Dealing With Anger in a Marriage

HYG-5191
Family and Consumer Sciences
Date: 
04/23/2010
Nancy Recker, Extension Educator, Family and Consumer Sciences, Associate Professor, The Ohio State University

One of the most difficult skils that partners must develop in a marriage is how to deal effectively with anger. Any time two people live together, there are bound to be episodes of anger. Anger is a perfectly normal, healthy emotion, but one that we should pay close attention to. If we were to give a definition of anger in marriage, it might be said that it's feeling mad in response to frustration or other circumstances and expressing yourself in an impulsive manner without thought. Anger can be used to justify feelings, displace emotions, or elevate self-worth. Though anger is one of the most common emotions known to the human race, few people are skilled at reacting to this feeling with complete effectiveness. Many of us rely on a few specific responses that we learned as children and continue to use as adults. These responses can turn into constructive or destructive behavior. Recognizing what makes us angry can help us find better ways to cope with this emotion. It's not whether we get angry, but what we do with it that matters. Expressing anger in a marriage can actually be helpful and draw couples closer together, but it can also backfire if couples don't use anger in a constructive manner.

In the early years of marriage, it is important to address conflict rather than avoid it. Sociologist Judith Wallerstein, after interviews with couples, wrote:

Every married person knows that "conflict-free marriage" is an oxymoron. In reality it is neither possible nor desirable … In a contemporary marriage is it expected that husbands and wives will have different opinions. More important, they can't avoid having serious collisions on big issues that defy compromise. (p. 143)

If conflict is handled in a healthy way, it can help strengthen relationships, but if conflicts continue, anger can cover up love and affection. Those who have studied anger indicate that more anger is developed in marriage relationships than in any other relationship. Unresolved anger is the principal cause of violence toward another person. The success or failure of a marriage may depend on the way a couple copes with their anger.

Conflict, anger, and fights in a marriage are caused by differences between marital partners. Left unresolved, these can lead to distrust, tension, and even fear. Most people have learned to deal with anger by either venting it or suppressing it. When a couple experiences conflict, they eventually learn what they can and cannot reveal about themselves to avoid future conflicts. Some couples yell and scream, back off, and then gradually move closer again until another conflict arises. Some couples go too far and hurt each other emotionally or physically with their angry outbursts. Other couples deal with anger by suppressing it. Many people feel uncomfortable about expressing anger directly so they learn not to make an issue of things. Suppressed anger can be dangerous because it is always there simmering below the surface. Another substitute for expressing anger directly is passive-aggression. Chronic criticism, sarcasm, and nagging are some examples. Another example of suppressing anger over a period of time can be indifference. Couples may become emotionally detached.

If couples learn to express anger and deal with their conflicts early in their relationship, it can strengthen their marriage in the long run. Here are some guidelines that can help couples with conflict management. Called bonding fighting, the idea is for partners to try to build up, not tear each other down even as they argue.

  1. Level with each other. Don't assume you know how your mate feels. Conflicts often go unresolved when couples don't talk about their feelings and neither is aware the other is holding back.
  2. To avoid attacks, use "I-statements" when you can. I-statements are most effective if communicated in a positive way.
  3. Avoid mixed, or double messages. These can be verbal or non-verbal. Mixed messages allow people to let others know they are angry at them and at the same time to deny they are.
  4. Choose the time and place carefully. Be sure both of you are ready to talk.
  5. Focus on the problems that are happening now.
  6. If you have a complaint, be ready to propose at least one solution to the problem. Recognize there are several ways to solve a problem and be willing to compromise.
  7. Accept that you can't change your spouse, but that you can change what you do. People who refuse to change or insist they can't change, are refusing to have an intimate relationship.
  8. Don't try to win. If one partner wins, the other must lose. If both partners can understand each other's differences, they become closer and both win.
  9. Happy couples know how and when to stop fighting. Ideally a fight ends when each has had a chance to air their differences. But sometimes if partners are too hurt to continue, they need to stop arguing before they reach a resolution.

Happy couples are not conflict free. Instead, they change behaviors, and present reasonable alternatives. Even having fights may bring a couple closer together if they work to overcome the assumption that conflict and anger don't belong in a healthy relationship.

References

Lamanna, M.A., & Riedmann, A. (2006). Marriages and Families: Making Choices in a Diverse Society. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Strong, B., Devault, C., & Cohen, T. (2008). The Marriage and Family Experience: Intimate Relationships in a Changing Society. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.

Ohioline http://ohioline.osu.edu