Sorry for the delay in posting my blog over the last 2 weeks. I am putting together a new project and that has been eating up a lot of my time. Ok onto this weeks blog.
Do you have moments when something your spouse says or does makes you boil over in rage?
Are you angry at how irresponsible your partner is?
Are you seething because you’ve been confronted with an affair?
Anger is a perfectly natural emotion. It’s something all of us deal with from time to time.
And there are plenty of opportunities to feel angry when you’re married. People come into relationships with different backgrounds and different personal agendas, and sometimes these differences cause friction between the two people.
Angry feelings often result.
It’s almost needless to say that being faced with something as extreme as an affair makes you feel angry. When you are faced with the reality that the person you love and trust most in the world has betrayed you, angry feelings are one of the natural outcomes.
But no matter what the reason, no matter how justified you think you anger is, acting angry almost always serves to make your problems worse.
You see there is a big difference between feeling angry and acting angry.
Understanding your anger and expressing the hurt feelings that typically underlie your anger offer you an opportunity to deepen your intimate connection with your spouse.
But acting angry almost never works. It usually drives a wedge between the two of you, and in some cases it causes more problems.
In this article I hope to explain why acting angry is not productive in a marriage.
I want to share a story I heard recently. I think it beautifully illustrates why acting
angry, no matter how justified you think you are, typically makes your problems worse.
The Consequences of Acting Angry
Peter and Sarah had been married for 18years. They had three children together, ages 12, 10, and 7.
When they came to see me they were arguing severely every day about chores, time at home together, and about the fact that Peter was a habitual flirt.
He had always been technically faithful to Sarah. He never cheated on her, but when they went out together Sarah regularly found him flirting with other women.
It drove her crazy! It made her feel like he didn’t care about her and didn’t find her attractive. She felt like Peter didn’t pay as much attention to her as he did to other women. And she was always secretly afraid one of the women he flirted with would steal him from her.
For Peter flirting was like a fun game. He didn’t take it seriously. He never even considered cheating on Sarah. He simply enjoyed the witty exchanges and exciting tension that flirting created.
Besides problems with Peter’s flirting, other problems had cropped up in the relationship as well.
Over time the responsibilities of family and work life had taken their toll and they had grown apart. They were not treating each other with any special considerations anymore, and could barely agree on anything.
Each of them professed a great love for each other. They both agreed that their relationship used to be almost ideal. But time and Sarah’s frustration with Peter’s flirting had taken its toll.
After several sessions in my office, they were barely arguing and had started to bring back some of the wonderful feelings from their early years. It looked like Peter and Sarah were on the mend.
Then fate stepped in.
One evening they on their way to a party and Sarah said, “Peter, things are so much better between us, please don’t spoil it by flirting at this party. Make it clear that we’re a couple together and check in with me at times. That would make me feel special and close to you again, and would help me know you are serious about out marriage.”
Peter agreed. He was excited about the progress they were making too, and wanted to show Sarah that he was serious about his commitment to her.
They got to the party, took drinks, and started mingling with their friends. Over the course of the evening, Peter did as Sarah asked and checked in with her from time to time, and even flirted with her a little bit which made her feel really special.
At one point, she noticed Peter off in a corner talking to Martha, a mutual friend of theirs. It was clear that Peter wasn’t overtly flirting with her, but she did see him whisper something in Martha’s ear.
As Sarah watched, Martha’s expression changed from friendly and engaged to shocked and surprised. As Peter’s whispered words came to an end, Martha yelled “No,” right in Peter’s face and stormed away.
Sarah walked up to Peter and demanded they leave right then and there. She was furious, and she yelled at Peter mercilessly from the minute they walked out the door until they arrived home.
They continued to argue for more than two days until they arrived back in my office.
We discussed the situation together, and it was clear Peter felt as justified in his position as Sarah did in hers.
Sarah’s position was that Peter intentionally betrayed her trust and violated her feelings by whispering to Martha. On top of that she was convinced he must have crossed the boundary of propriety for her to react the way she did.
Peter’s position was that he followed Sarah’s request to the letter, even with his interaction with Martha-he claimed he wasn’t flirting at all, but had to tell Martha something important. He was worried that Sarah would attack him even worse if she found out what that “something” was.
When I intervened, I asked them to try talking to each other as friends and not as enemies that need to be attacked or defended against.
This gave them the opportunity to hear what was really going on for each of them.
Being friends meant Sarah would give Peter the benefit of the doubt rather than expecting the worst, and Peter would reveal his information even if it was difficult to say without being afraid of Sarah’s response.
It turned out that Sarah was petrified that the distance between them meant that Peter was no longer interested in her and no longer found her attractive. The scene with Martha only reinforced her worst fear: he is looking for someone else and asked Martha the unthinkable question.
What was actually going on was something Sarah had never expected.
Peter was holding someone else’s secret. Martha’s fiancée was not at the party, because he was out with Sarah’s best friend, Suzie. When he leaned over to whisper to Martha, he told her what was going on as he felt it was only right.
Peter was afraid that Sarah would be upset about Suzie’s actions and take it out on him. He was also afraid she would be upset that Suzie revealed this to Peter and not to her.
Peter wanted Sarah to trust him even in suspicious circumstances. He didn’t want to have to explain himself to make his wife trust him.
Sarah and Peter, were entitled to their feelings, but the way they acted on their feelings made the situation much worse.
There is No Justification for Acting Angry
I often have people come into my office and say something like:
She made me SO angry! I couldn’t help myself. She made me do it!
It’s pretty obvious to me that in the story above, Sarah was thinking and feeling like this when she confronted Peter.
And Peter’s feelings are completely understandable as well. From his point of view, Sarah was already being unreasonable in her anger and if she found out the truth, he figured she would be even more furious.
No matter how much anger Sarah was feeling at that moment, no matter how frustrated she was with Peter, no matter how betrayed she felt .
.no one made Sarah act out her anger in an aggressive manner. She made the choice to do that herself. She was the one who got angry. Peter didn’t “make” her do anything.
I want to make it absolutely clear that no matter what happens no one ever “makes” you act out in anger. You make that choice yourself. If this weren’t true, anytime someone tried to make you angry he would succeed-you would have no choice in the matter.
There is a very clear line between feeling angry and acting angry.
You have a right to your feelings no matter what they are. You have a right to feel angry.
But acting angry will usually make your situation worse.
Think of it this way. When you are walking down a street in the middle of town and you feel like you have to go to the bathroom, do you drop your pants and go right there?
Of course you don’t! You choose not to act on your feelings at that moment. No matter how badly you have to go, you manage to wait for a socially appropriate time and place to go to the bathroom.
Acting out your anger is similar. When you act angry, there is a point at which you choose to let yourself go over the line; you choose to do something you probably know inside is inappropriate.
Part of learning how to overcome anger has to do with identifying the point at which you make a decision to act angry, and consciously choosing to respond in a more appropriate way instead.
This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky idea. You can almost always find a better way to behave than acting out your anger.
There are strategies for doing that in both of my books: How to Survive an Affair and Saving Your Marriage, and in various guides, newsletters, and articles I have written. I refer you to that information for more details on alternatives to acting out of anger.
Obviously there are situations where modulating your anger is more difficult. Sarah’s situation in the story above was far from easy.
Nonetheless, there are ways to change your behavior.
How did I get Sarah and Peter to change their communication?
I asked them to trust that they were dealing with their best friends. When approached this way, it became much easier for them to reveal feelings and communicate more effectively.
Acting out your anger in aggressive ways with your spouse is not the answer. Instead, treat your spouse as your best friend, and talk about your hurt feelings instead. Anger is usually not as difficult to manage as your hurt feelings. Talk about your feelings to reduce the hold they have on you.
Let me know how it goes with you. I’d love to hear about your marriage. Post a comment to this blog by clicking the comment link below.
As always, I wish you all the best on your road to a wonderful marriage.
Frank Gunzburg, Ph.D.