Anger Conflict and Management Within Marriage

W.D. "Dub" Rogers, PhD.

Across from me sat an attractive married couple. Both were Christians, articulate, well educated, established in their careers, and financially and materially successful. Yet, tension filled the counseling room as they each related their hurts and wounds. Neither appeared to be able to constrain their anger. When asked about the major issues of their conflict, the wife asserted, "We have never been able to settle one single issue."

Uncommon? Only found in a few marriages? No, it is very common. Definitely, this couple was on the explosive side of the scale, but as fallen people, we all face conflict with others. Anger is often the companion of conflict. Making conflict work for us rather than undermining our relationship is our task.

This is the first of a two part series on dealing with anger and conflict within marriage. We will look at an overview of the emotion of anger. The second part of this series will address five conflict strategies, with patterns of communication and behavioral style to accompany those strategies. By identifying unhealthy patterns and moving toward more productive ways of resolving conflict, the marital relationship can grow.

Anger has been defined and described in a number of ways. Butman defines anger as "an intense emotional reaction, sometimes directly expressed in overt behavior and sometimes remaining a largely unexpressed feeling. It is not a disease but rather a social event that has meaning in terms of the implicit social contract between persons. Being angry is an emotional readiness to aggress. It is caused by and maintained by multiple factors and is best viewed as an interpersonal process."

Tavris describes anger as a "process, a transaction, a way of communicating. With the possible exception of anger caused by organic abnormalities, most angry episodes are social events; they assume meaning only in terms of the social contract between participants. The beliefs we have about anger, and the interpretations we give to the experience, are as important to its understanding as anything intrinsic to the emotion itself."

Anger is a normal part of the human emotional spectrum. Everyone has experienced anger, and it is accompanied by a number of recognizable cues. Physically, one's muscles become tense, adrenaline is dumped into the body. The fight or flight mechanism is activated, eyes flash, the senses are alert, and breathing quickens. Speech may be rapid, at a higher pitch, and with increased volume.

Descriptive phrases, such as "he blew up," "she vented her spleen," and "I saw red" paint a verbal picture of the emotion of anger. This picture is enhanced from etymology.

The English word anger is derived from the old Norse word angre, which means affliction (Latin: ad fligere = to strike at). In German anger is the noun of arg, which means wicked; anger therefore is the emotional response to wicked stimuli.

The Greek word used in the Bible for anger/wrath is thymos. The root, thym, is cognate with the Latin fumus, meaning smoke or steam. Another word equated with anger, indignation, or wrath is orge. In classical literature, the "cognate of organo" (be puffed up, swell, be excited) means a natural impulse, temperament, disposition, mood.

Regarding anger theory, there are three major camps: the hydraulic model, frustration creates anger, and anger is a socially learned behavior. Butman gives a summary of each position. The hydraulic model suggests that anger is instinctual. "If it is not discharged, it will accumulate from within like water behind a dam. In other words, anger comes from within the individual rather that from the environment . . . there is physiological evidence to suggest that aggression is influenced by heredity, blood chemistry, and brain diseases."

The major tenet of the second theory holds that anger is created when an individual encounters frustration. "This theory holds that when appropriate aggressive cues are present, anger may be released as aggression (verbal or physical) or turned inward against oneself. Frustration is inevitable in the human experience, and the larger the gap between one's expectations and one's achievements, the more likely one is to become angry. Especially vulnerable to such frustrations are those persons who drive themselves hard and set increasingly high expectations for self and others, and who by nature are intensely competitive. Much of the research on cognitive strategies in psychotherapy supports this theory.

Butman's final summary is of the position held by Bandura, which contends that anger is a socially learned behavior. There is an abundance of research literature that substantiates this position. "Bandura, for example, has observed that the socialization of angry feelings is affected by experience and by observing others' success with aggressive behaviors. Anger, then, is a state of arousal that can be experienced differently depending on how the source is perceived. In other words, arousal can be shaped by the environment into anger. Anger is a particular response to arousal, one that can be redirected into affection, humor, or compassion. Humans have the capacity, social learning theorists contend, to rechannel unacceptable impulses (e.g. the desire to aggress) into acceptable, even creative, actions. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., are two examples of individuals who put anger to such socially constructive uses.

All three theories have research support, and if one examines his or her own life experience, he or she will find evidence to support each theory. One may hear, "My father was a hot tempered man" or "I am so frustrated I could just scream" or watch little sister model big sister and throw a temper tantrum. All of these theories aid in helping one understand anger, and, with an increased understanding, develop ways to direct the outworking of anger that is not destructive in intimate relationships.

Within intimate relationships, anger and conflict will be experienced. Each person brings a myriad of values, expectations, perceived right and goals to a marriage. The mate will not always share this personal "code book" or paradigm. When a perceived right or value is violated, or a goal or expectation is blocked, the felt emotional response is usually anger. It may range from mild irritation to rage, depending on the strength of the goal, right, value or expectation. The emotion of anger is not inherently right or wrong, good or evil. It is neutral of itself and merely an indicator that something is awry, much like the red warning light in a car. What one does with anger, the action taken, can be right or wrong, destructive or constructive. That action may be external or internal. One may abuse a spouse or repress anger only to have it erupt in physical maladies.

To illustrate how our values and beliefs affect anger, one Sunday morning I awoke with a splitting headache to the point that I was nauseated and could not keep anything down. I had a responsibility of teaching an adult Sunday school class. At 8:30, I was able to keep down a Tylenol and shortly after 9:00, I felt I could teach. By this time, though, I would be somewhat late for class. Upon arriving in class, I made the statement, "I apologize for being late." Kathy, my wife, immediately said, "Dub has already been sick this morning." When she made that comment to the class, I immediately flashed. I was angry, but did not say anything. I sat down, concealed my anger and asked someone to pray before we began the class. It's a little difficult to pray when you are angry. Inside, I was churning.

On the way home from church, I began to try to understand my emotion. I realized I felt betrayed, exposed and vulnerable, but was unsure why. I knew Kathy would not intentionally betray, expose or offend me. Later it occurred to me that my mother was an "iron lady." She would seldom let people know when she was ill, and if she was, she would continue to work. Though it was never spoken, I developed a belief that sickness was weakness. Kathy had exposed my weakness to the class. This belief, "sickness is weakness," was not held by Kathy. In fact, her belief was just the opposite: if you are sick, you should be extended the appropriate help, kindness, etc.

In this situation, an external demonstration of anger was prevented by the social situation. The anger was there and was experienced. We had a conflict in values, belief systems, or rules by which we live. I applied two conflict strategies and later and appropriate communication style that proved positive for both of us. We both understood ourselves and each other a little better. This illustration will be expanded in the next newsletter after identifying a number of conflict strategies that most people employ at one time or another in an intimate relationship.

In the first section of this article the emotion of anger was addressed. It was suggested that anger could act like a red light warning you that a perceived right was violated or some goal/expectation was blocked. The way we address this is often learned behavior. We develop conflict strategies. The remainder of this article will identify these strategies and the strengths and weaknesses of each.

Augsburger provides a diagram for weighing conflict strategies. This diagram is presented below:

Using his basic work, I have given labels to each strategy: "yield," "withdraw," "win," "compromise," and "resolve," and I have redesigned his diagram.

Individuals at different times in varying circumstances will use different strategies. However, depending on his or her personality, background and values, one will tend to utilize one strategy most often.

The "yield" strategy says, "I have a high regard for the relationship." When there is a difference or conflict with the other person's wants, needs, or desires, the other person's desires are placed first. This sounds noble. However, there is a major drawback. One's needs, wants, or desires are not met or are seldom met. If this is a way of life, then resentment, bitterness, and frustration begin to creep in. As these begin to stockpile, more and more strain is placed on the relationship. Often, some small event will trigger an explosion, much like a dam breaking. This leaves the other mate wondering, "Where did all that come from?" The one exploding, upon reviewing the actual--and it may be trivial--incident, may be filled with guilt or remorse for being so angry and out of control. There may also be great fear of loss of love or permanent damage to the relationship. Usually a resolution is made, "I'll never let that happen again," and one returns to the "yield" strategy.

Satir identifies this "yield" style of communication as a "placater." "What you want is okay. I am just here to make you happy." The placater always talks in an ingratiating way, trying to please, apologizing, and never disagreeing, no matter what. He's a "yes man." He talks as though he could do nothing for himself; he must always get someone to approve of him.

Hyatt describes this "yield" behavior pattern and refers to these individuals as "doves." Giving, loving, gentle, sensitive, Doves need love. Their happiness and security depend upon the love of just about everybody-- and if it costs them themselves, for Doves the price is right.

A second strategy is "withdraw." When conflict arises, get out, leave, or utilize the "silent treatment." There is a place for withdrawal. If I am about to lose it emotionally and say or do something foolish, then it is better to withdraw, but only for a short period of time. If there is a real danger of physical violence, then withdrawal is a very sound strategy. However, as a rule, to run from all conflict and never face it is to lose for both parties. There is no way to make contact.

"Do you want to talk about it?" "No!" There is nothing else that can be done. At this point, neither parties' needs are met, and it communicates a low regard for the relationship, an unwillingness to invest or face risk for the sake of a growing relationship. One cannot only withdraw by silence, but also by being irrelevant, distracting, or by changing the subject. Satir refers to this type of communicator as a "distracter." "Whatever the distracter does or says is irrelevant to what anyone else is saying or doing. He never makes a response to the point."

Hyatt describes the "withdraw" person in his book as an "ostrich." "Cool, judicious, detached and distant, ostriches need space. If anyone comes too close, they run, and they are among the fastest runners on earth. They also do what the ostrich is more popularly thought to do: avoid confrontation - or worse disappointment - they bury their heads, and their hearts and their gifts.

A third strategy is "win." This person goes for the victory. His needs, wants and desires will be met. Much like a high-pressure salesman, the goal is to sell, regardless of the cost to the relationship and without consideration to further business. This is very much a right - wrong mindset. I win, you lose. Power and control are the key variables. Utilize whatever tool is available to bring about victory; anger, manipulation, cold logic, etc. Of course, the obvious drawback is the destruction of the relationship. "Win the battle and lose the war" is an appropriate cliché. Hyatt refers to these individuals as "hawks." They thrive on conflict, power and control. This type of communicator can be "blamer" or "Mr. or Mrs. Computer." The blamer is a faultfinder, a dictator, a boss. He acts superior, and he seems to be saying, "If it weren't for you, everything would be all right." The internal feeling is one of tightness in the muscles and in the organs. Meanwhile, the blood pressure is increasing. The voice is hard, tight, and often shrill and loud.

The computer is very correct, very reasonable with no semblance of any feeling showing. He is calm, cool, and collected. He could be compared to an actual computer or a dictionary. The body feels dry, often cool, and disassociated. The voice is dry monotone, and the words are likely to be abstract.

A fourth strategy is "compromise." This sounds really good. "You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours" and "marriage is a 50/50 proposition" are a couple of the familiar expressions of this idea. It does have some strengths. There is concern for the relationship as well as for the needs, wants and desires of each other. Sacrifice is called for. The difficulty is determining what is 50%.

Recently, our home was to be the meeting place for a group on Sunday afternoon. My wife had planned to clean house on Saturday. Early Saturday morning, a friend called and offered us tickets to the football game. The hesitation I sensed as I shared this golden opportunity with my wife clued me to the fact that we may be embracing different goals. We forged a compromise; I would clean the living room and she would clean the kitchen - 50/50. Within the hour, I announced the living room was cleaned. Looks of doubt crossed my wife's face. "Did you dust the top shelf?" she asked. "Are any of our guests seven feet tall?" was my reply.

I felt I had done my 50%. She saw it as less than 50%, so conflict and tension still remained. As humans, we often assess the situation differently than do our mates. What is fair? What is equal? These are difficult questions to answer. Compromise is necessary in relationships. To be open to sacrifice is healthy, and it does demand that people communicate. Certainly, it has its place in marriage.

The final strategy is "resolve." This is an attempt for both parties to "win." The essential difference from compromise, where one would barter and trade for a partial fulfillment of his or her goals, is the attempt to affirm each other, thereby strengthening the relationship, and to work toward negotiating joint goals. This involves honest communication. Affirmation and assertiveness, care and confronting are combined. Augsburger states, "This in interpersonal communication at its best. Caring - I want to stay in respectful relationship with you, and confronting - I want you to know where I stand and what I'm feeling, needing, valuing and wanting.

Satir describes this type of communication as "leveling." "So when you are leveling you apologize in reality when you realize you've done something you didn't intend. You are apologizing for an act, not for your existence. There are times when you need to criticize and evaluate. When you do this in a leveling way, you are evaluating and act and not blaming the person, and there is usually a new direction you have to offer. There are times when you're talking about intellectual kinds of things such as giving lectures, making explanations, giving directions, and so on, where precise word meanings are essential. When you are leveling in this area, you are still showing your feelings, moving freely while you're explaining. You aren't coming off like a machine. So many people who make their living with their brains - scientists, mathematicians, accountants, teachers, and therapists - come off like machines and epitomize the computing response. In addition, there are times when you want to or need to change the subject. In the leveling response you can say what you want instead of hopping all over the place. The leveling response is real for whatever is.

All conflict strategies and communication patterns are used within marriage, sometimes appropriately and sometimes inappropriately. The goal is to express love and truth. "When situations of conflict become difficult, I want to speak clearly, honestly, personally, directly, in simple statements. This provides the greatest impact with the least confusion or distortion. I may or may not be able to break through the conflict to understanding, but I can express both love and truth."

The ancient Hebrews expressed this idea in the book of Proverbs. "Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones." (Proverbs 16:24, NIV) "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." (Proverbs 15:1, NIV) "A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control." (Proverbs 29:11, NIV)