Mike San Martino
In the early years of my marriage, I didn’t have any experience resolving conflict. I viewed any argument as a threat to our relationship. I wanted to shut down any disagreement early on. I can only remember my parents arguing twice during my growing up years. Both times Dad retreated to his desk and Mom went outside and smoked a cigarette in the car. Then life would resume without any kind of public resolution or reconciliation.Needless to say, I viewed arguments as something to be avoided at all costs. My wife’s childhood was very different. She was accustomed to seeing loved ones air their concerns. These disagreements were not a sign the relationship was in peril; it was normal. Therefore, she didn’t try to avoid conflict in our marriage.
Whenever we would have an argument, I felt like an alarm was going off in my body, as if it were a nuclear reactor melting down: “Danger, danger, shut down all systems.” I would quickly reach a point of anger where it would become necessary to end the argument quickly by leaving, or doing or saying something so over the top that the conversation ended.
In psychological terms, my system was flooded. I literally couldn’t think straight. My pre-frontal cortex was not capable of higher cognition. Psychologist John Gottman explains this emotional hijacking as a sensation of feeling overwhelmed psychologically and physically during conflict, making it virtually impossible to have a productive, problem-solving session.
Avoiding arguments does not necessarily mean you have a healthy marriage. Sometimes couples just try to sweep things under the rug without really resolving conflict. We are better off learning how to resolve conflict with our anger under control. Our goal is to love and care for our partner in the midst of disagreement.
Practical Strategies for Handling Anger While Resoloving Conflict
In this article, I would like to give couples practical strategies for handling anger while resolving conflict. I’ve organized the material into three sections: Before an Argument, During an Argument, and After an Argument.
Before an Argument: Respect the Power of Anger
Anger is a powerful and legitimate emotion. It is the natural and normal response when you feel threatened and your rights are violated. It can also be an immediate response when a loved one is threatened, harmed, or attacked. Physiologically, your “fight or flight” response is triggered and you go into a defensive posture. You are no longer listening to your spouse but protecting yourself.
Psychologist David Ross says, “Anger is the red warning light on the dashboard of your life. When you get angry, let your anger be a signal to you. Let it be a red flag, a blinking red light that says stop. Something is wrong here. I need to take steps to make it right and I need to do in a way that does not harm the people I love the most. Just like when you get a pebble in your shoe at the beach it causes irritation. You stop and examine your shoe and shake out the pebble. Anger tells you something is wrong.”
Anger is a legitimate emotion but it also an emotion that can quickly get out of control and cause a great deal of damage. The Bible is a very practical book and describes anger in vivid detail. The Bible writer James compares angry words to a small spark that can cause a raging wildfire (James 3:5).Can you recall a time when your spouse’s harsh words cut you to the heart? One misplaced word can wound deeply. Angry words are like arrows. We let them fly and can’t easily get them back again. We may apologize but they have already hit their target, usually, on the people that we love the most.
In Paul’s letter to the Church in Ephesus, he writes, “In your anger do not sin, and do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 4:26). Anger by itself is not evil, but watch out – its effects can be harmful and even deadly. Anger can quickly get out of control. A couple needs to do all they can to make up before bedtime or at least agree to work on the issue together at a later agreed upon time.
Before an Argument: Know Your Argument Style
Part of knowing yourself is knowing whether you are an expresser or a suppressor.
Expressers are more likely to verbalize their anger immediately and aggressively. Expressers let you know when they are angry. They want to settle the issue right now! If you are an expresser, everyone in your family knows it! Expressers have a tendency to view their own needs and wants as more important than their partner’s needs and wants. Their voice might get loud and emotional or low and ice cold. They can hurt others with their words.
If you are a suppressor, you try to forget the offense, sweep it under the rug, or shrug it off. You would rather deal with it later and avoid a loud confrontation. Suppressors tend to be too passive. You view your own needs and wants as less important than your partner’s. You are more likely to apologize, avoid eye contact, hint vaguely, or smile too much.
You are accustomed to setting aside your own desires and opinions to secure peace in the family. You can hurt yourself by burying anger. The problem with burying your anger is that it is like burying Frankenstein’s monster; it can come back from the dead to terrorize you! Suppressors are more likely to give you the cold shoulder than shout back.
Are you an expresser or a suppressor? Depending on the situation, perhaps you are a little of both. Now to add a little more complexity, let’s add another category. Are you passive-aggressive? A camouflaged version of anger comes in the form of passive-aggressive behavior. Anger is expressed indirectly in a side-ways direction to avoid a head-on confrontation.
You may try to get back at your spouse without being held responsible for your anger. If you are married to a domineering person, you may have found it safer to sneak in a snarky comment rather than risk your partner’s wrath. Funny or clever sarcastic comments are also more socially acceptable than anger.
Common types of passive-aggressive behavior include snide remarks, behind the back comments, sarcasm, ambiguous criticism, and social media jabs. Passive-aggressive behaviors also include behaviors that sabotage a spouse’s plans, such as procrastination, deliberate slowness or tardiness, a sulky disposition, or a controlling, stubborn attitude.
All of these behaviors – expressive, suppressive, or passive-aggressive – are frustratingly ineffective for handling anger. Anger begets more anger, and so does snarky cynicism. Your goal should be to become a confessor. A confesser is willing to own up and confess their own feelings.
They work at knowing themselves and they let their partner know if they are getting angry. A confesser admits they make mistakes. They are not blaming their spouse for 100% of the problem. They confess selfishness and wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness. A confesser works toward common goals and reconciliation.
A confesser should also have a healthy dose of assertiveness. Not aggressiveness, but assertiveness. Assertive people confidently seek to have their own needs met but also understand their spouse has the right to pursue her or her needs.
Assertive people use a confident but gentle voice, maintain good eye contact, and listen attentively. They respect the opinions of their spouse and empathize with their feelings. They are willing to negotiate and compromise in order to have all needs met.
Before an animated discussion or an argument, it is helpful to think about how you process and express anger with each other. When you and your spouse are not angry, it can be beneficial to talk about how you are going to prepare yourselves for your next argument.
Even when you feel prepared for an argument, anger can reach a flashpoint quickly and catch you off guard. If you find yourself in an argument with your partner, here are a few effective interventions to help you have a productive discussion.
During an Argument: Practice Good Listening
The number one complaint a wife has of her husband is the same complaint a husband has for his wife: “You are not listening to me!”
Rather than saying whatever angry thing comes into our mind, it is wise to ask questions and listen well. The book of James in the Bible gives us great advice when it says, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:19-20).
Listening well is challenging when we are angry. We want to get our point across. We want to settle the issue. We want to be heard, but so does our partner. Two people on a rant at the same time are not going to make progress in settling their issues and resolving conflict. The book of Proverbs says it this way: “Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions” (Proverbs 18:2).
Good listening involves a willingness to see things from your partner’s point of view. This is called empathy. Work hard at being an active listener by letting your spouse know you are hearing them. Repeat back key words and ideas in your own words. It helps to lean in, maintain good eye contact, and have a neutral or friendly face.
Remember, 90% of communication is non-verbal. Your body language communicates how intentional you are about listening to your spouse. If you say you are listening but you are looking away with your arms folded with an angry look on your face, it really won’t matter what you are saying.
Your spouse has already received the message that you are angry and not interested in another point of view. Good listening means putting down your phone, turning off the TV, and giving your spouse your full attention.
During an Argument: Talk in a Gentle, Non-threatening Tone
Another great strategy for an expressive person is to give a gentle answer. “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
Psychologists John and Julie Gottman recommend couples who are trying to avoid criticism should practice a gentle start up. Introducing a potentially emotional topic with a calm demeanor and gentle tone can help your partner feel less defensive. (Clinical Foundations in Gottman Method Couples Therapy)
In the midst of a discussion, rather than meeting fire with fire, try sharing your frustration in a quiet, gentle voice or responding to your angry spouse with a gentle answer. It’s amazing how a soothing, calm, reasonable voice can de-escalate an angry partner. The couples who are most successful in resolving conflict are couples who are able to have gentle, respectful conversations about difficult topics.
During an Argument: Take a Strategic Time-out
Expressers tend to speak quickly without carefully thinking through their options. Taking a strategic time-out, even if it is for a very short time, can effectively restrain anger and lead to greater understanding. Patience and restraint before speech is a popular theme in the book of Proverbs.
The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered. – Proverbs 17:27
Whoever is patient has great understanding, but one who is quick-tempered displays folly. – Proverbs 14:29
Even ten seconds of quiet thought can change the flow of a conversation, replacing an angry tone with a more neutral tone. When you are not angry, talk about this idea with your spouse. Agree on a signal like the T-sign for time-out or a phrase like, “We need to take a time out.” I would suggest somewhere between 15 and 60 minutes. You need time to calm down and think carefully about how you want to communicate.
The purpose of a time out is not to avoid conflict or issues, but to give a couple the opportunity to have a reasonable, less-emotional discussion. During your time out, relax and calm down by participating in activities that will be the most beneficial for you. We highly recommend the following: Prayer (talking to God and asking for His help), deep breathing, going for a walk or a jog, or listening to relaxing music.
Angry couples often get stuck in a loop, having the same arguments over and over again. Listening well, answering gently, and giving permission for a time out can change the pattern and move a couple forward.
During an Argument: Attack the Issue, Not Your Partner
Make the issue the bad guy, not your partner. Your spouse is not the enemy even though it may feel that way during a heated exchange. You and your spouse are teammates learning to love and respect each other. Do your best to focus on one issue at a time. Bringing up problems from the past or secondary issues convolutes and confuses the discussion. Avoid hot button words that will infuriate your spouse. Resist the urge to target their weak spots.Attack the problem, not your spouse’s character. Avoid global qualifiers that exaggerate your partner’s shortcomings like “you never” and “you always.” It’s better to say “It hurts my feelings when you interrupt me” rather than “You will never be a good communicator if you keep interrupting me.”
Stick to the issue and work toward compromise. The goal is not to win the argument or to “be right.” The goal is to learn how to resolve the inevitable conflict that every couple needs to work through. Try to see the conflict from your spouse’s point of view.
After an Argument: Reconcile with Your Spouse
The repair work needed after an argument is as important as the preparation before an argument and the care and respect shown to your partner during an argument. Even when an animated discussion goes well, it’s important to check in with your partner and ask them how they are doing. Expressers may feel good about the discussion because they were able to share everything on their heart, while a suppressor may feel run over and resentful.
Rarely does a single discussion neatly wrap up all the issues and feelings exposed. An argument can leave a residue of frustration, anger, sadness, and resentment. A single argument is more likely part of bigger issues expressed over a longer period of time.
Here are a few strategies for repairing your relationship after an argument:
Say You’re Sorry
If you have hurt your partner’s feelings, you can offer a genuine apology. Do your best not to go to bed angry with your mate. Apologize for your part in the argument. If you can’t resolve the issue, at least you can agree on a time and place to work on the issue when you are no longer angry.
Set a TimeIf things went left unresolved, make an appointment with your spouse to work through issues when neither of you is angry. Be honest with your spouse and let them know you are trying to understand and resolve your own issues. Don’t blame or accuse your spouse but simply share what you need and want in the relationship.
Agree on a time and place that is comfortable and relaxed for both of you. If you are an expresser, please refrain from making comments until your partner is ready to interact. If you are a suppressor, take the risk to share your true feelings.
Stick with One Issue at a Time
Thank your spouse for taking the time and giving focused attention to your issues. It gets complicated if you are dealing with multiple issues all at once.
Start with You
If you are the one hurt, then you need to initiate a process of forgiveness. I often hear from betrayed, deeply hurting people who say they can’t possibly forgive their spouse. Their hurt is too great and they can never forget what has happened to them. The offended person feels like their spouse should initiate forgiveness for it to mean anything. But the hard truth is that forgiveness is something you offer your spouse independent of their actions. It’s entirely up to you.
You can carry the pain and the hurt. You can remain a victim and talk about your wounds for the rest of your life. Or you can forgive your spouse and be free from carrying the anger, bitterness, and resentment. Forgiving your spouse does not erase the memories or heal your relationship. Forgiveness does release your spouse from the debt they owe you. It also releases you from pain from the past and releases you into a better future.
The Bible makes it very clear that the followers of Jesus should forgive others as God has forgiven them. “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:31-32).
Through Jesus, you were forgiven an unpayable debt. For this reason, you should be willing to forgive your spouse who has harmed and offended you and owes you a smaller debt. Offering your mate a second chance is one way to extend mercy and grace.
Theologian Lewis Smedes said, “When you release the wrongdoer from the wrong, you cut a malignant tumor out of your inner life. You set a prisoner free, you discover the real prisoner was yourself” (Lewis Smedes, Forgive and Forget).
Forgiveness is the best thing you can do for yourself, for your spouse, and for your marriage. If you know you have offended your spouse, it’s very powerful to go to your spouse and say these important words, “I was wrong. I’m so sorry I hurt you. I don’t ever want to hurt you like this again. Will you forgive me?” (Dr. Gary & Barbara Rosberg, Healing the Hurt in Your Marriage)
The Whole Goal of Forgiveness is Reconciliation
Forgiveness does not require the participation of your partner, but reconciliation does. Reconciliation is the end goal of forgiveness. John Gottman’s research has demonstrated “it is not how couples fought that mattered, but how they made up.” Healthy couples learn how to reconcile after a fight. (“The Top 10: The Most Influential Therapists of the Past Quarter-Century”. Psychotherapy Networker. 2007. Retrieved 2012-07-10)
Forgiveness is something you offer your spouse, and it is independent of their response. Reconciliation only happens when your partner is cooperative and receives the forgiveness you have offered.
If you need couples counseling or help working through anger issues and would like a counselor to listen and walk alongside you as you work toward resolving conflict, feel free to contact me or one of the other counselors at Seattle Christian Counseling.
“It Hit Me”, Courtesy of Claudia, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Dependence”, Courtesy of Milan Popovic, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Talking”, Courtesy of Etienne Boulanger, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Forehead Kiss”, Courtesy of Victoria Roman, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Conversing”, Courtesy of Christin Hume, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Love At All Costs”, Courtesy of Gus Moretta, Unsplash.com, CC0 License