On a daily basis we hear some example of the devastation caused by unhealthy anger, from child abuse and domestic violence to road rage, to children methodically preparing to do harm to their teacher. But the emotion of anger in and of itself isn’t the problem. It’s when people allow themselves to be controlled by this powerful emotion that it can become unhealthy and cause harm to others.
“We have to continually remind ourselves that anger is energy and energy is neutral,” said Gary Oliver, clinical psychologist and co-author of Mad About Us: Moving From Anger to Intimacy with Your Spouse, with his wife, Carrie. “We have total control over how we choose to express our anger. We can choose to express this emotion in unhealthy or in healthy and constructive ways. We can choose to spend the anger-energy by expressing it in ways that hurt ourselves and others OR we can choose to invest the anger-energy in building a healthier relationship.”
The Olivers believe that one of anger can serve as an alarm or warning sign that we need to look at some aspect of our lives or relationship. It can serve as a powerful source of motivation. Healthy anger provides the power to protect those you love, and healthy anger can lead to more intimate relationships.
“Disagreements usually involve the emotions of fear and/or hurt and/or frustration, and these are the primary emotions that lead to the secondary emotion of anger,” Oliver said. “Anger sets most people up for conflict and most couples don’t know how to do conflict well. Couples can choose to spend their anger-energy by dumping, blaming, attacking or walking out, or they can choose to acknowledge the fear, hurt or frustration and to invest their anger-energy in seizing the opportunity to better understand their spouse.”
For example, Oliver spoke with a couple in the middle of a serious conflict. They were at a party and the husband made a statement. His wife responded by making a joke about the comment and her response embarrassed him in front of their friends. He was making a serious point and, as she had done in previous situations, she spoke without thinking about how it would impact the situation. The husband was hurt, embarrassed, marginalized and frustrated because it was not the first time she had done something like this.
When they got in the car to go home, the wife asked him what was wrong. Initially he said, “Nothing,” but after several questions he let his frustration loose.
In working through Oliver’s seven steps to conflict management, they discovered that the wife had no idea he was being serious and the husband realized that his wife didn’t intend to make him look bad, but his friends started laughing and he felt naked and embarrassed in front of them and had nowhere to hide. As they worked this through, the wife truly felt bad and apologized for what she had done. This was a landmark conversation for them because they were actually able to talk through what had taken place, understand each other, and set a new direction for how they manage their conflict.
Couples who develop the healthy habit of working through differences often find that the process of listening, asking questions, listening again and asking more questions leads to understanding that provides a window into each other’s hearts and a pathway to greater intimacy.
“When you know someone loves you enough to take the time to understand you rather than take a walk out the door, you know that person’s love is not a shallow, superficial, conditional love,” Oliver said. “That type of love makes a person feel safe and secure. This type of security leads to an increase in trust, which creates the perfect environment for deep levels of intimacy to grow.”
If you are seeking ways to more effectively manage the conflicts in your marriage, the Olivers give these seven steps:
“Healthy conflict is good,” Oliver said. “When a couple has a disagreement and one person takes the time to listen even if they think the other person is wrong, that says to their spouse, ‘I value you and you are important to me.’”
It isn’t always about agreeing on something. If a person knows their spouse is trying to understand what is going on, it increases their sense of value and safety.
One of the best ways to go from being mad at each other to “mad about us” isn’t reading books on new sexual positions, but learning how to create a sense of trust and safety within your marriage. A spouse who feels understood will feel safe and be willing to trust, and trust leads to the deeper levels of intimacy every person longs for. Guaranteed!