Angry (Love)birds ~ Dealing with Anger and Conflict in Your Marriage

Lauren Gulde has a fantastic post up at Austin Catholic New Media on dealing with anger in marriage. With 10.5 specific tips, it’s a very thorough look at positive ways to handle the anger that invariably weaves its way into the fabric of our marriages. Here’s one of my favorites:

8. “I’m sorry, but…” Is NEVER okay

We have a “No ‘I’m sorry, but…’ Rule” in our home, with our children, with each other. If you’re ready to apologize, then you’re either in, or you’re out. If you say something like, “I’m sorry, but that was a really stupid thing to do!”… guess what? No dice. You’re back at square one, or worse. Make sure you’re apology can hold water and be taken seriously. Make sure that you are able to be sincere, or wait. And remember, your body language speaks volumes. Make sure that your face, your eyes and your voice echo what you feel.

This is the kind of thing that’s hard to write about because inevitably someone’s going to read it and say “what’s up? Is everything okay? Are you guys still arguing over the dishwasher-loading situation? I thought you got counseling for that.” Just admitting to the Internet – hey, we aren’t perfect – is a sacrifice, I think, in that you’re sort of inviting the world to speculate about very private matters. Which some would argue is the essence of blogging, but we don’t like those people, anyway.

So – I was going to just leave a comment on Lauren’s post but I’ve been pondering this a lot lately, not because we are currently having problems but just the whole – how do we radiate joy to the world, as Catholics, while still presenting an authentic picture of our own struggles. You know what I mean?

My husband and I have been through a lot, lot, lot, and we are stronger for it. At one point I remember looking at some list of “top stressors on a marriage” and we could tick off 7 out of 10, or something like that, after having been married less than two years. Death of a parent, job loss, seriously ill child, moving across the country, trying to eliminate pasta – we’ve seen our share of troubles and anger has naturally come along for the ride at times. Here are some things I’d add to Lauren’s list.

1. Conflict isn’t a bad thing. I remember a Relative Who Shall Remain Nameless Because I Think She Reads My Blog telling a story about a regular check-up where the doctor asked if she was experiencing any stress, and she replied, “Of COURSE I have stress! I’m ALIVE!”

And, you know, I actually find that rather hopeful. If you’re alive, you are going to have conflict. The real problem is when you try to pretend the conflict isn’t a thing, or it will just go away if you agree to mutually ignore it.

2. Emotions like to dress up as each other. One of the very best pieces of advice I ever received was from a priest after the death of my father. He told me that “Grief can show up disguised as other emotions.” And boy, was that true. Sadness or fear that I haven’t dealt with can glop itself into anger. It’s really important to figure out if you’re actually mad or if you’re channeling other emotions into anger – and to identify what you’re mad about. 

One technique I use, when I can find it within me to be reasonable amidst anger, is to ask myself, “How long do I want to be mad about this?” Like – is this something I can justifiably remain upset about if it’s not dealt with in – a month? Six months? A year? Or is it really rather small in the scheme of things, and I may not even remember it a few weeks from now? That’s helped me to choose my battles and identify when a conflict really does need to be dealt with and when to let it go.

3. Be aware of spiritual attack. I know half my readers just arched their eyebrows. (“I didn’t know she was a snake-handler!”) All I am going to say is that, building on Point 2, there have been times when I watched myself get very down or very angry about something that really was waaaaay not worth it, and I stopped myself short, said my St. Michael Prayer, and waited for it to pass. You can explain that as a materialist “deep breathing and use of a mantra allowed her brain to process the information in a more healthy manner” kinda way if you want, sure. I believe that evil is real. (And, in the video I linked, it resembles a grue.)

4. Don’t compare yourself to other marriages. Danielle Bean talked at a conference I attended about how unfair it is to compare whatever our reality is to the perceived perfection of another woman’s life. This goes double for comparing your marriage to another couple’s life.

5. Get enough sleep, sunlight, exercise, and decent food. It’s amazing – and slightly embarassing – how often I have found that a Battle Symbolic of the Epic Struggle of Our Lifetime can be remedied by some protein and a walk around the block.

6. Put St. Joseph on the job. This ones for alllllll the ladies out there. Ask St. Joseph to pray for your husband. When  he’s not busy being randomly buried in the ground by house-hunters, he’s hanging out, ready to take your call on the prayer-request line. I just learned from the Internet that he is the “unofficial patron against doubt and hesitation.” And of workers, carpenters, and the Universal Church.

7. Ponder your spouse’s “greatest hits” in your heart. My husband has made tremendous sacrifices at times for me and for our family. I remember how he helped my mom take care of my dad on his deathbed, how he cared for me after each of my c-sections, all of the times he exercised heroic virtue for me and for us. I choose to see those times as the true essence of Who He Is. It’s easy when you’re angry to make that moment of conflict the “you are showing me the real you right now!” But gosh, if anyone were to describe my own dark moments as “the real Dorian,” I’d  have to just go live in a yurt or something.  I owe my husband the same respect.

So – what do you think? Something else I’m mulling over is the question of how to create a support system for yourself when conflict is more than you and your spouse can handle on your own, without it devolving into “my group of friends who will listen to me vent and give me a high-five.”

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  1. Tamara says

    Live in a yurt. Hehehe.
    I’ll address your last comment: support. Know (and nourish your relationship with!) people in your life who are fans of your marriage/family. They are the ones who will let you vent, maybe give you a high five when you need it, but who will also call you on your BS if/when you’ve gone off the deep end and are being unfair, unkind, unreasonable, or just plan unforgiving. Bc people mess up, even us, even our spouses, and you just need to figure out how to move past it.

    Also, that diet/exercise/sleep/stress bit: true fact that they can bring you down if you don’t take care of you.

    • says

      I shall be eternally grateful to you, O Reader, for being the first to comment, letting the awkwardness helium out of the balloon of combox silence that hovered over me like a…metaphor that…didn’t really work out.

  2. says

    You bring up some great points, Dorian. I can especially relate to your second one. Grief, worry, fear, sadness (you name it) got expressed by mother as anger. I definitely inherited that trait and have worked very hard to overcome it, mostly by always trying to communicate with my husband and kids when something is bothering me. I don’t always get it right, but I’m always working on that character flaw.

    My husband and I have been married for 18.5 years and have six kids. We’ve lived through some SERIOUSLY low points in our marriage (exacerbated by his frequent business travel, those personality traits I inherited from my mother, his parents and siblings, who have a knack for saying exactly the worst thing possible). Like anything in this life, our marriage is not perfect, but we’ve made great strides. A few things have helped me get over myself and my own issues. They are: 1. Working harder to understand his point of view; 2. Realizing that if I have a problem with something he’s done or said, it’s my problem, not his; 3. Putting time into perspective (sounds strange, but I’m always amazed by how quickly time — and the problems that seem so important and permanent — passes); and 4. Making time for prayer every, single day.

  3. Theresa Henderson says

    I can tell you diet/exercise/sleep/stress are very important. I’d fallen down a set of stairs and spine, hip and leg pain was keeping me awake nights. It was also keeping me from walking daily. What a spiral down hill!! In one years time I was checking myself into a hospital for mental evaluation.
    Until I was able to get the pain managed with pills ( and until they deem my hip deteriorated enough to replace) I was not able to sleep more than 2 hours at a time.

  4. Heidi says

    Point #2 (Emotions like to dress up as each other) is my biggest struggle. Ever since I was a teenager, I have internalized my feelings… and then they would eventually come out in a raving meltdown aimed at some random person. Which then left me feeling like a horrible person, an abysmal failure. This went on for 25 years, until one day a few years ago I broke down in my doctor’s office and told her “I think I’m depressed… and I think I need help”. I was in therapy once a week for a full year (and I’ve been on anti-depressants since then). Part of my therapy was learning to acknowledge and deal with my emotions as they happen. My little household has been much happier and more peaceful the past few years.

    Point #5 – (Get enough sleep, sunlight, exercise, and decent food). So true, and so important! When I exercise, I tend to eat healthier, which both make me sleep better… and that all adds up to a pleasant, happy Heidi…. who then has a clear head and is able to acknowledge her feelings and emotions. :)

  5. Mary says

    “the dishwasher-loading situation” – so relatable, I laughed out loud. It brings to mind the times I’ve been able to deal with an anger-inducing “transgression” by my husband with a humorous comment. The problem has been addressed and no one’s ego has been attacked. Great article, great tips. Thanks, Dorian!

  6. Melissa says

    Here through Ms. Somechop and so glad I came! I like your style very much. This was a great article to start my day. Recently, my husband “claimed” he couldnt see the difference between my classifying a reaction as “irritated” vs. “mad.” I joked to my husband that perhaps if I have so many levels of angry to need a cadre of nuanced terms- like the number of Inuit words for “snow”- I _might_ have too much angry on my hands…The man did not disagree. :)

  7. says

    This is great, Dorian.
    And I’m reminded of the C.S. Lewis quote — it’s about faith but it also applies to marriage, commitment, and life in general:

    Faith … is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods … Unless you teach your moods “where they get off” you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion.

  8. Phoenix says

    Just found you by way of Faith & Family Live! Great post about marriage. The question often comes up in my world–should you talk about your marriage problems with friends? Ever? When? My husband and I have a “basic” marriage, wherein we fight about dishwashers and toothpaste caps and occasionally larger issues like “Why do I always have to be the bad guy around here!” So when I talk to my sisters or friends about dh over margaritas, I usually tell a smattering a humorous stories about toothpaste that have a 50/50 blame ratio. But sometimes when there are larger issues, it helps to sit with a trusted friend who knows you and lay out the situation, to see if this is just “normal” or if something is way out of line. I guess you could discuss it with a priest, but that is of limited value because of the amount of time and explanation required in ensuring that he has an adequate handle of the facts and the emotions involved. So my question is: when is it right to sit with a trusted friend and discuss the marriage?

  9. Shelia La Noir (aka Jean) says

    Thanks, Dorian!

    It looks like others beat me to the punch on being the first to comment. Alas. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

  10. says

    I don’t have a lot to add, but I want to commend you for (1) addressing the question and (2) addressing it so well. And I think the fact that you can raise it on your blog actually speaks to the strength of your marriage. I’ll ponder your points, hopefully at those times of anger(!) I’m a big fan of counseling and/or spiritual direction. Friends can only take you so far, and sometimes (often) they are friends of your husband too, and that is just plain awkward at times.

  11. says

    My husband and I have participated and facilitated a dozen or so marriage enrichment programs with our circle of friends in our prayer group for 25 years. This lets us discuss and solve problems we would never bring up ourselves and we get the insight of other couples. In the setting of prayer and mutual support we find our marriage grows as well as our faith. Right now we are halfway through “A Marriage Made for Heaven” provided by exceptionalmarriages,com with short video teachings by Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak (More to Life radio show). The benefits increase with the couple exercises and discussions, all enclosed in prayer. There are many such programs out there to look at and we will continue to find them next year when this one is completed.