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Why Anger Isn’t Good or Bad

What you do with it can either build up or destroy relationships.

Have you ever come home from work with an expectation that blew up right in your face?

Your “quiet evening at home” turns chaotic when one of your children says they have a science project due tomorrow and your other child suddenly needs cupcakes for the class party. So much for a calm evening after an exhausting day.

You head to the grocery store for supplies and your spouse begins to oversee the science project. When you return, you realize you should have also picked up some lice-killing shampoo.

You have no idea what time you actually fell into bed, but the alarm blares far too soon. You get up with an edge and start barking out orders to everyone. “Comb your hair! Get the dog out before she has an accident. Where are the lunches you were supposed to pack last night?” At this point, it doesn’t seem like anybody is going to have a good day.

On the way to work, as you yell at the drivers around you, you realize you are angry. The question is, “Why?”

Researchers tell us anger is a secondary emotion, the tip of the iceberg so to speak. It’s the primary emotion – things like hurt, unmet expectations, frustration, disrespect, lack of trust, dishonesty, loneliness, jealousy, rejection, betrayal, disappointment, helplessness and exhaustion – that drives the anger.

In many instances, people don’t stop long enough to figure out what is fueling their anger. While anger itself is not good or bad, how you handle it impacts not only you, but also those around you – your family, co-workers and friends.

Studies show that the emotional part of our brain processes information in two milliseconds. In contrast, the rational part of the brain processes information in 500 milliseconds – 250 times longer. Simply put, it is much easier to react than to slow down and respond.

Researchers studying couples in conflict asked them to hit the pause button before arguing so a videographer could film the argument in real-time. In many instances, the couple had calmed down and moved on before the videographer even arrived.

If you struggle with anger, here are four steps that can help you get a good handle on it.

  • First, determine what is driving your feelings. For the parent who expected a quiet evening at home – unmet expectations, disappointment and exhaustion could be driving the anger, in addition to not knowing or forgetting about the cupcakes and the science project.

  • Next, acknowledge the feelings in a beneficial way. Instead of stuffing them inside or spewing them all over everybody, consider how you will share your feelings. Statements such as, “I feel frustrated when you wait until the last minute to ask for my help with the science project,” are more likely to elicit a conversation than if you lose it.

  • Then, determine a course of action. You may decide to help your child this time. Later on, you can calmly share that you may or may not be able to help the next time they wait until the last minute.

  • Finally, make a plan for the future. Use this as an opportunity to talk about appropriate ways to deal with anger.

So many adults say they never saw their parents actually deal with their anger. They saw the anger, but never learned what to do with it. Teaching your kids that anger isn’t bad or good – it’s what you do with it that can build up or destroy relationships – could be one of the greatest gifts you give them.

But don’t stop there. Model for them what it looks like to be good and angry.

Just weeks into their marriage, Sam and Ellen* were caught a bit off guard as their different perspectives about certain things became very real. While they had discussed many of the big potential areas of conflict – money, career, children and how they wanted to deal with their in-laws – the impact of the more “trivial” matters on their marriage surprised them.

For example, things like socks on the floor, how to squeeze the toothpaste tube, how to do household chores, how to spend their downtime and even how to get to a certain location had become frequently intense conversations.

It baffled the couple that these seemingly little things could have such a stranglehold on their marriage. The conflicts were affecting their relationship and neither one of them liked what they were experiencing.

In reality, it is nearly impossible for two people with different upbringings to not have differences in perspective about many things. Truth be told, we are creatures of habit. In most instances, it is far less likely that a spouse intentionally leaves socks on the floor or squeezes the middle of the toothpaste tube just to get on your nerves. It’s far more likely to be what they have always done.

So, how can you keep these seemingly minor issues from becoming major areas of conflict in your marriage?

Parents teach their kids to stop, look and listen before crossing the street. But believe it or not, this is a really useful skill for managing conflict.

  • Stop. Before launching into a lecture or hissy fit, consider these things. Ask yourself if what you are about to say or do will be helpful to your relationship. What is your current state of mind – are you stressed, tired or hungry? These things can impact how intensely you feel about something at any given moment.
  • Look. First, look at your spouse and remember you are on the same team, not rivals. Then, examine the situation at hand and ask yourself if this is truly a big deal or really a matter of different preferences. Whether it is folding towels, loading the dishwasher or the current condition of your car’s interior, some things boil down to personal preference. Is pursuing a conversation about these things worth the cost? And, in looking at the big picture of living life together, will you choose to place your focus on these areas?
  • Listen. Instead of assuming your spouse couldn’t possibly have a reasonable explanation for why they do something a certain way, seek to understand their perspective before telling them why your way makes the most sense. It could help you avoid a lot of unnecessary drama. Even when you truly believe you are right, is it really necessary to prove it?

Undoubtedly, there are legitimate times for some hard discussions. Moving past those little irritations, however, will require you to think carefully about how you manage those conflicts. After you have walked through stop, look and listen, think about these things:

  • Considering how much time we have together, is this matter worthy of our precious time and energy?
  • Why does this particular issue get under my skin?
  • Am I willing to sacrifice our relationship for this issue?

Most couples say their relationship is what matters most to them. What tends to trip them up is mistakenly making the minor things the major ones. In many instances, it’s better for your marriage if you agree to disagree and get on with enjoying life together.

***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***

More than 2 million marriages take place annually in America.

“Almost all couples anticipate ‘living happily ever after,’” according to Dr. Gary Chapman in his book, Things I Wish I’d Known Before We Got Married. “No one gets married hoping to be miserable or to make their spouse miserable, yet the highest percentage of divorce occurs within the first seven years of marriage.”

When you consider the fact that most people spend more time planning and training for their vocation than they do for their wedding, is it any surprise that the divorce rate is so high?

“What is ironic is that we recognize the need for education in all other pursuits of life and fail to recognize that need when it comes to marriage,” Chapman says. “It should not be surprising that they are more successful in their vocational pursuits than they are in reaching the goal of marital happiness.”

Chapman’s book provides a marriage blueprint for people. It’s also useful for engaged couples or those preparing for marriage.

“As I look back over the early years of my marriage, I wish someone had told me what I am about to tell you,” Chapman says.

The book addresses 12 areas of potential stress for couples, including money, in-laws and personality. Here are a few of the 12.

I wish I had known…

  • Being in love is not an adequate foundation for building a successful marriage. Research indicates that the average life span of the “in love” obsession is two years. Then differences become apparent and people start to question if they married the right person.
  • Romantic love has two stages. Chapman describes the first stage of love as a time when couples expend lots of energy doing things for each other, but they don’t consider it work. The second stage of love is more intentional. It requires work in order to keep emotional love alive.
  • The saying, “like mother, like daughter” and “like father, like son” is not a myth. While Chapman does not suggest that the person you marry will become exactly like their mother or father, parents do greatly influence children.
  • How to solve disagreements without arguing. It never crossed Chapman’s mind that he and his wife would have any major disagreements. No one ever told them that conflicts are a normal part of marriage.
  • That apologizing is a sign of strength. Apologizing is often something people find difficult to do. Some people perceive admitting wrong as a sign of weakness. In reality, it takes a strong person to say “I was wrong, please forgive me.”
  • Mutual sexual fulfillment is not automatic. Many couples never anticipate that this would be a problem area. Dr. Chapman shares that while men focus on sex, women focus on relationship. In a fractured relationship, the wife will have less, and more difficult, interest in sex.

When not discussed beforehand, these issues (and more) can create a marriage filled with conflict, misunderstandings and frustration. Investing time and effort to learn these things in advance could save you a lot of heartache and pain in the long run.

Image from Unsplash.com

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