Almost daily, unhealthy anger causes some kind of devastation. It could be anything from child abuse or domestic violence to road rage, or to children methodically preparing to harm their teacher. The emotion of anger in and of itself isn’t the problem, though. When people allow themselves to be controlled by this powerful emotion, it can become unhealthy and cause harm to others.
“We have to continually remind ourselves that anger is energy and energy is neutral,” says 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, so we can choose to express this emotion in unhealthy or in healthy and constructive ways. Plus, 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 anger can be 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 loved ones, and healthy anger can lead to more intimate relationships.
“Disagreements usually involve the emotions of fear and/or hurt and/or frustration. These are the primary emotions that lead to the secondary emotion of anger,” Oliver says. “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 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. The husband made a comment at a party, and his wife responded with a joke about it. Her response embarrassed him in front of their friends. He was making a serious point and, she spoke without thinking about how it would impact the situation. Since this was not the first time she had done something like this, her husband was hurt, embarrassed, marginalized and frustrated.
When they headed home, the wife asked him what was wrong. Although he initially denied being upset, he releases his frustration after several questions.
In working through Oliver’s seven conflict management steps, they discovered that the wife had no idea he was being serious. The husband realized that his wife didn’t intend to make him look bad, but his friends started laughing and he felt naked, exposed and embarrassed in front of them. As they talked, the wife truly felt bad and apologized. This was a landmark conversation for them because they were actually able to talk through what had taken place and understand each other. Then they set a new direction for how to manage their conflict.
Couples who develop the healthy habit of working through differences often find that listening, asking questions, listening again and asking more questions leads to understanding. Additionally, it 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 says. “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're seeking to more effectively manage the conflicts in your marriage, try these seven steps:
Define the issue. Listen and seek understanding. Whose issue is it? Is there more than one issue involved? What is my spouse’s core concern? What is my core concern?
How important is it? On a scale from 1 to 10, with one being low-ticket and 10 being high-ticket, how important is this?
Ask yourself, “What is MY contribution to the problem?”
Do I need to apologize or ask for forgiveness?
Choose radical responsibility. Don’t wait for your partner to reach out and seek understanding—be willing to take the first step.
Choose what both of you can do differently.
Make changes and review them.
“Healthy conflict is good,” Oliver says. “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. When you know your spouse is trying to understand what is going on, it increases your 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. Instead, it's about creating a sense of trust and safety within your marriage. A spouse who feels understood will feel safe and be willing to trust. Consequently, that trust leads to the deeper levels of intimacy every person longs for. Guaranteed!