This is the second month of our Healing the Hurt blog series. Join us as we talk about the different types of anger and where you learned to resolve conflict.
What Type of Anger Heats Up in You?
There are three varieties of the "baked potato" of anger: situational anger, displaced anger, and chronic anger. Each one has a different cause.
Some anger responses are situational, triggered by specific events. You can almost predict it: when a certain something happens, one of you reacts with anger. For example, Barb and I have identified several events that usually trigger anger in one or both of us. One situation that makes sparks fly is when Barb is behind schedule as we are leaving for church or an appointment. Sparks usually fly when we hang wallpaper or pictures together. Once I hang a picture, I don't want any more nail holes; one is enough. Barb, on the other hand, likes to experiment with different spots or later change things around. And I can get a little surly at Christmas time when I'm down on my hands and knees trying to get the tree to stand straight while my family is already starting to hang the ornaments.
What flips your anger switch? Behind every eruption of situational anger are offenses and hurts that have not been resolved. The sooner you close the loop on offenses and hurts, the less damage you will suffer – or inflict – from anger.
Another variety of anger is one counselors refer to as displaced anger. Rather than confronting and dealing with the direct cause of the anger in a situation, the offended spouse expresses his or her feelings indirectly. Here are a couple of classic examples. Your boss ticks you off at work, so you come home and yell at your spouse and kids for no reason. Or how about this classic: Your spouse offends you, so you go outside and kick the dog. Displaced anger may not be as damaging as other forms, but it still leaves a painful open loop in the relationship.
A third type of anger resulting from unhealed hurts is chronic anger. When an open loop is not closed in a timely manner, the hurt and anger are often shoved to the background and ignored. Because it is unresolved, this anger can flare up again and again. Buried wounds and anger generate an assortment of psychological and physical stresses that can ruin a person's perspective on life and eat away at the soul. People with chronic anger are like loose cannons, ready to blast away whenever someone unwittingly touches off the fuse.
Where Did You Learn to Resolve Conflict?
Whether you realize it or not, you came to your wedding day with certain conflict-resolution strategies that you accumulated consciously or subconsciously as you grew up and prepared for marriage. But you have probably discovered by now that some of those strategies are about as effective as bloodletting was for curing illness a couple of centuries ago.
Many individuals and couples wonder why it is so difficult to resolve conflicts in their marriages. Barb and I believe it is because they have never learned the right way to do it. They either received bad advice from someone, took their cues from the wrong role models, read books that contain more opinion than truth about forgiving love, or otherwise assimilated unproductive strategies for handling the conflict, hurt, and anger in their marriages. And in learning the wrong stuff, their conflicts have gone unresolved or become worse.
Where did you learn what you know about closing the loop of conflict? There are two primary sources through which most people get their information and advice on such matters: culture and family. Before you can learn the right way to heal the hurt in your marriage, you must realize what you have been doing wrong, identify where you got those patterns, and determined to let them go. In this post we will focus on different types of family dynamics and how they can affect our conflict-resolution styles, and in turn, our marriages.
What Our Families Teach Us About Conflict
For Gary and me, home is really where the heart is. When we think of our families of origin, we remember the love and camaraderie, holiday dinners, birthday celebrations, vacations, times when we laughed together and cried together. We also remember parents who were committed to getting along with each other, talking – and listening – to each other, and settling the differences.
Sadly, not all people can say this about their families. For many people, the very mention of family or parents sparks other memories – absence, loss, pain. Conflicts and pain at home were frequent, and forgiveness and healing were infrequent or absent together. And these people have carried what they learned at home into their marriages. Unfortunately, they don't realize how they are perpetuating the same problems with their own spouses and children. It's not until they end up in a counselor’s office, trying to sort out the messes of their marriages, that they are willing to take a hard look at themselves to discern why they act as they do.
You have probably noticed people who are repeating behavior patterns, both good and bad patterns, that they learned from their parents. A woman mirrors the perfectionism she once hated in her mother. A man finds solace in rage and control, just as his father did. Of all the married couples we counsel who are having difficulties resolving conflict, the vast majority need to come to terms with unhealthy patterns they learned during childhood.
See if you recognize your family of origin, or your present marriage and family, in one of these four descriptions.
The Good Family
Have you ever said about a neighbor, "The Andersons are such good people! They're an impressive couple, and they have a lovely family. Everyone likes them."
We all have neighbors like the Andersons, don't we? They're really nice people, the salt of the earth. They make a good living and keep their lawns mowed and trimmed. They treat their kids well. They vote every election day. Some may even attend church and be highly moral people. And they are always ready to loan a gardening tool to their neighbors. There's only one thing missing from many good couples like the Andersons: They lack a personal relationship with Jesus.
These kinds of people are like the hard-packed soil where the seed cannot take root. They may have heard the message of the gospel but have never let it penetrate their hearts. They either don't recognize their need for a relationship with Jesus (because the voices of our culture are drowning out the truth), or they hear it and don't care. They turn a deaf ear to the truth and decide to live their lives just for themselves, casting off "church stuff" as either an encumbrance from their parents' generation or as hype from a bunch of "religious nuts."
This is perhaps the most difficult home of all to understand because the family members may not realize how needy they are. Perhaps you or your spouse grew up with parents who were good to you but did not provide a spiritual foundation for the family.
How do "good" families deal with conflict? They teach and model what appears to be a healthy strategy: Fight fair, negotiate, and compromise in order to get what is rightfully yours. It sounds good until you look at the basis for this philosophy. We call it the 50/50 relationship. The message each family member delivers in this arrangement is, "I'll do my part if you do your part." Life becomes a matter of trade-off and compromises, with parents and kids keeping score so one person never gets or gives more than the other.
In this kind of home we see a lack of serving because family members have no place for the loving, serving Savior. Instead, we see a strong emphasis on self-centered people trying to get what they deserve. Kids tend to grow up to be me-oriented adults. When they leave their parents' home for their own marriages, they bring these values along with them. They will be drawn to more of a contractual style of marriage, focusing on what they get, rather than a covenantal style of marriage, focusing on what they give.
The Religious Family
The Bensons live down the street from the Andersons. In many ways they resemble their neighbors – at least from the outside. The Bensons are good, moral people, but they are also religious. They believe in God, attend church, and try to follow the Ten Commandments. But there is no personal relationship with God. Christianity for them is a religious ritual. The Bensons represent the rocky soil where the seed dies for lack of depth.
The religious home is shallow and without root. Their faith is a toxic faith. Christianity is a set of rules, a code to live by. Parents like this remind us of the Pharisees in the New Testament. They were religious people who professed to know the truth about God, but it was all superficial. Their goal was to gain attention and applause – and Jesus called them out on it.
Because of the emphasis on rules, the Bensons live by a rigid structure of family roles. Dad runs the family with an iron fist, demanding respect from his wife and children. The watchword in a religious home is "Do what you're told." The Bible is used as a club to alter behavior. Conflicts are either avoided out of fear or "settled" quickly as the kids fall into line with Dad and Mom’s dictums. Authoritarian parents are harsh and demanding. The kids may tow the line externally, but often their spirits are broken by such harshness. Or deep inside they are seething with rebellion, just waiting for a chance to escape the religious tyranny.
As adults, these children tend to bring one of three types of behavior patterns into their own marriages. One, they may become overly compliant, doing what they're supposed to do out of sheer duty. When it comes to resolving conflicts and healing hurts they are more interested in keeping the peace than dealing with issues. Two, they rebel against God, church, and rules. Conflicts usually get worse – not better – in this environment. Three, they may become indifferent, both to God and to their spouses. As such, conflicts often go unresolved and hurts unhealed.
The Wounded Family
The Carters live a few blocks away from the Andersons and the Bensons. They are not what you would call good people. The parents are controlling and abusive toward each other and toward the children. This is the kind of soil where anything of God or goodness is choked out by anger, hatred, spite, and distrust. Their kids are growing up never quite feeling accepted and loved the way God intended.
Gary and I often refer to the adult children from homes like the Carters' as the "walking wounded." These people were hurt by growing up in homes with serious relational problems. Some bear the emotional – and sometimes physical – scars of alcohol and drug abuse, emotional and physical abuse, or sexual abuse in the home. Others are wounded in less obvious ways. Some were raised without the love and nurture they needed because their parents were so distracted by their own wounds. Still others were wounded by the loss of a parent through death or divorce. Whatever the root cause of their pain, these families tend to raise kids that carry the pain of the parents into the next generation.
Wounded people often struggle when it comes to dealing with their own marital conflicts. That's the way it was for Meghan and Ben. Whenever they began to argue, Ben got angry and Meghan ran to the bedroom, telling Ben by the slam of the door that she needed some space. In the meantime, Ben wanted to resolve the issue right away. The more Meghan pulled away, the more Ben demanded that they "fix" the problem.
After describing the situation to Gary in a counseling session, Meghan commented, "That's just the way it is, Dr. Rosberg."
Gary asked, "Do you ever sense, Meghan, that you are repeating the same old pattern that you saw growing up?"
After a moment of contemplative silence, she corrected herself. "No, that's just the way it was when I was growing up." Megan had suddenly realized she was acting just like her mom.
If you came from a wounded family, it's never too late to learn effective ways to deal with the conflicts in your marriage.
The Biblical Family
The Duncans represent the biblical home. They live in the same neighborhood as the Bensons, Andersons, and Carters. What makes them different? They have problems and conflicts just like the other three couples. But like the good soil in Jesus’ parable (Matt. 13:3-9), their fertile hearts have allowed the truth of God’s word to take root, so they are better equipped to appropriate God's healing for their hearts and their family. Rather than let conflicts drive a wedge between them, they allow those difficulties to pull them together for healing and growth.
Here's what a typical conflict looks like in the Duncan household. Does it look anything like the family you grew up in? Does it look anything like your family today?
"Erin, you eat your spaghetti like such a pig," Rachel snarled at her sister across the table.
"Dad, did you hear what Rachel called me?" Erin whined. "A pig!" Then she snatched up her plate and stomped into the family room to finish her dinner alone.
"Rachel, why did you say that?" Dad said. "You know Erin is sensitive about comments like that. And nice, reasonably quiet dinner was just spoiled."
"But, Dad, didn't you see her slurping up spaghetti? Her face was almost on her plate! The way she eats is gross."
When Mom and Dad came into the family room, they could tell that Erin had been wounded by her big sister's attack and the apparent indifference of her parents. They knew a loop had been opened and that they needed to talk about it as a family. So they called Rachel into the room.
As they talked it through together, the real issue came to light. Mom and Dad learned that Erin felt self-conscious about her weight, interpreting Rachel's comment as "You eat as much as a fat pig." Rachel, sensing that her words had really stung her sister, realized that the hurt went deep, far deeper than she ever intended. She apologized and said she was referring to Erin’s manners, not her weight. Erin forgave her sister. As they talked and listened to each other, the conflict dissipated.
If you grew up in a family like the Duncans, you have experienced something of the biblical pattern for healing hurt in your marriage and family. But even if your parents were not like Dad and Mom Duncan, you can learn to resolve conflict if you recognize the need for the presence of the living God who helps us to heal from the inside out. You are not confined to the patterns you have learned from your family.
What to Do About What You Learned
It is our God-given responsibility to cultivate good soil in our marriage relationships so that our children and grandchildren will have a biblical pattern to follow in their marriages. The Psalmist wrote: "For [God] issued his decree to Jacob; he gave his law to Israel. He commanded our ancestors to teach them to their children, so the next generation might know them – even the children not yet born – that they in turn might teach their children. So each generation can set its hope anew on God, remembering his glorious miracles and obeying his commands"(Psalm 78:5-7). As you strengthen your marriage through forgiving love, you will help your children to protect their marriages.
So what are you doing to alter the patterns you learned? You can look at this responsibility in two ways. You can think of it as a tremendous burden and a lot of hard work. Or you can welcome it as an opportunity to pass on to your children something that was not passed on to you. Even if you did not grow up in a healthy home, you can commit yourself to developing healthy patterns for resolving conflict.
The family you come from is important, but it is not as important as the family you will leave behind. Identify from your family of origin the barriers to communication and healthy conflict-resolution. Gain whatever insight you can from the past, deal with the emotional pain of it, and then move onto developing new patterns that include confession and forgiveness of offenses and healing of hurts. As you leave the past behind and begin to create a more positive present, you will bless the next generation.
Conflict in your marriage is inevitable, but you are not trapped in the dysfunctional patterns of resolving conflict you learned from your parents or the world around you. If you grew up in a painful situation, we will coach you on how to break out of your negative behaviors and begin a new pattern of resolving conflicts. Join us again on our blog next month as we talk about different conflict-resolution styles.