Many marriages are plagued by anger, and yelling matches or big angry outbursts.
People will often say, “I have a temper problem” or “he has an anger problem.”
As we finish up our series on emotional maturity, I promised to spend a little bit of time on anger because so many find this difficult to deal with.
Sometimes we have good reasons for feeling angry in marriage. Anger, in and of itself, is not a bad emotion. Sometimes anger is an appropriate emotion to show in different situations (as Jesus clearing the moneychangers’ tables in the gospel accounts show), though HOW we handle anger can be problematic. “In your anger, do not sin,” says Ephesians 4:26. Anger is not the problem necessarily; what you do with it is.
Other times, though, anger becomes a problem in our relationship because it’s the go-to emotion whenever something bad happens.
For many people, anger is a safer emotion to show than any other emotion.
Anger, you see, is a protective emotion, and often a “secondary” emotion. What we’re actually feeling is rejection, or disappointment, or fear, or insecurity, but because those feelings are so terribly uncomfortable to us, we turn to anger instead because that’s safer, and it allows us to go on the attack to protect us from whatever was causing those other feelings in the first place.
Anger, then, is like an iceberg. You see the yelling and the raging above the surface of the water, but there’s a whole lot more going on underneath.
That’s how The Gottman Institute describes it:
If you’re unsure of why you’re feeling angry, try thinking of anger like an iceberg. Most of an iceberg is hidden below the surface of the water.
Similarly, when we’re angry, there can be other emotions hidden beneath the surface. It’s easy to see a person’s anger, but it can be difficult to see the underlying feelings the anger is protecting.
For example, Dave believed he had an anger problem. When his wife would make a request of him, he would criticize her. He didn’t like his reactions, but he felt he couldn’t help it. As he worked on discovering his dreams within conflict and started noticing the space between his anger and his actions, he opened up the door into a profound realization.
He didn’t really have an anger problem. Instead, he felt like his wife was placing impossible demands on him. By seeking to understand and accept his anger, rather than fix or suppress it, he began to improve his marriage by recognizing his anger as a signal for a need—a need to set healthy boundaries for what he would and would not do.
So how should you handle anger in marriage?
If you’re the one feeling the anger
Remove yourself from the situation and allow yourself some time to get a handle on what you’re feeling.
Take some deep breaths, recite a few Bible verses or read a Psalm to calm yourself (Psalm 23 is a good one), and then ask yourself:
- What am I feeling right now other than anger?
- What happened right when I got angry?
- What is it that I need in this situation?
- What’s a way that I can express that need?
For instance, let’s say that you’re a stay-at-home mom and you’ve had a horrible day with the kids. The living room is a mess. You’ve got a low-grade headache. You’re trying to get dinner on, and your husband comes in and tries to take care of two of the kids that are bickering over a toy. He turns to you and asks, “who had the toy first?”
And you just lose it. You yell at him because he should be able to figure something out with the kids without you having to do everything.
Now, what if, instead of yelling at everyone, you were to say, “I can’t deal with this right now. Give me twenty minutes and I’ll be back down,” and you go and sit in the bedroom for a bit. You take some deep breaths. You sing a song to yourself. And then you ask those questions. And you realize:
I’m tired. I feel like I don’t have control of anything in my life right now. I feel like I’m doing a really bad job.
What was going on right before?
The kids were bickering. And that leads you to another insight: Sometimes I am just sick of them. I am. I just want to get away and not have to deal with them. Does that make me a bad mom?
What is it that I need in this situation?
I may need some down time. I may need some time when the kids aren’t my problem. I may need some help parenting them so they don’t fight so much all the time. I may need some help figuring out how to organize the house because I can’t handle this chaos.
What’s a way that I can express that need?
I can go downstairs and tell everybody that I love them, but i’m tired and need some help. And then my husband and I can talk about getting me more margins or more organized or just more coping skills.
If your spouse is the one expressing anger
Scenario 1: The anger is really an outburst of rage, with yelling, belittling, and instilling fear
First, realize that you cannot have a productive conversation with someone when they are angry, because they’re in “fight or flight” mode where they’re working out of the instinctual part of their brain that reacts, rather than the higher part of the brain that’s involved with reasoning. You cannot reason with an angry person. You need the anger defused first.
So you can say, “I see that you are angry. Take some time to calm down and then we can talk.”
Please know: If you feel like you have to sit there while you get yelled at or you will make the situation worse; if you feel unsafe, as if your spouse will get physically abusive or abusive in some other way if you don’t allow yourself to be raged at this is not a safe situation. Call the police if there is an urgent need; call a domestic abuse hotline; or, if this is a chronic problem where there is no immediate danger to your safety, seek out a licensed counselor to help you draw boundaries and decide what to do.
If they will not leave the room to calm down, then you can leave the room (and take any children with you). A simple, “I can see you’re angry, but I am not willing to talk to you when you are angry. When you have calmed down, I’ll be happy to revisit this with you.” And then go.
Scenario 2: The anger is not full-blown rage, but rather something that can be dealt with.
One of the biggest mistakes that we can make when a spouse is angry is to try to talk them out of being angry.
When someone is in fight or flight mode, you can’t reason with them. But that fight or flight, anger reaction often dissipates when they see you not as someone who is attacking them, but as someone who is their ally. So if the anger isn’t something that is blowing up and becoming rage, try to “stand on the iceberg with them”, as the Gottman Institute says.
“I can see that you’re angry and that you’re really upset by this. I know this is hard. Can you tell me what you’re feeling?”
Try hard not to get defensive and not to talk them out of it. What you want to do here is help them get below the surface and see what they’re really feeling.
So in the same scenario as above, here’s what the husband could do:
Husband: “Wow, honey, you sound really angry. Has it been a hard day for you?”
Wife: “I’m just so sick of having to do everything by myself! Why can’t you figure out what’s going on with the boys? Why do you always need me?”
Now, here’s where things get dicey.
This is a MAJOR danger point in the conversation.
If I were that husband, I’d be really inclined to defend myself right now. But remember: You’re trying to go below the surface, not trying to talk them out of the anger. The goal is not to show why they have no right to feel angry and why you are right; the goal is to help them understand what’s happening inside so that anger is no longer the go-to response, and so that you can feel on the same team again.
Husband: “You sound like you’re feeling really alone. Do you feel alone about other things?”
And then let her talk. And in talking, the anger may dissipate, and she may find what those things are below the surface.
Expressing what we need in a situation is far more vulnerable than expressing anger, and people often need help to get to the bottom of their needs. But it’s a journey worth taking! And if you have trouble talking about your needs, our emotional needs exercise can help. Just put your email in below to receive it for free!
Handling anger well involves mirroring back the emotion, not the facts.
Don’t engage in the factual argument, but engage in the emotion. When we can act as a mirror for our spouses, allowing them a safe place to go below the surface, often they can make those discoveries more easily and THEN you can get solution focused. Once you start going below the surface, often the anger will turn to frustration or fear or disappointment or discouragement, and then the anger will often turn to tears. And tears can be easier to handle. Then the “fight or flight” mode is gone, and you can actually engage in the rational side of the brain again.
Keith often says in marriage conferences that “your wife can ask you questions for free that you’d pay a psychiatrist hundreds of dollars to ask you.”
And the same thing goes for husbands: we can help each other glimpse below the surface and develop healthier emotional coping mechanisms.
It’s not easy. It means stopping being defensive. It means stopping our natural inclination to get our back up. It means putting our own egos on hold for a bit. But if we can engage in this, we can help our spouse grow!
Is anger an issue you’ve dealt with over your life? Do you find that it’s often a cover for something else? Or does your spouse struggle with anger? Let’s talk in the comments!
Posts in the Emotional Maturity Series:
- Four Markers of Emotional Maturity
- Do We Use God Language to Avoid Maturity?
- 2 Keys to Handling Stonewalling Behavior
- 6 Ways to Grow in Emotional Maturity
- A Book List to Help with Emotional Maturity
- What Does Emotional Maturity Look Like (Podcast)
- When Christian Resources Perpetuate Your Spouse's Immaturity
- What if Emotional Maturity is a Skill Guys Can Learn?
- How Anger is Like an Iceberg
- What is Real Masculinity?
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of To Love, Honor and Vacuum
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