Q: My spouse really struggles to control his anger. What can we do?
A: It would be nice if all conflicts were as insignificant as which way the toilet tissue is supposed to hang. But many offenses in marriage are far from trivial. Few couples escape the conflicts that result from differences in family backgrounds, personalities, or perspectives. No matter how our marriages grow in maturity, we always seem to find ways to hurt each other, either intentionally or unintentionally. And with every offense comes pain.
Hurt leaves us wide open and upsets our equilibrium. We feel as if our hearts have been torn out and our spirits brutalized. Sometimes we don't recognize the inner pain right away; other times, we just try to hide it. We don't tell our spouses when they have wounded us because we don't want to appear vulnerable; we suppress the hurt and act as if nothing happened.
Just as it can be difficult for us to recognize hurt, it can also be difficult to spot anger. As long as you deny that you feel angry over your unresolved disappointment and hurts, you won't deal with the problem. Where there has been an offense, there was hurt. And where there is unexpressed and unresolved hurt, there is anger.
The cause of anger in a situation can also be confusing. While most of the time anger is triggered by current incidents or events, anger can also be displaced – sparked by one person or event but taking it out on someone else. For example, your spouse called to say he or she will be late for dinner again. You hang up the phone, and all through dinner you take your anger out on the kids.
Anger can also be left over – stemming from the past, sometimes so far back that the cause is even forgotten. For example, your spouse fires off a volley of angry words at you for no apparent reason. When you sit down to talk about it, you discover that he or she was hurt by something you did a month ago, something you barely remember. One of our callers had this to say:
My husband expresses anger and says mean things, and then later on he's sorry. I don't feel forgiving of him when he does that. I want him to be sorry, but I also want him to end the behavior and be done with it.
Wherever the anger comes from, God has provided a biblical way to address it and disarm the offense/hurt/anger pattern that would otherwise rob your relationship of intimacy and connection.
Whenever you experience the downward spiral of unresolved offenses, hurt, and anger, you have three options. First, you can simply ignore the offense and the hurt while allowing the anger to fester. You may continue to stuff your unresolved feelings deep inside, resulting in bitterness, resentment, and depression. The second option is to explode, venting pent-up anger without regard for how it wounds and alienates your spouse. Both of these options fail to break the negative pattern, and you continue to wear each other down. The end result may be a relational earthquake that rattles your relationship to its foundation.
But you have a third option. It's called forgiving love. When you face hurt and anger, you can decide to resolve the conflict. That's the biblical way to deal with the offense/hurt/anger pattern. What we want to work toward – as individuals and as couples – is a commitment to address the pain and anger, to resolve the conflict, to forgive the offender, and to renew the relationship. The goal is to bring the relationship to a place of healing, wholeness, and openness that will help you feel accepted and connected again.
Forgiving love restores a wounded relationship. When you practice forgiving love consistently, you protect your marriage from heading down the path to emotional or legal divorce. Our book Healing the Hurt in Your Marriage describes how you can practice forgiving love in your marriage.