The Angry Spouse/Relative Healing
Excessive anger is one of the major sources of marital and family stress. The recognition, understanding and resolution of this powerful emotion are important for the health and happiness of marriages, children, and families. We will demonstrate how to resolve marital anger through a process of understanding and of growing in the virtues that can result in self-mastery over this powerful and complex emotion that we all experience daily.
Our APA textbook on the treatment of excessive anger, Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, cites both the research studies of my co-author, Dr. Robert Enright, U-W, Madison, and our clincial studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach in diminishing marital conficts related to the failure to resolve family of origin and marital conflicts. A past president of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Frank Farley, has described Forgiveness Therapy asan important new system of psychotherapy that should have its place with other major systems of psychotherapy in the mental health field.
If you would be interested in watching our angry spouse 90 minute webinar, please free free to go to www.maritalhealing.com/maritalwebinars.php.
Now let's look at several studies that demonstrate how harmful excessive anger is to marriages.
The impact of angry, turbulent marriages is substantial: for example, research demonstrated that unhappy marriages were a risk factor for depression and were associated with a 25 fold increase relative to happy marriages. Similarly, researchers have found a 10-fold increase in risk for depressive symptoms associated with marital discord. Marital conflict and anger are also associated with increased blood pressure, impaired immune function, and a poorer prognosis for spouses with coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure.
A 2009 study revealed that spousal anger is a contributing factor to depressive illness in the other spouse. "The more hostile and anti-social behavior exhibited, the more depressed the spouses were after three years." (Proulx C. et al., 2009).
In this section you will be asked to identify your anger and that of your spouse on our anger checklist. Then we encourage you to read the case studies which describe the resolution of anger through the use of the virtue of forgiveness. Finally, you will learn how other virtues and the role of faith can diminish the level of anger in your marriage and home.
Anger is often experienced on a daily basis. It is particularly present when there is conflict in present relationships or unresolved family of origin conflicts. In one psychological study of 1,300 presenting to a psychiatric outpatient practice, one half of the people had moderate to severe anger before beginning therapy with the level of anger being comparable to the levels of depression and anxiety. Also, one quarter of those in the study had even demonstrated aggressive behavior in the preceding week.
These researchers concluded that anger and aggression are prominent in psychiatric outpatients to a degree that may rival that of depression and anxiety and it is therefore important that clinicians routinely screen for these symptoms. (Posternak, M.A. & Zimmerman, M., 2002. Anger and Aggression in Psychiatric Outpatients. J. Clin Psychiatry, 65: 442-443)
Please rate your spouse and yourself on the following checklist which rates active or honest anger and passive-aggressive or masked, covert anger. Many spouses who vent their anger in passive-aggressive ways are highly skillful at acting as though they are not angry. In reality they struggle with powerful resentment which they attempt to mask and then express in ways in which they hope they will be able to fool others and not be identified as being angry.
Please rate yourself choosing the appropriate number on the scale below. This checklist can give you some insight into the degree of active and passive-aggressive anger that is expressed in your marriage.
1 - Very Little 2 - Moderately Often 3 - Very Often
Active Marital Anger
- Excessive quarreling or arguing
- Frequently frustrated
- Frequently annoyed
- Overly aggressive & antagonistic
- Excessively competitive
- Bullying of others
- Chronic violation of rules at work
- Excessive swearing
- Overly critical
- Tries to ruin someone's reputation
- Quits jobs regularly
- Verbally abusive
- Stealing and forgery
- Arrest record
- Violent acts against people, property, or oneself
- Threats of violence
- Repeated drunkenness
- Excessive recklessness
- Fire setting
- Disregard for other's safety
Passive-Aggressive Marital Anger
Please rate yourself choosing the appropriate number on the scale below.
1 - Very Little 2 - Moderately Often 3 - Very Often
- Always late/leaves early
- Deliberately sloppy
- Uncooperative attitude
- Acts forgetful
- Procrastinates - deliberately puts things off
- Twists the truth
- Refuses to do what is reasonably expected
- Door banging
- Deliberately slow
- Pretends not to hear or see
- Walks out on people
- Refuses to listen
- Rehashes the past
- Refuses to clean the home or oneself
- Acts sick or helpless
- Overly stubborn
- Withholds support
- Works markedly below one's ability
- Impulsive - failure to plan ahead
- Deliberately avoid or ignore someone
- Refuses to function as a responsible parent or spouse
- Distances others
- Always negative
- Refuses to praise or compliment
- Deliberately makes mistakes
- Silent treatment
- Won't communicate
- Absenteeism in work
- Refuses to be responsible
- Refuses to work regularly
- Enjoys seeing people become upset
- Refuses to eat
- Doesn't receive love
- Deliberately fails at work
- Refuses to take care of a serious health problem
- Withhold love from a spouse
- Failure to attend to the needs of the spouse or children
- Avoids intimacy
- Undermine children' trust/respect for spouse or other important relatives/friends
- Deliberately tries to be sick
- Always in victim role
- Failure to pay bills
- False accusations
- Neglect of the home
What is the most common type of expressed anger in your marriage - active or passive-aggressive?
Appropriate vs. Excessive/Misdirected Anger
In order to prevent serious conflicts in marital relationships, it is essential to determine whether existing anger is appropriate, excessive, or misdirected. To make this distinction, it is essential that the spouses understand the nature of anger and develop the ability to express honestly disappointments and stresses which lead to angry toward a spouse in a healthy manner.
Just as there are two types of lipoproteins in the body, one of which is healthy (high density) and one which is damaging (low density), so there are two basic types of anger in marital relationships -one healthy (appropriate anger) and one damaging (inappropriate or misdirected anger). For the health of the marriage, it is essential that the excessive anger be eliminated.
Certain considerations can assist the spouses when conflicts arise in the home. After experiencing anger, the spouse who expressed anger or the recipient of the anger should try to determine whether the emotion is deserved and appropriate or whether it might be exaggerated. Distinguishing between these two different, yet similar, types of anger is critical because each calls for an entirely different response. The response to appropriate anger may be an apology or the effort to be more sensitive to the partner in the future.
The process of distinguishing appropriate and misdirected anger requires a deep understanding of oneself and one's spouse as well as patience and wisdom and may entail help from close friends. It is important to look for the truth in what a spouse is saying. Spouses, who regularly overreact or misdirect their anger, tend to blame their spouse for the painful feelings they experience. Overreacting spouses usually are unwilling to examine how they themselves contribute to the marital difficulties. Some seem to take a certain pleasure in criticizing their spouses and have difficulty making an apology. They do not admit that they overreact and there can be a stubborn refusal to consider that they, too, may have unresolved family of origin or other conflicts.
Forgiveness is possible through a process of attempting to understand the emotional development of one's spouse. As this occurs, there is growing awareness that a spouse's behavior can be attributed to their emotional scars, that the spouse loved as much as he/she was capable of loving, and that rarely was the pain deliberately inflicted. Also, the process of forgiveness enhances the ability to understand a spouse's behaviors because anger decreases.
Prevent strong arguments by the use of immediate forgiveness exercises
When one feels upset and irritated toward a spouse, the quick and intense expression of anger can be damaging to the marital relationship. Instead of giving in under emotional stress to the immediate the expression of anger, we recommend that the angry spouse try to inwardly reflect a number of times, 'I want to understand and forgive' or 'I want to forgive and love' until the anger decreases. Only after the angry feelings subside, should the spouse then communicate. This quick movement to forgiveness is strengthened by the belief that the spouse is motivated to change troubling behaviors.
Since another cause of strong overreactions in anger is the result of modeling after an angry parent, an additional response to gain rapid mastery over strong anger is to reflect, "I want to repeat a parent's good qualities, but not his/her impulsive anger." This intervention is developed further in the chapter on parental legacies.
This immediate forgiveness response to angry feelings, when used regularly, is highly effective in decreasing feelings of resentment and in preventing damage to a marriage and family. We also recommend the use of an immediate forgiveness exercise when angry with children.
Many of you may believe that neither you nor your spouse could grow in the virtue of forgiveness to such a degree that you would be able to control your anger in this manner. However, if you work on immediate forgiveness exercises, you will find yourself giving less quickly to the expression of anger toward your spouse. Then, when you try to communicate the reason for your anger, your spouse may be more receptive and less defensive because a discussion can occur without the excessive expression of anger.
The spouse's faith can be helpful also in gaining rapid control of angry feelings. Individuals report that giving their anger immediately to the Lord is helpful. Spouses also discover that giving to the Lord their ultra-sensitivity, selfishness, need for control, impatience or conflict over accepting crosses to be effective in diminishing their resentment.
Unfortunately, some spouses have the mistaken idea that expression of anger is always healthy for the relationship, but this emotion can quickly become uncontrollable with harmful consequences to marriages.
Past Forgiveness Exercises - Don't be a prisoner of the past!
John Paul II has written that, "Without forgiveness one remains a prisoner of one's past," We believe this occurs in those who fail to unccover and address their anger.
Clinical experience indicates that each spouse brings a degree of unresolved anger into their marriage. Many marriages are seriously harmed because spouses overreact in anger due to the failure to resolve resentment from past hurts with a parent, sibling, former dating partners, spouse or from other important relationships. Such resentment is regularly released unconsciously under certain types of stress and pressures and can be misdirected at and deeply wound the person one's best friend. The resolution of anger from different stages of life is essential to a healthy marital friendship and can be accomplished through the use of past forgiveness exercises.
Some people blame excessively and exclusively their spouse for their anger. This is especially the case when there has been childhood emotional trauma with parents. This problem can be worked through by helping the spouses understand the degree to which their emotional needs were not met by parents or other significant people from the present or the past.
We expect all spouses to be able to identify a number of areas in which they felt disappointment with each parent and to spend time thinking of themselves as children or teenagers and imagine saying, "Dad/Mom I want to understand your childhood and pressures and try to forgive you." Although there is resistance to this initially, it is a basic aspect of the process of decreasing marital anger.
The use of past forgiveness exercises can result in the emergence of previously unconscious, strong feelings of anger from the past which will diminish as the spouse perseveres in working on the forgiveness process. The growth in virtue of forgiveness is hard work but the benefits to a marriage and family are enormous. Some Catholic spouses report making great progress in resolving anger from the past and in breaking the pattern of misdirecting anger at a spouse or children by taking this resentment to the sacrament of reconciliation.
The most common sources of anger which spouses bring into their marriage in our clinical experience are from the father relationship, from dating relationships in which they were deeply hurt or used as a sexual object and from divorce. However, for some their deepest hurt is with the mother.
At marital conferences a question frequently asked by wives is how they can help their husbands with their anger and temper which they believe to originate from unresolved conflicts with their husbands' fathers. We encourage these women relate to their husbands that forgiving those in their past has helped them and that their husbands might also benefit from forgiving for past hurts.
If you believe that your spouse misdirects anger at you because he or she has not resolved anger with a parent, you should not be afraid to communicate this belief. You could relate this belief in a positive manner by recommending the benefits from the use of the virtue of forgiveness such as, "Honey, I believe our marriage would be helped if you thought of forgiving your father/mother regularly for ways in which you were hurt as a child."
Many spouses who had a parent who was controlling, angry, selfish, emotionally distant, addicted or who caused a divorce are helped by by imaging themselves as children and thinking, "I want to understand and forgive you (offending parent) for all the ways in which he hurt me, my father/mother and the family and for how this pain has made it difficult for me to trust my spouse."
The use of past forgiveness exercises does not only diminish angry feelings, but it also decreases the anxiety/mistrust, sadness and weaknesses in confidence associated with hurts from the past. Dr. Bob Enright's research at the University of Wisconsin demonstrates empirically this power of forgiveness and confirms what we have seen clinically in couples who are willing to engage in the hard work of forgiveness. The bottom line here is that past forgiveness exercises contribute very effectively to the strengthening of marital friendships and to the reconciliation of marriages. Without their use our clinical work supports the view of John Paul II that individuals remain prisoners of their past and, therefore, marital conflicts do not resolve.
Finally, we believe much marital conflict could be prevented if past forgiveness exercises for family of origin and dating relationship hurts were part of the Church's premarital programs.
Goal - Decrease or End the Expression of Anger in the Marriage
The daily exercise of virtues should enable spouses to gain mastery over their anger and other emotions. In his first encyclical, The Redeemer of Man, Pope John Paul II wrote that mastery over oneself is essential to self-giving. This self-giving then is necessary for marital happiness.
Couples are often motivated to stop expressing anger toward one another because of the ways in which this emotion damages their children. The expression of anger between a husband and wife harms children in numerous ways including:
- a fear parents will divorce or separate
- loss of a safe feeling in the home
- psychosomatic disorders including irritable bowel and headaches
- sadness and anxiety disorders
- loss of trust in parents
- a belief that parents don't really care for them
- a modeling and repetition of parental angry behaviors.
The expression of anger between husband and wife also hurts them and their marriage in the following ways:
- damages the safe feeling/trust
- makes one fearful of self-giving and of receiving love
- introduces a fear of being hurt
- results in a spouse being distant
- leads to sadness, loneliness and anxiety
- wounds the sense of being a gifted person and a gift to one's spouse
- weakens self-giving to children
- increases sexual temptations
- contributes to drinking, gambling and other compulsive behaviors.
The daily use of immediate and past forgiveness exercises, coupled with the growth in other virtues, regularly enables couples to protect their marriage and children by ending the expression of damaging anger in the home. Most couples come to recognize in the challenging healing process that their previous expression of anger was a sign of emotional immaturity.
Progress in Forgiveness
There are specific indicators that one has made progress in forgiveness. These include a decreased feeling of anger, a lessening of anxiety, a feeling of compassion for a spouse or those who have inflicted the hurt, and a greater acceptance of one's past hurts. Finally, as the past has less and less control over the present, there is greater trust and love in the marital relationship.
If the someone is forgiving a spouse and the anger is not decreasing, this may indicate an unconscious association with another else from the past who hurt them in a similar way or a misplacement of their anger. Also, patience may be needed because of the degree of anger which is present or it may be necessary for a period of time to avoid the person from the past one is trying to forgive.
Common Sources of Anger
The following are some of common causes of excessive anger in marriages. Please try to identify those which apply to you and to your spouse.
- The need to control
- Unjust hurts/disappointments with spouse
- Modeling after an angry, mistrustful parent
- Loneliness/sadness from any life stage
- Excessive sense of responsibility/burdens
- Fear and worries
- Hurts in earlier dating, sibling or peer relationships
- Insecurities/lack of confidence
- Unjust hurts/disappointments with a parents
- Conflicts with in-laws
- Inappropriate expectations
- Conflicts in children, particularly selfishness and excessive anger
- Loss of trust
- Lack of sleep
- Medical illnesses
- Alcohol and drug addiction
- Work conflicts
- Excessive television/movie/sports watching
- Sexual utilitarian philosophy
- Use of oral contraceptives
What do you think are the common causes of anger in your marriage?
In our practice selfishness is the leading cause of marital resentment and arguments. The following case studies on dealing with the angry spouse are taken from Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope. Forgiveness helps to resolve anger from each life stage, protects marital love, and strengthens the ability be loving and giving.
The Angry Husband
Carmen and Javier had a stormy thirteen year marital relationship during which they had several separations. In spite of their intense emotional battles, they had a deep love for one another and for their two children. Javier had an explosive temper and in times of stress would be exceptionally critical of his wife. He had been verbally abusive for years and recently had been physically abusive. Carmen responded by obtaining a protection-from-abuse order from the courts which prohibited him from coming into the house for one year. This order motivated Javier to honestly face his excessive anger.
The family histories revealed that each spouse had had extremely difficult experiences with the parent of the same sex. Javier's father and Carmens mother were both quite angry and domineering toward their spouses and their children. Javier's father was much more demeaning toward his wife than Carmen's mother had been toward her father. However, as a teenager, Carmen would regularly ask her father why he tolerated such abusive treatment from her mother and would suggest that he leave her.
Javier was highly resistant about examining ways in which he was acting like his hostile father, instead wanting to blame his wife for all the marital stress. Also, as a result of his experiences with his father he was insecure, and used his rage to boost a weak masculine identity. In view of these conflicts the approach taken was to suggest that each of them had failed to resolve their childhood and adolescent anger with the parent of the same sex. Each was asked to think about modeling after the parent of the opposite sex, both of whom were kind and sensitive people.
The course of treatment was difficult and Javier periodically had great difficulty controlling his anger in the sessions. At that point he was advised by the therapist to stop acting like his father and cautioned that unless he could get his temper under control, he might not be allowed to move back into the family. Carmen's major motivation for reconciliation, besides her love for Javier, was that her thirteen-year-old daughter treated her as Javier did. This was painful for her because, in view of the terrible relationship she had with her mother, she had always wanted to have a close relationship with her daughter. Carmen hoped that if Javier could learn to overcome his bad temper and treat her in a more loving manner that her daughter might model such behavior.
Javier began the work of forgiveness because he wanted his marriage to work and he wanted to move back with his family. The pressure of painful loneliness resulted in a lessening of his defenses. He hit bottom living by himself in an apartment, as he began to face how badly his father had treated his mother. He realized he was unconsciously repeating that behavior toward his wife. Then he began to follow written forgiveness instructions given by the therapist which stated that he should imagine himself as a boy and teenager telling his father that he wanted to be loyal to his good qualities, but not his anger and that he wanted to forgive his father for ways in which he had hurt him and his mother with his hostility. His work of forgiveness proceeded slowly and on some days he slipped back into acting like his angry, critical father. It took approximately six months of hard work before Javier could deal with his anger in an appropriate manner. Because Javier had relied upon anger as a defense against his feelings of insecurity, cognitive-behavioral therapy also was used to build his self-esteem. As his confidence improved, he had less need of anger to bolster his masculine identity.
Finally, Carmen and Javier were asked to forgive the offending in-laws since both harbored powerful anger and resentment against them for what they viewed as intrusive and critical behaviors. The resolution of their excessive anger through the use of forgiveness over an 18 month course of therapy strengthened their marital love and trust. There were fewer episodes of excessive anger; when they erupted, they were resolved in a rapid and effective manner.
The Angry Wife
Kareena is a 35 year-old-married mother of three who came into therapy because of her periodic episodes of explosive rage. She related a long history of marital conflict. During the arguments, which Kareena often initiated, she would verbally, and, at times, physically abuse her husband, Dennis. Kareena's motivation for entering therapy was that her oldest child, a seven- year-old-boy, Brian, was manifesting uncontrollable anger episodes toward his siblings, parents, and peers. She felt guilty about his behavior, believing she was responsible for it.
Kareena was the oldest of four children and had been in the parental role from an early age. She had little emotional support from her mother and was subjected to abusive behavior from her alcoholic father. She thought that the awareness of her anger with an alcoholic father was sufficient to control the emotion in her own life. She came to recognize, however, that she had buried a great deal of anger with each parent and that in times of stress, in particular, she was repeating her fathers worst behaviors. Also, she came to understand that, at times, her anger was used as a defense to keep her husband at a distance because she feared that he would betray her as her father had.
Kareena had no knowledge of how to deal with her anger other than through expression. In the first several sessions she was asked to think about the possibility of understanding and forgiving before she expressed her anger. Then she was asked to think daily about forgiving each parent for how they had hurt her. In the evening after the first session Kareena called her therapist and was upset and guilty because she had just verbally and physically abused her husband. She related remorsefully that she had just learned in therapy about employing forgiveness for her rage, but had not been able to apply it.
Once she understood the process of forgiveness she decided to begin immediately by working to break the negative influence which the anger with her father had over her marriage and family life. Kareena tried daily to understand her fathers behavior as the result of his childhood experiences with an alcoholic father and came to appreciate more the emotionally wounded and probably abused little boy within her father. As this reframing and understanding increased she grew in her ability to forgive him for all the hurts of childhood and adolescence. However, in this process she discovered that she had buried violent impulses toward him. In the early phases of therapy she had no desire to forgive him and was quite angry, even though intellectually she was making a decision to forgive him. Kareena was also given a serotonin re-uptake inhibitor to help diminish her anger attacks.
Over a period of several months there was a significant decrease in her angry behavior. Also, she grew to accept the pain of her family background and to appreciate that in spite of that suffering she was fortunate to be in a good marriage and to feel basically positive about her life. At the same time her son was participating in therapy in the same practice and experienced a diminishment in his anger. In the deepening phase the quality of the marital and family life increased significantly. The children were no longer exposed to damaging behavior from their mother. Kareena was pleased that she had learned of a way to resolve her anger from the past and to control her excessive anger in daily life.
Passive-Aggressive Anger in Marriages
In many marriages the major method through which anger is expressed is in a passive-aggressive manner. Here the spouse pretends that he or she is not angry while at the same time acts passively to vent anger in a covert way toward the partner. Many individuals of this type try to portray themselves as understanding and loving while at the same time expressing their anger in a veiled manner. The most painful way in which passive- aggressive anger is expressed in the marriages is by withholding love and by refusing to give in a supportive manner.
Frequently, the victim of passive aggressive anger is unaware that he or she is on the receiving end of clandestine resentment. The victim of this resentment often reports feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, and various psychosomatic symptoms. Because the victim is seen as frustrated and irritable, that person may be wrongly identified by others as the angrier partner. Meanwhile the passive-aggressive spouse tries to paint a self-portrait of a calm and relaxed person.
Passive aggressive anger can be difficult to identify and there may be major resistance on the part of the offender in admitting the release of resentment in this manner. One way in which this type of passive resentment can be recognized is through reviewing with spouses the common ways in which passive aggressive anger is expressed in marriages.
The uncovering phase can be extremely difficult because the individuals can be highly defensive and manipulative. They are often reluctant to admit that they are expressing resentment through passive behaviors. In spite of this resistance, such clients are asked to engage in a cognitive forgiveness exercise based on the history of childhood hurts.. For example, the individual may be asked to forgive a controlling or selfish parent. Many spouses have never resolved anger with a selfish parent who abandoned the family. Then, unconsciously, they misdirect the anger at a spouse by acting in irresponsible, unsupportive and insensitive ways. Cognitive forgiveness exercises of such a parent can result in the diminishment of the anger, especially when the passive-aggressive behaviors clearly identified as such.
There are some spouses who will not forgive because they enjoy using their passive aggressive anger to both control and distance their partner or because they find pleasure in rebelling in a passive manner. Some of these marital cases have resulted in separation and divorce because of the refusal to part with the anger.
The Benefits of Forgiveness in Marriage and Family Life Include:
- greater ability to love and to praise
- fewer marital quarrels
- an ability to bring anger quickly under control
- protection of the marriage and children from the negative effects of anger
- decreased levels of anger in the marriage and home
- less sadness and anxiety in the home
- increased marital happiness and hope
- enhanced confidence in spouses and children
- breaking the control of others who inflicted pain in the past
- forgetting past hurts
- enhanced work and school performance
- helping to resolve negative parental behavioral/emotional patterns
- resolving the excessive anger associated with emotional conflicts
Further information on the process of forgiveness can be found on the section on the depressed/sad spouse.
Difficulties in Marital Forgiveness
A significant conflict can arise in resolving marital anger when a spouse continues to inflict hurts and pain and is not motivated to change. The following ongoing behaviors contribute to this difficulty:
- controlling behaviors
- irresponsible behaviors
- selfish behaviors
- manipulative behaviors
- emotionally distant behaviors
- addictive behavior
- insensitive behaviors.
When someone is unable to think or feel like forgiving their spouse, the anger can diminish by the use of a spiritual forgiveness exercise. Here the spouse can reflect, 'God forgive my spouse' or 'Lord take my anger' or 'Revenge belongs to God.'
Many spouses report that the use of spiritual forgiveness exercises help them resolve their anger and cope with their emotional and marital stress, while they are working on trying to improve their marriages.
Obstacles to Forgiveness
Most spouses have difficulty admitting their anger which is one of the leading obstacles to forgiveness.' We would rather' see our spouses as having a problem with anger rather than ourselves.
Let's try to identify some of the obstacles to forgiveness in you and in your spouse on the list below -
__ pride in regard to admitting how one is repeating the angry responses of a parent
__ lack of self-knowledge
__ lack of parental model for forgiveness
__ desire for revenge
__ fears of experiencing the sadness associated with the anger
__ controlling behaviors
In our clinical experience with several thousand couples selfishness is the major obstacle to engaging in the hard, but enormously beneficial, work of forgiveness. A 2004 study of 250 adults, entitled Too proud to let go: narcissistic entitlement as a barrier to forgiveness, found that narcissistic (selfish) entitlement was shown to be a robust, conceptually meaningful predictor of unforgiveness. supported our view (Exline, J.J., et al.)'So, if your spouse is not working'to master his/her anger by using regularly the virtue of forgiveness, for the sake of your marriage and children please don't hold back giving a spousal correction about his/her working on fighting against the challenging personality weakness of selfishness. The reality is that we all need to fight against this conflict if we are to have happy and healthy marriages and children.
Asking a Spouse for Forgiveness
Marital friendships often improve when spouses humbly request forgiveness for hurts and insensitivities. Since most of us overreact emotionally, a request for forgiveness for controlling, selfish, angry or emotionally distant behaviors is completely reasonable and appropriate. When the spouse tries to understand and to forgive, anger diminishes, trust increases and with it increased emotional closeness. Also, the marital memory is purified. The purification of the marital memory by removing anger and guilt results in a diminished likelihood of overreacting in anger toward one's spouse in the future. The request for spousal forgiveness protects the marital friendship and love when used regularly. If you haven't tried it in your marriage, I request that you consider doing so...soon!
Anger Outbursts and Attacks
Angry outbursts in the home can be damaging to the health of a marriage and of children. The explosive spouse is often unaware of the cause of the anger and may be surprised by the intensity of the emotional response. While a number of the factors which influence marital anger, cited earlier in this chapter, may play a role here, the most common cause of this conflict is due to modeling after a parent who had similar angry outbursts.
We have worked with many married men who were committed early in their marriage not to repeat their father's bad tempers, only to find themselves in their late 30s or early 40s responding as their fathers did. This type of overreaction is covered also in the parental legacies chapter.
Briefly, healing can occur by a daily commitment to forgive the angry parent and to repeat the good qualities of a parent, but not the weaknesses. In addition, in those with strong faith, the spouse can meditate upon asking the Lord to heal this parental weakness or can admit powerless over this conflict and then turn it over to God on a daily basis.
Doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital first described intensely angry episodes which have been termed anger attacks. They manifest as:
- irritability during the previous six months
- overreaction to minor annoyances
- occurrence of at least one anger attack during the previous month
- experience during one of the attacks of at least four of the following: rapid heart beat, hot flashes, chest tightness, feelings of numbness, dizziness, shortness of breath, swearing, trembling, panic, feeling out of control, feeling a desire to attack others, physical or verbal abuse, and throwing or destroying objects (M.Fava et al., 1991.)
Relationship Between Anger and Depression
A number of studies are demonstrating that the earlier belief that depression is anger turned inward is inaccurate. This research is important because under this old theory many depressed people were encouraged to express their anger in an attempt to resolve their feelings of sadness.
What the new research is showing is that individuals who express anger excessively, such as in anger attacks, are more depressed than those who do not overreact in anger. Also, most depressed patients have significant amounts of anger before any treatment begins. Here are some of these findings:
- In a study of anger attacks at two sites, 67% of patients with depression met the criteria for anger attacks (R.A. Gould, 1996)
- the greater the degree of sadness (depression), the greater the anger
- a patient who scored at the 75th percentile on the Beck Depression Inventory ( BDI; a score of 22) was 3.2 times more likely to have anger attacks than a patient who scored at the 25th percentile (a score of 8)
- also, patients with anger attacks were significantly more depressed than patients without such attacks
The diagram below presents our view of the relationship between sadness and anger. The greater the degree of sadness or the greater the character weakness, such as selfishness, the greater the level of anger. Also, this diagram helps in understanding why the use of forgiveness decreases feelings of sadness. Anger encapsulates sadness and as forgiveness resolves this anger, the feelings of sadness decrease. The regular expression of anger will only further intensify the person's amount of anger and harden the anger/sadness complex. On the other hand the regular use of forgiveness in spouses will decrease the level of sadness in a marriage.
Unresolved Father Anger in Husbands
Many men have failed to resolve anger with their fathers as a result of numerous disappointments and hurts in childhood and adolescence with them. Then, unconsciously, this anger can markedly interfere with their ability to love their wives and children. It can also be misdirected at their wives and children because of its power.
The process of forgiving one's father can be very challenging. However, men often feel relief when they learn that they can address their anger with their fathers in ways other than by expressing it. Even though a man can understand his father's family background and character weaknesses, which interfered with his ability to give to him in a loving and positive manner, he can still have great difficulty in forgiving him either emotionally or cognitively, that is, thinking of forgiving him.
If the man has an active faith, he can think of giving his anger with his father to God by asking God to forgive him. Also, we have seen a remarkable resolution of father anger in Catholic men who take their father anger on a regular basis to the sacrament of reconciliation. Also, the relationship with the wife and children can improve by the father asking for forgiveness for misdirecting his anger mean for his father or for repeating his father's temper and mistrust.
Major benefits to the resolution of this father resentment are a freedom from the control of the past, a more stable marriage and family life and improved confidence in these men. The most challenging work of forgiveness with fathers in men is with those who were selfish and abusive.
Wives should not hold back in encouraging their husbands, who have had difficult father relationships, to work at forgiving their fathers. Husbands who have misdirected father anger at wives and children benefit from asking forgiveness of loved ones for making this common mistake. Finally, Catholic men are helped in this healing process by working with a spiritual director on a relationship with God the Father or St. Joseph as another loving and strong father at every life stage.
Unresolved Father Anger in Wives
Women who grew up with fathers who were overly controlling, selfish, emotionally distant or unsupportive, angry, unfaithful, abusive or addicted regularly fail to realize that such fathers can strongly influence their trust in and feelings of love for their husbands. These wives have a poor foundation to trust which can emerge unconsciously at times of stress. Unless the anger with such fathers is identified, uncovered and resolved through a lengthy and demanding forgiveness process, it will be misdirected at the spouse. The mere expression of anger in regard to such painful fathering does not resolve the anger associated with childhood hurts.
The failure to resolve this father anger in wives regularly results in their believing that their husbands have exactly the same serious emotional and character weaknesses of the offending father which is often not the case. John Paul II warned that unless one forgives one can be a prisoner of one's past which is the case with many of these women.
Unresolved father anger in wives often misdirect this anger at their husband in active ways by being overly critical and disrespectful and in passive-aggressive ways by refusing to show affection, care for the home or to prepare meals. In addition they often distance their husbands because of an unconscious fear of being controlled by them or abandoned as their fathers abandoned their mothers. Finally, some wives merge their offending fathers with their basically trustworthy husbands to such an extent that they demand separation or divorce. In such cases it is essential that family members and spouses speak honestly about the deep father wound so that it doesn't harm the marriage and children.
The use of past forgiveness exercises in which one tries to understand and then forgive emotionally or cognitively is essential in the healing of unresolved father anger in wives. Also, spiritual forgiveness exercises are highly effective in resolving this resentment such as thinking one is powerless over the anger and turning it over to God and taking the anger into the sacrament of reconciliation on a regular basis.
Husbands should not be afraid to ask their wives with deep father emotional wounds to work to overcome their anger and mistrust with their fathers by engaging in the hard work of forgiveness. The major obstacle to doing so is the failure to trust the Lord with the marriage.
Unresolved Mother Anger in Husbands
Husbands who had controlling or selfish mothers regularly overreact in anger toward reasonable requests from their wives which they misperceive as being controlling. These men often act as porcupines and distance their wives because of deeply rooted unconscious fears of being controlled. In addition, they can act like their mothers and treat their wives in a very controlling manner.
These husbands can work to overcome their mother wounds by thinking daily that their wives do not want to control them and by making a daily commitment to forgive their mothers for being controlling and their fathers for enabling their controlling behaviors.
The chapter on the controlling spouse can help wives in dealing with husbands who had controlling mothers.
Unresolved Mother Anger in Wives
Women tend to be more fortunate than men emotionally in that they have usually received much more praise and affirmation form their role models, their mothers, than most men receive from their role models, their fathers. However, a small number of wives were deeply disappointed by mothers who were emotionally distant, unaffectionate, critical, selfish, angry or addicted. The response to these hurts is initially intense sadness and then anger.
Since these women can often overreact in irritability under normal stresses of married and family life because they did not experience enough comforting mother love as children and teenagers. Also, they can at times resent giving or have difficulty in praising because they received so little maternal affirmation. Under various types of stresses they may misdirect anger meant for their mothers at husbands, children and others.
The process of forgiving an insensitive mother is very challenging for women because their mother's behaviors seemed to be so unnatural for a woman. Many wives only experience relief when they employ spiritual forgiveness by reflecting that they are powerless over their anger and turn it over to God. In addition freedom from the past hurts occurs in Catholic women by taking this anger into the sacrament of reconciliation. Finally, Catholic women are helped in this healing process by working with a spiritual director on a relationship with Our Lady as another loving and cheerful mother.
Marital separation and anger
In our clinical experience it is usually possible to prevent marital separation by identifying and working to resolve various emotional and personality conflicts. However, marital separation needs to be considered when a spouse refuses to work on admitting and changing various types of controlling, angry, disrespectful, narcissistic and abusive behaviors which seriously harm a marriage.
John Paul II wrote about marital separation in The Role of The Christian Family in the Modern World, "Various reasons can unfortunately lead to the often irreparable breakdown of valid marriages. These include mutual lack of understanding and the inability to enter into interpersonal relationships. Obviously, separation must be considered as a last resort, after all other reasonable attempts at reconciliation have proven vain," n.83.
Fortunately, the threat of separation often will motivate a spouse to try to understand and to work on resolving his/her damaging behaviors. Subsequently, we rarely have to encourage marital separation.
Virtues which Decrease Anger
In Character Strengths and Virtues, 2004, Oxford University Press and American Psychological Association, Dr. Chris Peterson of the University of Michigan and Dr. Marty Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania describe the numerous benefits from the development of virtues. Over almost 30 years I have seen growth in the following virtues to be very beneficial in diminishing marital anger:
A medical evaluation should be considered whenever anger attacks or other intense expressions of anger occur in a marriage. Medications such as Prozac and Zoloft (SSRIs) have been demonstrated to decrease markedly such emotional overreactions in conjunction with forgiveness exercises.
The Role of Faith in Decreasing Anger
Dr. Paul Vitz, professor emeritus of psychology at NYU and now professor at the Institute for Psychological Sciences has written that, “There is no reason why at least some of the effects of theological virtues could not be part of psychological science and integrated with their philosophical and theological understanding.” (Philosophical Virtues and Psychological Strengths, 2013, Sophia Press.) The spiritual life can be facilitate the growth in the theological virtues of faith, hope and love and in the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice all of which can protect a person from overreacting in anger in marriage and family life.
Many Catholics report a diminishment in their anger by giving it to the Lord daily and it causes, by meditating upon becoming another Christ to their spouse and through the graces they experience in the sacraments of reconciliation and of the Eucharist.
Saints, Church Leaders and Anger
The saints have wisdom to offer us in dealing with our anger. St. Paul wrote about anger; "Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun set on your anger," Ephesians 4: 27.All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. (And) be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ," Ephesians 4:32. Forgiveness exercises is an effective method of preventing the sun from going down one's anger.
Pope Benedict XVI has stated, "Sometimes in human life it seems inevitable that we should argue, but what remains important is the art of reconciliation, of forgiveness, of starting anew and not letting bitterness remain in our hearts," June 2, 2009.
St. Thomas More wrote: 'This deadly sore of wrath of which so much harm grows, that makes men unlike themselves, that makes us like wood wolves or furies of hell, that drives us forth headlong upon sword points, that makes us blindly run forth upon other men's destruction with our own ruin, is but a cursed branch rising and springing out of the secret root of pride." Growth in the virtue of humility can prevent the damage to oneself and others described by St. Thomas.
While a prisoner in the Tower of London he also wrote, “Bear no malice or evil will to any man living. For either the man is good or wicked. If he is good, and I hate him, then I am wicked. If he is wicked, either he will amend and die good and go to God, or live wickedly and die wickedly and go to the devil. And then let me remember that if he be saved, he will not fail (if I am saved too, as I trust to be) to love me very heartily, and I shall then in like manner love him. And why should I now, then, hate one for this while who shall hereafter love me forevermore, and why should I be now, then, an enemy to him with whom I shall in time be coupled in eternal friendship' And on the other side, if he will continue to be wicked and be damned, then is there such outrageous eternal sorrow before him that I may well think myself a deadly cruel wretch if I would not now rather pity his pain than malign his person. If one would say that we may with good conscience wish an evil man harm lest he should do harm to other folk who are innocent and good, I will not now dispute upon that point, for that root has more branches to be well weighed and considered than I can now conveniently write (having no other pen than a coal).”
"Never correct anyone while you are still indignant about a fault committed. Wait until the next day, or even longer. And then, calmly, and with a purer intention, make your reprimand. You will gain more by one friendly word than by a three-hour quarrel. Control your temper", St. Josemaria Escriva, The Way 10.
Parental anger toward children
When a parent feels angry toward a child, the immediate expression of this anger can be harmful, especially if it is excessive. Instead of giving in quickly to the expression of anger, we recommend that a parent when angry with a child try to inwardly reflect a number of times, "I want to understand, forgive, and love" or "I want to be patient." This immediate forgiveness exercise usually diminishes anger. Communication to child ideally should occur only after the angry feelings subside. If a parent works on the described immediate forgiveness's exercise, correction then can be given to a child in an appropriate manner without excessive anger which can harm a child. When a correction is given in a gentle manner, the child feels safe and is more receptive to receiving constructive criticism. Parents also need to be careful that they do not humiliate a child when giving a correction.
When parents overreact in anger, a number of emotional responses can occur in children including fear, anxiety, guilt, shame, sadness, strong feelings of inadequacy and intense anger. The physical responses to anger often include muscle spasms, headaches, irritable bowel, nausea or diarrhea and weight gain. Also, excessive anger toward children can seriously harm the trust in the child-parent relationship. Parents have a serious responsibility to protect the trust or ability of their children to feel safe since it is the foundation for all relationships.
The common reasons for parental overreactions in anger toward children include:
- stress from numerous responsibilities and demands
- repetition of a parent's angry and negative behaviors
- misdirection of anger meant for those at work or for a spouse
- a tendency to control
- failure to forgive for past disappointments
- weakness in trusting
- perfectionistic tendencies
- intense selfishness in children
- substance abuse .
The most common conflict leading to overreactions in anger in fathers in our clinical experience is the repetition of their father's angry, critical behaviors and in women it is the repetition of a parent's controlling behaviors. The parental legacies chapter describes how one can break these negative parental legacies and then significantly improve the parent-child relationship.
The wisdom that St. John Bosco expressed to his colleagues in regard to their ministry with troubled young males can guide parents also in the correction of their children. He stated, "There must be no hostility in our minds, no contempt in our eyes, no insult on our lips. We must use mercy for the present and have hope for the future, as is fitting for true fathers who are eager for real correction and improvement."
A major source of anger in parents today is the intense selfishness and sense of entitlement in their children. Often Catholic parents are complicit in this narcissism because of their permissive parenting style and by modeling selfishness in many ways but primarily by limiting the family to only two children. The chapter on selfishness in children can be helpful in addressing the parental anger arising from this epidemic character weakness in children and in young adults.
Asking a child for forgiveness
After an overreaction in anger, the child can be helped by the parent apologizing and even explaining the reason for his/her behavior. The parental request for forgiveness of a child is not easy and requires a great deal of wisdom, humility and courage.
After a request for forgiveness, the parent should request that the child respond to a request for forgiveness by stating, "I want to forgive you" or "I do forgive you."
If overreactions in anger continue, then therapy should seriously be considered. If the angry parent refuses to seek help, then the other parent should try to understand the causes of the anger, clearly identify them, ask the spouse to work on these weaknesses in order to protect a child from inappropriate and harmful anger.
Important Concepts About Anger
The following are important concepts about anger.
The Nature of Anger
- Strong feeling of displeasure and antagonism
- Aroused by a sense of injury or wrong/lack of virtue
- Initially associated with a feeling of sadness
- Later can be associated with pleasure at the thought of revenge
- An indicator at times of unresolved conflicts in a relationship
The Development of Anger
Unjust hurts and losses cause sadness, which becomes encapsulated by anger
Excessive anger arises from the following character weaknesses:
- modeling after an angry parent
- the need to control
In a study of 1.300 people who were evaluated prior to the initiation of treatment, one half
had moderate to severe anger before treatment began. Also, the level of anger was comparable to the levels of depression and anxiety. Also, twenty-five percent of the people had committed aggressive acts in the previous week, (Posternak MA, Zimmerman M, 2002. Anger and aggression in psychiatric outpatients. J Clin Psychiatry 63:665-672).
Three Methods of Dealing with Anger
1. Denial - consciously or unconsciously
Two Ways of Expressing Anger
- Active: honestly
- Passive-aggressive: sneaky expression of anger
Types of Expressed Anger
- Appropriate - to a certain hurt
- Excessive - an overreaction due to significant unresolved anger with the offender
- Misdirected - misplacement of anger toward one who does not deserve it. This type of anger is one of the most common causes of serious marital difficulties. Its cause is often the failure to resolve anger with parents or from other significant relationships.
Victims of Misdirected Anger
- Other family members
- The Church/God (see Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism)
The Journey of Anger
- May be denied for weeks, months, years or decades
- Later may be misdirected, especially at loved ones
- Not fully resolved until a decision is made to forgive
Defensive Functions of Anger
Anger is used by many spouses as a defense against their feelings of -
- Lack of confidence
- Mistrust/fear of betrayal
Danger of Relying upon the Expression of Anger
- It does not resolve anger because most couples have so much denied anger which they have unconsciously brought into their relationship
- It harms loving relationships and leaves memories which are difficult to forget.
- It creates mistrust, the loss of a safe feeling, anxiety and tension.
- It harms one physically and emotionally.
Three Methods of Forgiveness
Each of these methods will effectively diminish anger.
Marriages and families are under significant stress as a result of narcissism and excessive anger in the home and in the culture. Excessive anger is one of the major reasons for marital conflict, marital separations and divorce and for conflicts in parent-child, sibling, and in-law relationships. The regular use of forgiveness and other virtues by spouses can resolve angry feelings, thereby protecting and strengthening marital and family relationships.
References in this chapter can be found at the National Library of Medicine web site, PubMed.