Kathy Rogers, MSW LCSW
Anger can be one of the most destructive elements within any relationship but especially within the marriage relationship. I have seen anger cause physical and emotional scars. When anger gets out of control and escalates it can be very intimidating and very frightening. Scripture tells us to "be angry and not sin". This means that anger is a God given emotion just like happiness, sadness, or fear. The key is how we react to our anger. When someone offends me and I am angered, I have a choice as to how I will respond. If I strike the person, I have sinned and broken a law as well. If, on the other hand, I let the person know I am upset and ask if we can talk it through, I have not sinned and have begun the process of reconciliation. It is inevitable that we will get angry. Anger handled in a healthy way can strengthen a relationship, while anger handled in an unhealthy way can destroy a relationship.
Lets look at some tools that can help when conflict arises within a marriage. These tools can help draw couples closer together and achieve resolution of conflict. The first tool is using a "time-out". A "time-out" in a marriage relationship is the same as a time-out in a football game. Action is stopped and time is taken to regroup. As in football, either side (husband or wife) can call the time-out. When it is called both sides have agreed ahead that they will not argue, but simply comply. Then the couple can decide when to come back together and readdress the issue. It seems to work best if the person calling the time-out is also the one to set the time to come back together. During the time-out each partner has time to pray, rethink the issue, and calm down. Time-outs are great to use when the conversation is escalating or the situation is getting out of control.
The second tool is the process of reflective listening. Reflective listening is a communication tool that focuses on the listening process. For example, if the wife is upset because her husband never takes her out to dinner she can say something like, "I would like us to talk about going out to dinner each week as a couple." The husband then shows that he was listening to her and may respond with something like this, "I heard you say that you want us to discuss going out to dinner each week. That must be something that is important to you." In this case the husband listened well. He focused on and repeated what was said and gave a good response. The wife had expressed herself in an assertive positive manner as opposed to a negative aggressive manner. Both used "I" statements instead of "you" statements. "I" statements tend to dispense useful information. "You" statements tend to make the other person defensive. For example, if the wife had said "You never take me out. You just do not care about me." The husband might have felt angry or defensive or both. "I" statements can move a couple to resolution. "You" statements can cause the conversation to spiral out of control. A good way to practice reflective listening is for each person to make a list of three things they would like to see happen in their marriage. One partner would go first and with an "I" statement expressing the first item on their list. The other partner would then use an "I" statement and reflective listening to show that they understood what was said. The couple would dialogue back and forth until there was understanding of the statement or wish expressed. The other partner would then express the first item on their list and so on till both have covered their lists. Often, listening and understanding the other person's perspective, point of view, or wishes solves the problem.
The final tool that we will look at is a model for solving a problem. The "time-out" skill puts us in a position to come back together and use reflective listening to understand each other. If the problem still exists we can then utilize the following problem-solving model. Let me give you a few bullet points that make the process easier.
Anger can destroy a relationship. Most couples struggle because they do not know how to handle conflict. One of the best gifts a couple can give each other is to take the time to get comfortable with these three tools. It will give them a way to approach problems, to communicate with understanding, and to find agreed upon solutions. Unresolved conflicts will pull a couple apart. Resolving conflicts will draw a couple closer together. Invest the time. The rewards will be immeasurable.