There’s a woman in my church who has been married fifty-five years. Fifty-five years. She said, “Henry, not once in fifty-five years did I ever think about divorce. Not once. I thought about murder though.” – Henry Cho, comedian
Two years ago, I wrote a post called, Why Couples Should Stop Saying, “Divorce is Never an Option.” If you have not read it, I encourage you to click over when you finish this post and check it out. For a long time, I held the philosophy that once I was married, I would never even consider divorce. So, I was embarrassed, ashamed, and amazed when I found myself thinking about it. No, I was not packing up the house and planning my escape, but I found myself thinking, “Could I make it on my own? How bad would it have to be before I would leave? Would Eric be better off without me?” Then, I would shake my head and turn away from such a depressing thought. In my heart and mind, I was fully committed to my marriage… yet, those sneaky, dangerous thoughts still worm their way into my head – especially after an argument or when I feel undervalued and unloved.
In addition to moments of, “Are we going to make it?” I have fallen prey to undercover disrespect. In times of anger, I have mumbled unkind phrases under my breath and gestured behind his back. Momentarily, it made me feel a little better. Take that, Eric! But, in the long run, it made me feel much worse. Not to mention, my quiet disrespect did little to grow us closer emotionally.
In my defense (as if I have one), Eric has failed me at times just as I have failed him. Sometimes he speaks sharply and my heart aches. In my defensiveness, I am tempted to reach into my arsenal for some passive form of aggression to make myself feel not so puny and weak. When our pride hurts, we tend to reach for something to build us back up – something to help us save face. Unfortunately, when we act hastily, we cause far more damage. Even though Eric does not hear me mutter disrespectful phrases or see me throw up ungodly gestures, my heart hears and my heart sees; and, when I react in anger, even quiet anger, I drive a wedge between us.
There must be a simple, more effective way to approach our anger. If you think it is impossible to get so angry with your significant other that you mumble appalling phrases under your breath, buckle up because the day is coming. But, you do not have to give in to those temptations.
Simplifying Our Responses to Anger!
Stop, bite your tongue, back away, pray, talk to yourself, laugh, and reconcile. Think of a mnemonic device if it will help you remember these steps. Perhaps something silly like, “Sell Betty Boop peanuts tomorrow, Lone Ranger!”
- Stop, drop, and roll! Okay, not quite, but definitely stop. If you drop and roll, it will momentarily take his or her mind off of whatever you are fighting about, so that could be good. ~smile~ When your sweetheart or spouse says or does something which makes fire rise in your gut, stop in your tracks.
- Bite your tongue. If you have to bite your tongue until it bleeds, say nothing for at least ten seconds. As the saying goes, “When in doubt, don’t!” If you are not 100% sure what you are about to say will help the situation, do not speak.
- Back away. This backing away can be theoretical or literal, but one way or another, back away from the situation. Depending on the severity of your fury, you may want to remove yourself from the room and find a quiet place alone for a few minutes. If you do need to leave the premises, say that out loud. “I need a minute.” Walking away in silence feels a lot like stonewalling and can give your significant other the impression that you are ending the conversation and shutting down. Remember, a quiet answer turns away wrath (Proverbs 15:1), so when you let them know you are leaving, say it gently. Even if he or she yells at you as you are leaving, commit to your plan of action, and find a place away from the chaos. The longer you stay in the hostile environment, the more tempted you will be to jump on the crazy cycle and give in to your anger. We have the power of fire-breathing dragons and have to learn to contain our ‘abilities.’ “So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:5-6, ESV).
- Pray. So many times I have silently prayed, “God, please help me,” as Eric kept talking. Eric is verbal and I am internal, so he says what is on his mind. When I am angry, I clam up. When he is upset, he keeps talking, not sensing my rage boiling beneath the surface. Inside my mind, I beg him to stop because the more he talks, the tenser and more anxious I become. Occasionally, I let that anxiety burst forth, and stress flying out of my mouth at 100mph sounds a lot like blatant disrespect. “Stop talking! Just shut up!” Many times, I manage, with the Lord’s help, to keep my trap shut. Praying helps so much. I feel certain Eric has said a few prayers himself. ~wink~ During my furious moments, prayer – even those angry, ugly crying prayers – have helped redirect me. When I am wounded and I wonder how much more I can take, the Holy Spirit comforts my heart and reminds me of the truth. “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8, ESV).
- Talk to yourself. I am the world’s worst for talking myself into being angry. I am a master at taking someone’s tiny comment and turning it into a fiery dart. When I let myself dwell on perceived injustices, especially in my marriage, I can turn one match into a forest fire. Instead of thinking, “He speaks so unkindly to me. Who does he think he is? I bet my friends’ husbands don’t talk to their wives this way. Other women would not put up with this. Maybe I should not put up with this. What a jerk!” I should breathe and tell myself, “You know this man loves you. Think about all the precious ways he shows it. He is tired from working so hard this week. He did not intend to hurt you. He spoke matter-of-factly, not unlovingly. Later, you can let him know how he came across, but right now you need to show him grace. He leads this family well and that is part of the reason he is so tired right now. He needs your respect, not your criticism.”
- Laugh. In the heat of battle, or the valley of pain, laughing is not always easy; but, it is often necessary. There is something in almost every situation in which you can find humor. Humor breaks up the bitter acid in our souls and replaces it with salve. When my college roommate and I were in the spring semester of our senior year and stress was at an all-time high, she opened her freezer to find it packed with our neighbor’s frozen meals. In my great kindness, I had offered her freezer to another student. Am I not just the greatest? ~smile~ She was so annoyed with me. I don’t remember what she said, but she was clearly unhappy. That freezer was for ice cream, after all. ~smile~ I just remember getting up, clearing out the freezer, and walking across the hall with our friend’s food. As I waited for her to answer the door, our dorm room door flew open and my hilariously angry roommate yelled, “Stop!” I will never forget how funny she looked at that moment. We could not help but laugh after that random fiasco – and we still laugh about it sixteen years later! We are so frail and imperfect, and we can cry about it, or we can laugh and take on another day. Maybe that is why I listen to comedy so frequently.
- Reconcile. The longer a matter goes unresolved, the harder it is to work through it. Couples tend to get lazy, because… let’s face it… conflict is exhausting. If days go by, it is easier to ignore the instance than to resolve it… and ignored problems always come back in some shape or form. After taking your leave, praying, speaking truth to yourself, and laughing, seek out your partner and attempt to reconcile. If you have offended him or her in some way, even if you do not fully understand it, find something for which to apologize. There is almost always something we can genuinely apologize for in each unpleasant situation. After a cooling down period, both you and your partner should be calmer and better able to discuss the situation rationally.
Early in our marriage, Eric made a rather hurtful comment to me and then turned and went into the bedroom. Perhaps I was just in a cheerful mood, or maybe his comment was so outlandish that I could not take it seriously, but I remember saying, “Get him, Lord.” I knew there was no excuse for his cruel words and that it was up to the Lord to convict his heart. Moments later, he emerged from our room with his tail between his legs and said, “I am sorry. That was wrong of me.” I smiled and we moved on with our lives, but deep in my heart, I felt prideful. “I won.”
A week or so later, Eric and I had a tiff. I do not remember what it was about, but I do remember going downstairs to “pray” (i.e., to ask God to convict Eric again). Much to my surprise, the more I prayed, the more the Holy Spirit convicted me about the part I played in the disagreement. Instead of Eric emerging with a repentant face, I had to be the one to repent! It is funny now, but at the time it was a blow to my pride – and a necessary blow at that.
If you stay in a relationship longer than six months and a marriage longer than five minutes, there will be anger. No one should be surprised when they find themselves staring at the back of their sweetheart’s head with red eyes and steam rising. We live in a fallen world full of trouble and conflict is one of the realities of living in close quarters with others. Add making decisions and raising children together and you have the perfect recipe for frequent battles. But, if you learn to handle your anger properly, those moments do not have to define your relationship.
Having a sense of humor about ourselves and our mistakes is important. Sometimes it is the difference between a marriage succeeding or failing. One our worst fights took place in the Winnie the Pooh store in Disneyland. At the time, it was horrible and we likely scarred some children for life. ~smile~ But, in retrospect, it is one of the funniest stories of our marriage. I am so glad we can look back on our lives and find something to laugh about because the alternative is anger, and prolonged anger leads to depression, and sometimes, divorce.
So, sell Betty Boop peanuts tomorrow, Lone Ranger! Keep those steps in the back of your mind. Simplify those angry moments and don’t let them grow into angry days, weeks, months, and years.
How do you currently handle anger in your relationship?