When Anger Hurts Your MarriageJill: Over the past two months, we’ve found that anger is a recurring theme with many of the couples we are coaching. For some it’s always been there and for others, the quarantine life is increasing or introducing anger.

Mark: In our early years, my anger was damaging to my marriage and my family. I grew up in a violent home so I was determined that the family Jill and I created wouldn’t have to deal with anger like I had. I kept part of that promise to myself and never carried physical violence or abuse into our home and family. However, I had a short fuse and my anger ignited anytime I felt overwhelmed or had the need to bring control to a situation.

Jill: I did not grow up in a home where anger was expressed in a big way. The first time Mark picked up my purse and threw it across the room, I was scared. I’d never seen that when we’d dated but it showed up after we started our family (the stick turned blue at 11 months of marriage so kids came pretty early in our relationship).

Mark: I had great qualities as a husband and dad, but when I didn’t know what to do, or I felt like I needed to manage a situation, raging anger was my tool. This didn’t make for a very emotionally safe environment for my wife and kids.

Jill: I never knew what to do when Mark’s anger would flare up. Usually I just tried to stay out of his way until he cooled down.

Mark: I knew I had to do something about my anger. I started personal counseling and picked up a few books on the subject. While reading one of those books, I was convicted that my anger was sin and it was awfully close to emotional abuse. Abuse was something I was determined to never bring into my marriage and family, yet here I was on the slippery slope actually headed in that direction.

Jill: When Mark and I teach our No More Perfect Marriages Seminars, we talk about how our past affects our present. We refer to our home of origin as our home internship. It’s where we “interned” on conflict, money management, communication, love, faith, and dozens of other parts of life. Some of those internships served us well and others…well…we may need to do a new internship as an adult.

Mark: I began to realize that I needed to do a new internship as it related to conflict, communication, and anger. The books I read and the counseling I sought helped me to begin to do that.

Jill: Anger is a God-given emotion. It’s a red flag that something is wrong, needs to be addressed, or worked through (although that “something” isn’t always what we think it is).

Mark: Feeling angry isn’t bad but what you do with that anger is what matters. Do you know that most everywhere the Bible talks about anger as a sin has to do with what we say? WHAT we say and HOW we say it is important. Here are just a few verses in the Bible about our tone and our words:

“Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.” Proverbs 18:21

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” Ephesians 4:29

“There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Proverbs 12:18

“A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Proverbs 15:1

“Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps himself out of trouble.” Proverbs 21:23

“Whoever guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin.” Proverbs 13:3

“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” James 1:26

Jill: Rage isn’t the only time that anger is a problem in relationships. Repressed–or suppressed–anger can be just as damaging. You may not scream and yell and break things but you may hold your spouse hostage with your anger that’s steaming beneath the surface. This comes out in snide remarks, sarcasm, withholding sex or affection, or harboring a critical spirit. This is where my slippery slope with anger tends to be. I can nurse a hurt and build up anger in my heart that comes out in short answers or a cold shoulder.

Mark: There’s an anger spectrum our responses fall into. The far right and far left are unhealthy and damaging to relationships. The middle–learning to untangle your heart with forgiveness and grace and, if needed, communicate your frustration or hurt in an assertive, healthy way–is our goal. A reflective/assertive response takes care of you and keeps it safe for those around you.

anger spectrum

Let’s look at what a healthy response to anger looks like:

Reflect:

Anger is a secondary emotion. When we’re angry, we need to reflect on what emotion has fueled the anger. Think of it from the perspective of an iceberg. Expressed or suppressed anger is the part of the iceberg above the water but the primary emotion that you need to tend to is the part of the iceberg that’s not seen underneath the water.

Here are just a few emotions to consider what’s going on underneath the surface of your anger:

Minimized
Ignored
Parented
Criticized
Embarrassed
Scared
Sad
Deceived
Depressed
Anxious
Hurt
Worried
Offended
Envious
Exhausted
Insecure or Unsure
Overwhelmed
Frustrated
Ashamed
Stressed
Grumpy
Attacked
Irritated
Helpless
Disrespected
Disappointed
Lonely
Annoyed
Uncomfortable
Trapped
Bothered
Controlled
Unsure
Unrealistic Expectations

Once we identify what’s really going on underneath our anger we can either untangle it in our own heart (tell God we’re sorry and ask for His forgiveness) and/or address it in a way that still values and protects the relationship.

While we’re reflecting we also need to consider:

  1. …if the primary emotion is something that solely needs to be dealt with in your heart. For instance, if you blow up at your spouse because they bothered you or annoyed you, are they really the problem or are you the problem? Are you being selfish with your time and energy? Is this really a selfishness issue that you need to deal with–and apologize for if you blew it?
  2. …if this is snagging something inside of us from a previous relationship. Sometimes our spouse’s mannerisms remind us of a parent we didn’t have a good relationship with. If you’re in a second marriage, it could be that your spouse unknowingly does something that takes you back to a painful place in your first marriage.  Once again, we need to ask ourselves, “Is this REALLY about them or is it about me?”
  3.  …if there is something we need to untangle inside of us. For instance, if we’re going to address something with our spouse, it’s much better that we work through the decision to forgive before we address it. Yes, you can forgive your spouse without him or her even knowing it. Forgiveness is really between you and God. It’s keeping your heart untangled and available to God. This will help keep the conversation at dialogue. If we don’t forgives, we will likely move into debate because we’re emotionally charged.
  4. …if you need to think about this differently. Your anger doesn’t stem from the situation itself, but rather from the negative meaning, interpretation, or evaluation you assigned to it. Did you assign intent that isn’t there? Did this snag insecurity inside of you? Are you making some assumptions that are fueling your anger? You really do hold the power of your anger because it is fueled or dissipated by the way you think about a situation.

Communicate

If we blew it and the problem really was ours, we need to clean up the relational mess we made. This means we need to apologize and ask for forgiveness.

If we reflect and identify something we do need to process with our spouse, it is possible to learn to express frustration in a way that protects the relationship and still promotes change. Does this take self-control? You bet it does. We’re given self-control as a fruit of the spirit. That means if we lack self-control, we need more God in our life. The FRUIT of God leading us is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

You might say, “You don’t know what my spouse did. They deserve my anger!” They may deserve your mistrust, your expression of pain, disappointment, and a broken heart, and they may deserve to deal with consequences of their choice, but no one deserves to be on the receiving side of an expression of anger that crosses the line of sin.

Mark: Is your anger robbing your marriage of connection and intimacy? Do you explode or silently burn? Where do you need to do a new internship as it relates to managing your anger? The first three books on this list are the books I used in my “new internship” of anger management. They are also the ones I use when I coach husbands who are ready to face the damage their anger is doing to their marriage and family.

Jill: If you are consistently on the receiving side of your spouse’s anger, we highly recommend Leslie Vernick’s book The Emotionally Destructive Marriage. Leslie really understands understands unhealthy relational dynamics and how to find your voice and reclaim your hope.

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