“I can feel it coming on. My heart begins to race. I begin to breathe harder. The irritation is turning into anger. I don’t want to get angry with the person I love . . . . but here it goes . . . again!”
Why is it that we find ourselves moving from irritation into anger about something that is so insignificant that it embarrasses us to talk about it. And later (after not speaking with our spouse for two days), we can’t even remember what started the argument?
Auto-Pilot Takes Over in Our Marriage
Have you ever driven home from work or from the grocery store, arrived at home, and have no idea what happened? You don’t remember anything about the traffic, the lights, the school bus, how close you were traveling to the other cars, or even that you entered your subdivision. It is a little frightening, isn’t it?
The same thing happens in our day-to-day lives in our marriages. Something triggers an irritation or argument. And we become so familiar with the same sequence of comments, feelings, and reactions that we get “sucked into” the pattern before we realize what has happened.
And then it is too late. The emotions are now high, and the darts are flying. Nobody in this situation would naturally want to calm down, step back, and consider what is happening.
Why Do We Develop this Pattern?
Let’s face it. Often when we get angry with our spouse, it seems like the right thing to do. And it feels good in the moment. After all, they have done something to make us angry. Right? If my spouse did not ______, then I would not _________.
Anger is a powerful emotion. It gives us a sense control, and it protects us from being hurt by the other person. But after the argument, we realize that it has pushed us away from the one that we love. We don’t want that to happen. We don’t mean for it to happen. But we can’t seem to do anything differently.
What we want to do is to convince our spouse that we are right and they are wrong. So we raise our voice, we become more intense, we become angry. If they would just listen to what we are saying – really listen – then they would change their behavior? Right?
Years of experience should tell us that our approach simply does not work.
So how do we escape this pattern that is so entrenched in our conversations?
We Must Be Purposeful
Think for a moment about when you last moved to a different city or even a different home. For some period of time, you had to concentrate on how to get there. If you began daydreaming or became lost in your own thoughts, you might have come to an intersection and realized (often too late) that you are nowhere near your intended destination.
When this happens, we must refocus, turn around, and head back in the right direction.
We need to be purposeful when we are trying to change a pattern.
But Purposeful in What Way?
One of the major advantages of marriage counseling is to help each spouse begin to realize why they are getting so angry about such small events.
One principle to consider is that even though it feels like our spouse is making us angry, nothing could be further from the truth. There is usually something in our background that is a trigger that causes us to become irritated or angry. And there are deeper emotions or feelings that are the root causes of the anger we feel.
What is Causing the Anger?
For many individuals, trying to consider a deeper emotion causing the anger is dangerous. Why? Because we are protecting something that is precious and valuable to us.
One of our major longings is to be more important to our spouse than anything or anyone else. When our spouse says something or does something that makes us feel otherwise, we often react in anger.
It seems dangerous to let them know how they have hurt us. We do not know what will happen if we admit our longing to be treasured or honored — especially when our spouse seems be sending the opposite message. To do so is very vulnerable. It is safer to react in anger.
How Can I Change the Pattern?
We must first realize that even though our reaction seems to make sense, something isn’t working.
In some cases, we are not aware of the “primary” emotion that is the root cause of our irritation or anger. It has been so long since we recognized that our anger begins with hurt, fear, or disappointment (or some other emotion), we can’t identify it.
And unless we learn to slow down and reflect on what is happening to us and why, we don’t have a chance. It is scary to even think about admitting these very vulnerable emotions to our spouse.
Maybe a Coach/Referee Could Help
This is where a counselor can be beneficial. A counselor works with each spouse so they can begin to identify these primary emotions and learn how to express them to one another. The counselor can also create an environment where it is safe to explore new conversations and begin to establish new, untried patterns.
After working as a Chemical Engineer for 36 years, Steve Fox took early retirement so that he could focus his full-time attention on helping others to discover how to improve or repair their marriages as well as other family relationships. Steve also helps others begin to “dream” about what will help them become fulfilled in their career and life.
Steve earned an MA in Counseling from LSU and is now a National Certified Counselor and Counselor Intern with Crossroads. He has worked with couples on a ministry basis for over 20 years and has a counseling focus with couples, families, career coaching, and addiction counseling with families.
Steve’s complete bio can be found here.