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Managing Anger in Marital Conflict

by the Rev. Dr. Ed Hird

DPM 929 ( a doctoral paper for Dr James Ponzetti submitted to Carey Theological

St Jerome

 College)

St Jerome, translator of the Vulgate, agonized over how anger destroyed his relationship with his aunt. He wrote: “Tell me, how are we two going to face the Day of Judgement? The sun is witness that it has gone down on our anger not one day, but for many a long year.” (Ketterman, 2000) While St Jerome was obviously not married, his impassioned letter alluding to Ephesians 4:26 shows how vital it is to manage anger in marital and family conflicts.

Segrin, C. & Hanzal, A. (2009) observe that “no marital communication process has generated more scholarly interest than conflict.”  This is probably because as Garland (1998) puts it, “Whatever a family’s style of communication, conflict and anger are inevitable.”

The social sciences and seminaries often function in an academic apartheid. Never the twain shall meet. Both are poorer for it. My aim with this paper is to integrate the best of the social science and theological research in how we can help our families more effectively manage anger in martial conflict situations.

It was noted in the DPM 929 class how marital conflict has had more social science attention than the anger component in marriage.  Yet marital conflict involves many emotions, including both ‘hot and cold’ anger.  Hebrews 12:15 describes cold anger as ‘the root of bitterness which defiles and harasses many’.  Garland (1998) says that we must avoid allowing anger to take up Root of bitternesspermanent residence in our hearts. That is why anger, while encouraged in Ephesians 4:26, must be without sin or harming of others, and must not be taken to bed.  Wisely Ephesians 4:26 suggests that going to sleep with unresolved anger gives a foothold for the negativity which sacramental Christians would describe in their baptism as ‘the world, the flesh and the devil.’

We know that anger can be expressed without sin because even the sinless Son of God in Mark 3:5 was legitimately angry at people’s insensitivity to others.  The challenge is how in the words of James 1:19 to be slow to anger.  Anger can easily take on a life of its own.  Waddell (Browning, D. & Evison, I.,1998) wisely comments: “Nothing kills marital love more than hardness of heart.”

In preparing to write this essay, fifty-five books on anger and martial conflict from the Regent/Carey and the Public Libraries were either read or scanned. The overall impression is that there are a lot of angry people stuck in conflictual marriages.  Greeff, A. and De Bruyne, T. (2000) observe that the ability of couples to manage marital conflict is key to the success of healthy marriages.  Some of the solutions in the books were creative, but many of them after a while seemed rather repetitive and predictable.  As well, around one thousand social science articles on anger and marital conflict were scanned through the UBC Library, of which one hundred and two were downloaded for closer examination.  It became clear that not all articles are created equal.

Managing conflict, says Gottman (Garland, 1999), is one of the central tasks of maintaining a marriage.  Gottman’s research Dr John Gottmanwas described both in class and in an article as the ‘Gold Standard’ of marriage research.   The Gottmans (2006) recommend that we husbands need to embrace our wife’s anger and learn the meaning behind the emotion. We need to rediscover anger as a healthy emotion that has its own wisdom if we will stop being so defensive. Gottman’s evocative phrase is “Look for the longing in each other’s complaint.”   Brain scans have shown us that we experience anger on the right side of the brain, unlike fear and sadness which is on the left side.  While fear causes us to withdraw, anger can actually stir us to make a difference and bring constructive change.  The challenge is how to harness the power of anger, much like people in BC harness the power of our mighty rivers for electricity.

Dr Gil Stieglitz, our past Coach for the Anglican Coalition in Canada, has been a major influence in helping our congregation become more proactive in strengthening and building marriages. Reminiscent of social exchange theories, Stieglitz (2004) says that love is meeting needs and that each marriage partner needs to aim to out-give the other at a 70/30 ratio.  We have found his ‘Five Problems of Marriage’ videos and books to be very practical in helping our couples manage anger in marital conflicts.

Thirty-four years of ordained Anglican ministry have taught me that alcohol abuse has a huge effect on anger and marital life.  Johns, A & Newcomb, M (2007) draw a strong research correlation between alcohol problems and anger-related marital conflict. Alcohol abuse has been scientifically linked with a much higher rate of physical violence during anger in marital conflict.  One study quoted by Johns (2007) showed that the rate of verbal aggression was 5 to 7 times higher among such couples experiencing marital conflict. Since 1982, I have been privileged to do many AA ‘Fifth Steps’ which has convinced me that supporting people’s recovery from addiction is a key to helping them manage anger better in marital conflict. When feelings and pain are suppressed through substance abuse, the checks and balances around anger in marital conflict often disappear. The Bible describes this phenomenon in 1 Timothy 4:2 as ‘the searing of the conscience’. One of the reasons I strongly value the Twelve-Step process is not only for its helping people stop abusing substances, but also for its value in helping people manage anger and repair the damage done to marriages through past inappropriate anger.

It was reported by Vogel, D and Werner-Wilson, R (2008) that men are more likely than women to withdraw during marital conflict which results in wives feeling rejected. This withdrawal (Gottman, 2006) heartbreakcauses emotional distance, loneliness, and a lack of romance.  Ironically this is not about the husband not caring but because his over-caring makes him so anxious (Garland, 1998).  The husband’s withdrawal is associated with increases in the wife’s blood pressure, norepinephrine and cortisol, all of which are linked to poorer cardiovascular and immune outcomes (Loving, T., & Heffner, K., 2004) Cortisol is a useful hormone in the short-term ‘fight or flight’ response, but is very destructive long-term to the white T cells which fight off cancer.

Stonewalling in marital conflict (Gottman, 1999) is one of the more serious indicators of future marital collapse.  Faulkner, R., & Davey, M. (2005) observe that “women have considerable tolerance for physiological arousal and, thus, can maintain high levels of engagement. Men, in contrast, experience this arousal as being highly aversive and act to dissipate it by withdrawing from the conflict”.  The tendency for men to withdraw seems to be linked with the higher tendency for men to physiologically ‘flood’ during marital conflict. When the heart rate goes above 100, the ability to rationally process marital conflict significantly decreases (Gottman, 2006).  Gottman recommends the strategy of an agreed-upon ‘Time-out’ until the spouses can emotionally de-escalate.  This gives the wife more security and hope for resolution rather than when the husband just shuts down and goes away without any context for readdressing the conflict later.  Thomas Jefferson wisely said: “When angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, an hundred.”  (Tavris, 1992)

Marital anger for women (Cox, D & Clair, S, 2005) is often experienced as a threat to intimacy and connection.  This results in many women internalizing their anger in the form of self-hate, obsessive thoughts, and guilt, which paralyzes their ability to constructively make use of the emotion.

Anger, even when inappropriately processed in marital conflict, has a number of payoffs.  When we are hurt or threatened by our spouse, we tend to feel helpless and weak.  When the anger emotion clicks in, it can give us a surge of strength, power and control.  This need for control has been linked with some of the worst of the physical violence in marriage.  In the Twelve Step process, we reverse the control need by admitting in step 1 that we are powerless over our condition/addiction/marriage.  ‘Letting go letting-goand letting God’ is at the heart of true recovery.  I am reminded of Paul saying in 2 Corinthians 12: 9-10 that God’s grace is sufficient for him, enabling him to realizing that when he is weak, he is strong.

Anger is associated with physiological and biological transitions, with the increase of our heart rate, blood pressure, adrenaline, and noradrenaline.  The instinctive, natural way to express anger, says Spielberger (APA, 2009), is to respond aggressively.  Assertiveness training has been developed as a more effective way of managing marital anger than either stuffing one’s anger or dumping it on others. I have read many books on assertiveness training over the years which have been helpful but sometimes lack the needed gentleness of the ‘soft startup’ recommended by Gottman.

Much of the 1960’s counselling encouraged couples to let it all hang out and dump our anger on the other spouse. Research has shown that this actually makes things worse. Garland(1999) comments that “anger expressed in venting becomes the first step toward murder, not toward reconciliation (Matthew 5:22).”  Neither blowing up or clamming up really helps us manage anger in marital conflict (Cosgrove, 1988).  Tavris (1982) found that “aggression frequently has precisely the opposite effect of catharsis: instead of exorcising the anger, it can inflame it.”  Many people are afraid of marital anger because of its tendency to get away on us.  Plato wrote “[when reason] is asleep, then the wild beast within us, gorged on meat or drink, starts up and having shaken off sleep, goes forth to satisfy his desires; and there is no conceivable folly or crime it won’t commit.”

Lambert, N. & Dollahite, D. (2006) reported that spirituality, especially practices such as prayer between a couple,  is closely linked with reduced marital conflict.  The shared Praying Hands picturevision and relation virtues such as selflessness and unconditional love have been linked with better marital functioning in times of anger and conflict. Couples indicated that their involvement in scripture reading and regular church attendance increased their commitment to relational permanence.  Marsh, R. and Dallos, R. (2000) found that couples were able to increase their sense of interpersonal space by detouring their anger to God in marital conflict.  In my pastoral work, I have found that praying together can really help a couple, though most find such activity too intimate.  It is vital that the couple do not use prayer or the bible as weapons to win a fight, but rather as a way to resolve conflict and build a healthier marriage.

Mahoney, A. &  Pargament, K. ( 1999)  found the benefits of spiritual involvement as a couple to include greater global marital adjustment, more perceived benefits from marriage, less marital conflict, more verbal collaboration, and less use of verbal aggression and stalemate to discuss disagreements for both wives and husbands.  Before my spiritual breakthrough at age 17, I viewed marriage as just ‘a piece of paper’.  Marsh, R. and Dallos, R. (2000) observe that couples who view their marriage as being a sanctified object (whom God has joined together) are more likely to act and think in ways that protect their marriage.  Part of the improved handling of anger in marital conflict comes out of the religious couple’s allegiance to their meta-narrative and their God’s ethical expectations.  Even after thirty-two years of marriage, I still have to resist my tendencies to selfishness and irritability.  My faith is a major motivator to keep working on myself.

Lambert, N. & Dollahite, D. listed studies showing that the value of forgiveness is linked with better managing anger in marital conflict.  Gordon, K. &  Hughes, F. (2009) identified three elements of forgiveness:

 (a) regaining a more balanced and compassionate view of the offender and the event,

(b) decreasing negative affect towards and avoidance of the offender, and

(c) giving up the right to seek revenge or lash out toward the offender.

Ketterman (2000) observes that couples who refuse to forgive pay a heavy price:

“The physical costs of unforgiveness may include hypertension, chronic headaches, high blood pressure, cardiovascular ailments, and gastrointestinal disorders, to name just a handful.  Because negative emotions have a depressive effect and can suppress immune function, unforgiveness may even have an indirect link to major and severe disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and cancer.”

Jesus’ words ‘forgive and you will be Jesusforgiven’, say Ketterman, lie at the heart of marital harmony and health.  She speaks both as a psychiatrist of the Christian faith and as a victim of infidelity who remarried her husband.  Forgiveness is indeed a practical proven key to managing anger in martial conflict.

Another key to managing anger in marital conflict is the reduction of blaming behaviour.  Gottman (1999) calls this learning how to complain without criticizing.  Gottman (1999, 2006) talks about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling) which are greater long-term indicators of divorce than mere anger. Research by Madden, M. & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1981) showed that blaming one’s spouse for marital conflict is negatively associated with marital satisfaction.  Couples that habitually blame one another are some of the most difficult to help.

Contempt has a major impact on how we manage anger in marital conflict. Day (2003) noted how “Husbands who were more extroverted were more likely to express anger and contempt during times of relational difficulty.”  Gottman (2006) defines contempt as including “hostility or disgust (rolling their eyes). Contempt often involves sarcasm, mocking, name-calling or belligerence.”  Contempt is the opposite of honour and respect.  Steiglitz (2004) teaches extensively in his books and videos on the need for husbands to honour their wives daily, which he defines as ‘adding value’ and ‘putting them first above our other priorities’.  He also emphasizes the need for wives to respect their husbands, which he defines as ‘acknowledging value’ by ‘finding and affirming his strengths in the sea of his weaknesses.”  Such acts of love go a long way in repairing the damage done through what he calls our S.A.D. (Selfish, Angry, Demanding) behaviours that we may slip into when our needs are not being met.

One of the more recent emphases in marriage research has been to study not only dysfunctional couples, but also long-term successful couples. Matthews, A. and Hubbard, M. (2004) noted one study of 576 couples who had been married for 50 years or more.   The three qualities attributed to such long-term success were trust (82 percent), loving relationship (81 percent), and willingness to compromise (80 percent).

Matthews and Hubbard also noted that the wedding ringsindividualism of North American culture militates against healthy anger management in marriage conflict. They suggest that the way forward is to rediscover a theology of marriage that focuses on the common good, the value of community, discipleship and missional orientation. Marriage, said Matthews and Hubbard, ‘must have a purpose, a goal, a task beyond ‘being together’.

Osborne (1988) insightfully noted that “Marriage is the most rewarding and the most difficult relationship known to man.”  As Gottman and others have observed, no married couples have been found to be free from anger in marital conflict. Gottman (2009) commented: “when Julie and I do our workshops with couples, one of the main messages we give is that we’ve found that really good marriages, people who are really happy, have terrible fights, where they’re thinking at the end of the fight: Why did I marry this person?”   Some marital problems never go away, but the wise  couple doesn’t get gridlocked on these unsolvable problems.  The AA Serenity Prayer expresses this wisdom of ‘the serenity to accept the things that cannot be changed.”  David Mace, in Ridenour, F. (1989) notes how the Lauers studied three hundred marriages lasting fifteen years or longer. All the couples had times of anger and marital conflict. The key to these marriages was that they chose not to attack each other, but rather work on the anger. Mace (1986) compares anger to the squeak in your car’s engine that tells you it’s time for a tune-up. Anger can be your family smoke-alarm.  In our DPM 929 Class, I was reminded how healthy marriages and families are foundational to the health and stability of our society

How we interpret the meaning of anger in marital conflict is just as important as the conflict itself.  Lester (2003) holds that

“the hermeneutical process is central to the experience of anger. Individuals and communities decide what is threatening as they interpret life situations through the lens of their own narratives – their values, meanings, and beliefs.”

Our values and hopes for the future profoundly affect how we navigate the gottman-love-lab-3challenges of marital conflict.   This is why Gottman, J. & Silver, N. (1999) encourage couples to explore each others’ dreams and hopes, with an aim to create shared meaning.  It is important that couples in conflict do not give up on their ideals and dreams.  Higher expectations for romance and passion have been linked with increased marital satisfaction.  Sometimes in a desire to get along, spouses give up something essential that actually fuels the romance and passion of their lives.

Positive affect (such as humour or affection) during marital conflict was the only predictor of both marital stability and marital satisfaction 6 years after the wedding. This has also shown to be true for long-term couples dealing with conflict (Gottman, J. and Driver, J., 2004). Positive affect cannot be faked but rather cultivated over time with a series of enjoyable events. As suggested in DPM 929, a healthy marriage has learnt to celebrate the ordinary not just the extraordinary. My wife and I handle anger in marital conflict better when we take regular time together for peaceful walks, for chatting and listening, and for physical exercise.

In Gottman’s interview with Wyatt, R. (2009), he emphasizes the value of a soft-startup in managing anger in marital conflict.  Many couples, commented Gottman, say to their spouses “The problem is you, and your personality, your character; you’re a screw-up.” Such personal “you message” attacks do not help couples manage anger better. Garland (1999) says the “I and we’ messages of a soft start-up are “the difference between speaking the truth (Eph 4:25) and the judging of others that Jesus warned against (Mt 7:1).  Carl Roger’s active listening model has not born up under clinical research with married couples. It seems to be too demanding to expect one’s spouse to act as a detached Rogerian therapist in the midst of marital conflict (Gottman, 2006).

Anger in marital conflict is handled better when there are approximately five times as Making Marriage Workmany positive behaviours as negative behaviours. Couples in crisis usually only show a corresponding ratio of 1:1 (Gottman, 1999, 2006).  The need for a five to one ratio seems to come from the greater emotional impact of negative behaviours on a marriage. Garland (1998) poignantly notes that “truth, especially when it leads to conflict, must be wrapped in words and actions that build rather than tear down love for one another.”

Another well-researched principle for managing anger in marital conflict is the willingness to accept influence from one’s spouse. Gottman (2009) says “If you don’t accept some influence, then you become an obstacle and people find a way around you and you have no power.”  This is an area that I have had to work on our thirty-two years of marriage.  My wife reports that I have improved in this area.  Sometimes it is hard to recognize our own stubbornness and defensiveness because it may be hidden in strengths like perseverance.  Going for marriage counselling from time to time can be a real strength, though it is challenging to motivate both partners to be willing to go.  We have many couples in our congregation whose marriages have been deeply restored through a willingness to do the hard work of going to a professional marriage counsellor. The particular clinical counsellor that we bonnie chatwinmake the most use of in our church is Bonnie Chatwin who is both a nurse and a clinical counsellor trained at Trinity Western University.  I have been invited in a number of times by Bonnie and the couple to co-counsel in particularly challenging situations. One of my greatest joys each Sunday is to see couples in church whose marriages were over, but they did the hard work with a counsellor that enabled them to find new ways to rebuild their marriages and to handle anger more effectively.

We have one couple in our congregation who were divorced for five years after an angry misunderstanding.  The man kept on serving his wife in practical ways.  The wife kept saying to me: “Some day I would like to marry my husband again”. Finally on Father’s Day 2002, they were both kneeling to receive communion and she said to me: “I would like to marry him again some day.” We married them that Sunday at the end of the service, and then remarried them legally later that week.  I have followed up that couple with the Dr. Gil DVDs on marriage, and they are still together seven years later.  This remarriage not only affected the couple but also their extended family and friends.  Every restored marriage give hope to many others, especially to the younger generation that often lives together in a misguided attempt to marriage-ringsavoid the pain of divorce.

In our local congregation, I have seen some couples who refused counselling because they thought that it would be too expensive, only to spend far more on a divorce settlement.  I can think of a case where a successful entrepreneur was so devastated by the divorce that years later, he is still trying to rebuild his life and his career.  Bray, J. & Jouriles, E. (1996) confirmed that marriage counselling actually saves couples money compared to the costs of divorce and the medical costs associated with the reduced health of couples involved in marriage breakdowns.  Sadly though marital counselling is cost-efficient, many insurance plans do not reimburse for martial therapy.  Several couples in our church have initially experienced great resistance from their insurance company over the area of paying for marriage counselling. Thankfully this was often positively resolved.

Sometimes Christian couples on the North Shore are suspicious of counselling in general, based on horror stories that they may have heard from others.  Not all counselors have the same professional competence or sensitivity to the Judeo-Christian values.   By the time that a man may be ready to go for counselling, the woman may have already emotionally detached years before. She may not have physically moved out, but she is no longer there.  Both husbands and wives on the North Shore often stonewall each other as to whether they are willing to try out marriage counselling. Many men see counselling as an admission of weakness, neediness and failure. I see it as an act of great courage that will reap great benefits if the couple does not give up.  Sometimes just when the couple are making progress in their counselling and the woman feels safe enough to finally open up, the man will pull the plug and claim that the counsellor is biased towards the wife.  “I will never go back to counselling”, a man told me. “We will just live as roommates”.  I encouraged this individual to rethink his stance.  Because many people on the North Shore are wealthy and successful, they are used to getting their own way all the time. Dominating their spouse from a power position does not work these days, especially as women have the ability nowadays to be financially independent.

In conclusion, I am grateful for the work of Dr. Gottman and others who are offering practical social science insights as to how we can better manage our anger in marital conflict.  The irony is that many of these research-based insights such as soft-startups, accepting influence, forgiveness, and positive affection all take us back to the historic Judeo-Christian teaching on marriage and healthy relationships.

 

The Rev. Dr. Ed Hird,  Rector

BSW, MDiv, DMin

St Simon’s Church North Vancouver

Anglican Mission in the Americas (Canada)

-author of the award-winning book Battle for the Soul of Canada

p.s. In order to obtain a copy of the book ‘Battle for the Soul of Canada’, please send a $18.50 cheque to ‘Ed Hird’, #1008-555 West 28th Street, North Vancouver, BC V7N 2J7. For mailing the book to the USA, please send $20.00 USD.  This can also be done by PAYPAL using the e-mail ed_hird@telus.net . Be sure to list your mailing address. The Battle for the Soul of Canada e-book can be obtained for $9.99 CDN/USD.

-Click to download a complimentary PDF copy of the Battle for the Soul study guide :  Seeking God’s Solution for a Spirit-Filled Canada

You can also download the complimentary Leader’s Guide PDF: Battle for the Soul Leaders Guide

References

American Psychological Association (2009).  Controlling Anger — Before It Controls You. Retrieved June 20th 2009 from http://www.apa.org/topics/controlanger.html

Bray, J. & Jouriles, E. (1996) Treatment of Marital conflict and prevention of divorce. The American Journal of Family Therapy. 24, 461-473.

Browning, D. & Evison, I., Series Editors (1998) The Family Handbook. Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press.

Cosgrove, M. (1988) Counselling for Anger. Dallas, Word Incorporated.

Cox, D. & Clair, S. (2005).A New Perspective on Women’s Anger: Therapy Through the Lens of Anger Diversion, Women & Therapy, 28, 77-90.

Day, R. (2003) Introduction to Family Processes, New Jersey, Lawrence Earlbaum Associates.

Gottman, J. and Silver, N. (1999) The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. New York, Crown Publishers.

Faulkner, R., Davey, M., Davey, A. (2005) Gender-Related Predictors of Change in Marital Satisfaction and Marital Conflict. The American Journal of Family Therapy. 33, 61–83.

Garland, D. (1999) Family Ministry: a Comprehensive Guide. Downers Grove, IVP Academic.

Greeff, A. and De Bruyne, T. (2000) Conflict Management Style and Marital Satisfaction. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 26, 321–334

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Marital Conflict Among Newlywed Couples. Seattle, Family Process, Vol. 43, 301-304

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Johns, A., Newcomb, M., Johnson, M., & Bradbury, T. (2007) Alcohol-related problems, anger, and marital satisfaction in monoethnic Latino, biethnic Latino, and European American newlywed couples,  Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 24, 255–275,

Ketterman, G and Hazard, D. (2000). When I can’t say “I Forgive You”, Colorado Springs, NavPress,

Lambert, N. & Dollahite, D. (2006) How Religiosity Helps Couples Prevent, Resolve, and Overcome Marital Conflict.  Family Relations, 55, 439–449.

Lester, A. (2003) The Angry Christian: A Theology for Care and Counselling. Louisville,Westminster John Knox Press.

Loving, T., Heffner, K., Kiecolt-Glaser, J., Glaser, R., & Malarkey, W. (2004) Stress Hormone Changes and Marital Conflict: Spouses’ Relative Power Makes a Difference. Journal of Marriage and Family. 66, 595–612

Mace, D. &  V. (1986) The Sacred Fire: Christian Marriage Through the Ages. Nashville, Abingdon Press

Madden, M. & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1981) Blame, Control, and Marital Satisfaction: Wives’ Attributions for Conflict in Marriage. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 663-674.

Mahoney, A., Pargament, K., Jewell, T., Swank, A., Scott, E., Emery, E., and Rye, M. ( 1999) Marriage and the Spiritual Realm: The Role of Proximal and Distal Religious Constructs in Marital Functioning. Journal of Family Psychology. 13, 321-338

Marsh, R. and Dallos, R. (2000)Religious Beliefs and Practices and Catholic Couples’ Management of Anger and Conflict, Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy, 7, 22-36

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Wyatt, R. (2009) An Interview with John Gottman, PhD: Couples Therapy and Marriage. Retrieved June 12th 2009 from http://www.psychotherapy.net/interview/John_Gottman#author109

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