We’re human and we sometimes get mad. Anger is a feeling. It is not a behavior. Behaviors are what people do, find actions that they take. When you are mad, what do you do? Do you pout? Do you shout? Do you grumble and mumble? Do you withdraw or do you attack? We all have our ways.
Expressed anger often leads to behaviors that are destructive on every level: personally, interpersonally and spiritually. Working on ourselves to reduce the amount of time we are triggered into an angry emotional state can be helpful; obviously, the less we feel anger, the less we’ll have to control our behavior. Sometimes this work can consist of self-reflection, personal development through classes or counselling or even reading books on anger management. Sometimes relaxation and stress-management counseling will help lower our anger thermostats. Sometimes psychotherapy or medication is needed in order not to be living too close to the boiling point. However, whether or not we manage to reduce our angry feelings, it is ESSENTIAL that we learn to eliminate our angry behaviors.
The Angry Spouse
Some people marry a person who turns out to have a problem with anger. Sometimes the anger is evident even in the dating period, but it is misinterpreted as being tolerable or normal. For instance, people who grow up with angry parents don’t always recognize anger as a toxic trait in a spouse-to-be. In fact, it seems rather familiar to them in a way that makes them feel like they’re at home. This is one of the great costs of angry parenting—it causes children to be at significant risk for being comfortable with angry people and therefore choosing such a person to be a spouse. Unfortunately, this can lead to a lifetime of marital pain or to the pain of divorce.
Sometimes the anger is not noticeable during the dating period, but rather is well hidden. It comes out only after the wedding, sometimes within weeks and sometimes within months. Unfortunately, marital partners do not always understand the implications of an angry outburst on the part of their spouse. Often, they think it is a freak accident, something out of character that has occurred once or twice and will never occur again. Usually, they can’t foresee what this anger will look like a couple of years down the line or what it’s effects will be on the children yet to be born.
However, there is a large body of research that informs us as to the progression and effects of anger in family life. According to the literature, angry behaviors often tend to increase over time. They don’t tend to just disappear on their own. Spouses who put up with angry behavior by remaining silent or by voicing disapproval without mentioning any real consequences, send a message loud and clear: “Go ahead and be aggressive. I’ll tolerate it.” The result is that angry behavior not only persists — it can sometimes actually worsen over time. This is true of both angry men and angry women; both genders can be guilty of escalating abusive behavior. Yelling becomes swearing. Swearing becomes stamping and slamming. Stamping and slamming becomes throwing things, followed by punching and kicking holes in the walls. Next comes assault. So many people have followed this well-worn path that it is now totally predictable by law enforcement agencies, family service agencies and mental health professionals. Spouses who don’t stop small signs of aggression when they first appear will have a much larger symptoms of violence to address in the end. Unfortunately, by that time, there may be children around who then must endure the trauma of living with aggression in the marriage. In addition, women should know that pregnancy itself is a condition that is statistically linked to a higher incidence of aggressive behavior in male partners. Therefore, the time to put a halt to any inappropriate expression of anger is long before the first pregnancy. Men need to understand that female aggression, while not always as dangerous as male aggression, can indeed lead to physical injury (sometimes serious injury or even death) and always leads to psychological injury; it hurts deeply to be so disrespected and so badly treated by someone who is supposed to be your life partner and best friend. Children are equally scarred by witnessing male or female physical and/or verbal violence.
Ending Inappropriate Expression of Anger
How does one stop one’s spouse from expressing anger inappropriately? Apply the 2X-Rule: on the very first occasion of disrespectful treatment, address the issue clearly using Step One. (If physical violence of any kind has occurred, skip this first step and go straight to step two below.) Step one might sound something like this: “I don’t want ugly communications to be part of my marriage and my life. We can do better and if we do better, we’ll protect and nurture our love. If we don’t do better, we might lose one of the most important things we have in our lives: our affection for each other.” The next time disrespect is communicated, repeat the same message as in Step One and add a warning. Step Two might sound something like: “This has already happened one time too many. If it happens again, I’m going to speak to “so and so” and see if he/she can refer us to a counselor.” “So and so” can be a priest or rabbi, a family doctor or another therapist. It should not be a relative (who will, upon hearing of mistreatment, never forgive your partner long after you have forgiven him or her!). It should not be a friend either (who may be unskilled and end up simply escorting you to divorce court). This step of exposing mistreatment, however, is crucial. As soon as an abusive partner realizes that his or her behavior will be exposed outside the home, healing begins to occur. No one wants outsiders to see such an unattractive picture of them. Always let an angry spouse know that others will know. Do this even if the behavior you are concerned about is verbal disrespect. Stopping such behavior in its tracks protects your marriage and allows love to flourish.
If physical aggression is occurring, make it clear to your partner that you cannot live together in the same house until that behavior is permanently rectified. Ask your doctor for a referral for your spouse to an official anger management program. Consider separating physically until the partner has a graduation certificate and you feel confident that he or she understands that you will not live with this in the marriage. Your partner can control him or herself and will only “lose control” to the extent that you permit it. The only people who truly cannot control the expression of their anger are people with severe mental illness and these people should generally be locked up away from society since they are a danger to everyone. Spouses who are only aggressive at home are very much in control of their behavior. That’s why they only scream, insult, hit or throw things but they never take a weapon and actually use it in a fatal way! They are, in fact, totally in control.
Removing inappropriate expressions of anger in your home is only the first step to building a healthy relationship. Taking classes and counseling can help build good anger management and communication skills that will safeguard love and nurture a wholesome family atmosphere. Although it is best to stop inappropriate anger before it gets a foothold, it is never too late. Healing and growth occurs throughout the lifetime.