I grew up in a family that understood anger as a threat to relationship. As such, raised voices or certain vocal tones got us a ticket to our bedrooms where we were supposed to magically get over it. Only we didn’t.
Throughout my adolescence and early twenties, whenever I walked past a cart with glass tchotchkes in the mall, I felt the overwhelming desire to smash them with a baseball bat. I had been denying my anger for so long that I failed to recognize the feeling under this destructive impulse. One day while shopping with a friend, I casually joked about my destructive fantasy. She furrowed her brows and said, “You need to pray about that.”
When I began following Jesus, I received two conflicting messages about anger. The Bible seemed to validate it. Scripture recounts numerous stories of God’s anger as well as his wrath, some of it directed toward sinful humanity and some toward evil. Jesus freely expressed his anger when he overturned the money changers’ tables. But present tense, most Christians seem to cover over their anger with a veneer of niceness.
The unfortunate conundrum is that unless humans pathologically detach, we cannot avoid anger. If you are awake and paying attention, there’s actually a lot going on around the globe to inspire this threatening emotion. Thankfully, God does not call us to be emotional agnostics. Anger is one of many appropriate responses to atrocities, particularly those that end in premature death. When Lazarus died and Jesus faced his grieving sister, Scripture tells us “a deep anger welled up within him, and he was deeply troubled” (John 11:33). Because of his connection to God the Father, Jesus didn’t sin in his anger. As Paul referenced in Ephesians, we occasionally do.
How are we to respond honestly without hurting others when the inevitable anger rises up within our marriage?
- Learn how to recognize anger. Those of us who have been taught to avoid or ignore anger have become so skilled that we automatically redirect these feelings as soon as they appear on the periphery of our emotional radar. Without becoming obsessively analytical, pay attention to coping behaviors (for example any excesses—buying, eating, drinking), sarcasm, aggressive driving, or other potentially masked expressions of anger.
- Admit that you’re angry even if it terrifies you. I often resist being honest because I’m afraid I’ll shred my husband with my words or that he will get defensive which is even more unsettling. When asked if everything is okay, it’s easier for me to say, “I’m fine” rather than, “Actually, I’m angry about that remark you just made.” By blatantly lying (the former option), I am disregarding God’s mandate to speak the truth. Our marriages will become more secure when we take appropriate risks.
- Avoid blaming your spouse for your anger. This gets tricky as it’s not uncommon for our spouse’s words, actions, or lack of words and actions that triggered our anger in the first place. Regardless of what they did or didn’t do, we are responsible for our own feelings and the actions which emerge as a result of them. Blaming others renders us impotent to bring about change.
- Discern anger’s message. Despite the elevated blood pressure that accompanies anger, we must become still enough to learn what it is trying to communicate. According to author Harriet Goldhor Lerner, “Our anger may be a message that we are being hurt, that our rights are being violated, . . . or that our beliefs are being compromised.” If you’re angry because your spouse habitually comes home two hours later than expected, dig into it and discern what’s at stake for you. Do you fear that the relationship is unraveling or is it that you miss your spouse at dinner time? Communicating, “I feel really lonely after work when you come home late. Could we talk about this?” will lead to a more fruitful conversation than, “Why are you always so late?” (Just to note, sometimes, anger is simply trying to tell us that we need more sleep!)
- Learn how to constructively express your anger. Every marriage should have clear ground rules such as no yelling, no swearing, and no lashing out physically. Recent studies (as described in Curt Thompson’s Anatomy of the Soul) have shown that engaging our large muscles helps us to stop the body’s fight or flight response allowing us to think more clearly. Exercising, playing an instrument, or going for a walk will deescalate the intensity of our feelings and permit us to be more objective. For others, words loosen the anger knot. King David often went that route. (See Psalm 3.) Learning how to express our anger well will help us to avoid feeling helpless or powerless.
- Prayerfully explore whether you have any pockets of unforgiveness toward your spouse. Anger and rage can flourish when we fail to forgive others.
- Finally, be patient with yourself and with your spouse as you learn new ways of dealing with anger. As with any area of transformation, change comes more slowly than most of us wish. When you see your spouse showing signs of change, offer them affirmation and encouragement because we all need that feedback.
After years of working on this, not only am I increasingly able to talk about my anger in real time, but I can now walk past glass tchotchkes without feeling any impulse to destroy them. Through Christ, transformation is indeed possible!
NOTE: An earlier version of this article originally appeared in Relevant Magazine.