of the many myths regarding anger is that if a person doesn't look or appear on the outside to be angry, then they don't have a problem with anger, they are clearly not an angry person. While Greg does not 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. How often are you aware of being angry? What situations do you encounter that might make you more vulnerable to anger? How does your body respond to anger? What are your physical manifestations of anger?
Step 2: Accept responsibility for it:
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 he first blamed Eve and then he blamed God. When we are angry it is easy for us to blame someone else, to say “It's your fault, you made me angry.” This is ESPECIALLY true in marriage. While it’s true that other people can say or do things that cause hurt or frustration we are responsible for how we choose to respond. If we are angry it is our anger.
Step 3: Determine at the outset who or what is going to have control:
This is a critical step. When we become aware that we are angry we are faced with a choice. We can either allow the emotion of anger to dominate and control us or we can, with the help of the Holy Spirit, choose to control the anger and invest the anger-energy in a healthy way. While we can't always control when we experience anger we can with God’s help choose how we express the anger. As we take the fact of our anger to God in prayer He will help us find creative and constructive ways to deal with it.
Step 4: Define it! Identify the source and cause of it:
While there are an almost limitless number of situations that can lead to anger most causes of anger can come under three major categories: hurt, frustration, and fear.
Hurt is usually caused by something that has already happened . . . something in the past. When we are hurt we feel vulnerable and open to more hurt. This is especially true of people who are very sensitive. Believe it or not, even men can be sensitive. For many people anger is an automatic defense mechanism to protect against hurt. When I get angry at someone it tends to erect a wall between us and then I can hide behind that wall. The unhealthy expression of anger produces distance between individuals and many feel safer with that distance.
Frustration is an emotion that takes place in the present. We can become frustrated by blocked goals or desires or by unmet expectations. Frequently the things that lead to the greatest frustrations have one main characteristic . . . they really aren't that important.
In my own marriage, one situation that has frequently led to my expressing unhealthy anger is when I’m trying to communicate with my spouse and she doesn’t understand what I’m trying to say. I’m especially vulnerable to frustration when I’m tired, weary, and in a hurry. When she doesn’t seem to “get it” I can assume she’s not trying, she’s not listening or she just doesn’t care. When I let my unhealthy anger take over I can become sarcastic, cold, and at times even mean. I’m not proud of it, I don’t enjoy it, I’ve apologized on numerous occasions for it, I’ve made great progress with it but it still happens.
What kinds of situations cause you to become frustrated? Are there any specific individuals that you find more frustrating than others? What situations or individuals have frustrated you this past month? When are you most vulnerable to experiencing frustration? How do you usually respond when you are frustrated?
Fear is an emotion that tends to focus on things in the future. Many people associate fear with vulnerability and weakness. Some people, especially men, find it more comfortable to express anger than fear and so many respond to situations in which they are anxious or afraid by getting angry. When you are experiencing the emotion of anger and aren't sure where it is coming from ask yourself, “is there something that I am afraid of that could be triggering my anger?”
Step 5: Choose your response. Are you going to spend your anger-energy or are you going to invest it?:
There are many ways to deal with anger, some are constructive and some are destructive. Some of the destructive ways to deal with anger are to stuff, deny, suppress, or repress. One of the most destructive ways of dealing with anger is to ventilate it or dump it on someone else. The problem is that for most of us the more we talk about it the more worked up we get. Ventilating the anger tends to increase rather than decrease it. Paul Hauck has stated that “attacking someone else is like throwing a cactus with your bare hands, they may get hurt but so will you.”
When you are angry one of the first steps is to start by asking yourself the question, “Is this really that important?” If it isn't then simply let it pass. If it is important then ask yourself, “How can I express my anger in a way that is Biblically consistent and that will enhance the probability of resolution?”
Take your Bible and look at some of the key passages that deal with anger: Proverbs 15:18, 16:32, 29:11; Mark 3:5; Ephesians 4:26, 31; Colossians 3:8, 21. Make sure that you “speak the truth in love.” Take the time to acknowledge the other persons opinion and feelings. Be open to an apology or an explanation. Make your primary goal understanding and then work toward an agreement.
SOME FINAL OBSERVATIONS
For many couples both the experience and expression of anger have become a habit. Habits can be hard to change and may take some time. The good news is that with God's help we can change, we can grow, we can be more than conquerors. As we allow the Holy Spirit to fill us and apply promises in God's Word we can take the old unhealthy ways of responding and develop new, healthy, and Biblically-consistent emotional responses.
In Daniel 1:8 we are told that Daniel “purposed in his heart” not to defile himself with the kings meat. And he didn't. We can purpose in our hearts not to allow our anger to control us but rather to put our anger as well as our other emotions under God's control. While we can't always control when or why we will experience anger we can with God's help control how we express that anger.
David Augsburger offers three helpful suggestions for dealing with anger:
(1) BE angry, but beware: you are never more vulnerable than when you are angry.
Self-control is at an all-time low, reason decreases, common sense leaves.
(2) BE angry, but be aware: anger can easily turn to resentment, bitterness and violence. Anger can
become a way of life, making you bitter and joyless.
(3) BE angry but be kind: only when anger is motivated by love is it constructive and creative anger.
If you have a problem with anger the problem isn't with the emotion of anger but rather your ability to understand and deal with the emotion. Anger is an emotion. Like all other emotions it is not in itself good or bad. There are only good or bad uses of it. Part of what it means to be made in God's image is that we can experience and express the emotion of anger. When we are angry we are energized. We can either control and direct that energy or we can let it control us. We can be conquered or we can with God's help be more than conquerors.
God has given us that choice. We can allow ourselves to be controlled by our anger or we can pursue “quality anger.” Quality anger involves open, honest, and direct communication. It involves speaking the truth in love. It involves investing the energy God has given us to declare truth, to right wrongs, and to help ourselves and others “become conformed to the image of His Son.” (Romans 8:29)
Where did you learn about the emotion of anger?
What is the difference between healthy and unhealthy anger?
Look up the verses that deal with anger. What is once insight or principle that you can pull from each verse?
When are you most likely to experience the emotion of anger?
What is the primary emotion that most often triggers the secondary emotion of anger for you?
EVALUATE YOUR ANGER EXPRESSION
Place a check by those statements you believe are true:
_______ 1. My spouse responded better after I expressed my anger.
_______ 2. I felt better after expressing my anger.
_______ 3. I feel my spouse felt better after the interchange. (It would be helpful if you asked him or her about this.)
_______ 4. Becoming angry protected me when my spouse became upset.
_______ 5. My spouse gained a clearer understanding of my position because of my anger.
_______ 6. I feel closer to my spouse because of expressing my anger.
_______ 7. Becoming angry helped solve the problem so we won’t need to experience it again.
_______ 8. We felt more loving toward one another because of expressing anger.
_______ 9. My expression of anger involved more constructive statements than provocative.
_______ 10. We learned from this experience so that our next disagreement should be better.
_______ 1. In expressing my anger, I was so upset that I didn’t clarify my position well.
_______ 2. I made statements or behaved in a way that I now regret.
_______ 3. My spouse did not accept what I said.
_______ 4. My spouse had difficulty hearing me because of my anger.
_______ 5. My spouse became upset because of my anger and became very emotional.
_______ 6. My spouse was hurt by my anger.
_______ 7. My spouse is still recovering from my anger.
_______ 8. My anger prolonged the disagreement and hindered us from finding a solution.
_______ 9. Our next disagreement will probably be more difficult because of my anger. We really didn’t learn from this experience.
(Taken from Gary J. Oliver and H. Norman Wright, When Anger Hits Home, Chicago: Moody Press, 1992, pp. 174-175)
A version of this chapter is published in Stoop & Stoop (eds), The Complete Marriage Book: Collected Wisdom from Leading Marriage Experts, MI: Revell Pub., 2002.
(Taken from Gary J. Oliver and H. Norman Wright, When Anger Hits Home, Chicago: Moody Press, 1992, pp. 174-175) A version of this chapter is published in Stoop & Stoop (eds), The Complete Marriage Book: Collected Wisdom from Leading Marriage Experts, MI: Revell Pub., 2002.