I remember the email Tim and I got from a friend of ours shortly after his wedding. It told of a crystal vase he and his wife had received as a special wedding present, a vase that was very special to her. The email also told about their first real fight they had as newlyweds. He wrote that in the heat of an argument, "I got stupid and so angry that I grabbed that vase, threw it across the room, and it split into a million pieces. It was awful. Since then it's gone downhill." In a Charlie Brown-style postscript at the end of the email he wrote, "Marriage…uggggghhhhh."
Conflict in relationships is inevitable. Anytime you bring two people together, often from very different backgrounds, and put them in close proximity, they will experience conflict. But the issue really isn't fighting. The way you fight is what matters, the way you work to resolve differences and challenges between the two of you. In fact, researcher and marital expert John Gottman wrote that sometimes those who fight well tend to love well too. On the other hand, show me a home where people are out of control and all you see is conflict, and I will show you a marriage that's filled with anger, resentment, bitterness, and pain. Being on the receiving end of someone's anger is no fun.
Learning how to manage your anger and frustration individually and as a couple will go a long way in helping you build a healthy relationship. There is no doubt in my mind that the level of closeness and intimacy will never rise above the level of conflict and fighting between the two of you.
Sometimes conflict is fueled by anger. But remember, "speak when you're angry and you'll be sure to make the best speech you'll ever regret."1 You may also damage relationships beyond repair, do things you wouldn't normally do, and create unexpected trouble for yourself. That's because what we do in our anger is usually sinful and hurts deeply.
Yet anger also has a positive side. As a God-given emotion, it is best understood as a "state of preparedness" to respond to a real or perceived wrongdoing or injustices in our lives. It alerts us when someone is taking advantage of us or treating us unfairly. Anger gives us the courage to stand up for ourselves or our loved ones. And it creates the energy we need when we must work for change—either in our lives or in others'.
Anger is a powerful emotion. We can harness it for good or use it for evil. It can be a catalyst for positive change or a stubborn reason to stay the same. It alerts us to others' shortcomings and our own often unrealistic expectations.
Jesus can relate. He showed His anger in John 2:13-16:
"When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple courts, he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, "Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!"
Jesus was fired up about the violation going on in His Father's house. But He responded appropriately. We, on the other hand, usually don't and subsequently hurt those around us. Getting control of and managing our anger is not always easy, especially in a stressed-out world where people easily get ticked off and flip out. Many have learned the power of anger to control and manipulate others.
I must be careful when I'm angry because, as the old Chinese proverb says, "If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will escape a hundred days of sorrow." That's why Ephesians 4:26 is so important. It literally says, "In your anger do not sin." You can be angry. You can respond to the situation, but temper your response, for "a fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control" (Proverbs 29:11).
Michelle McKinney Hammond, author of The Power of Being a Woman, observes, "Any time we respond out of anger or fear it is usually the wrong response and the clean up and repair is extensive, if possible at all. Allow yourself to get to a place of calm objectivity before addressing something that causes you concern or warrants a response."2
Here's how to keep your anger from damaging your relationships:
Recognize it. What makes you angry? What happens to you physically when you get angry? What do you do with the anger? You can begin managing your anger by noticing its pattern in your life and being honest about it. You can't change what you don't understand. Do you yell? Cry? Get critical? Get even? Go silent? Recognizing what triggers anger in you and how you respond to it is the first step to getting control.
Slow it. Once you recognize that you're angry, find ways to respond appropriately and not react foolishly. You may need to take a personal time out to separate yourself from the situation. Go exercise to release some tension, talk to a trusted friend, or write your thoughts and frustrations in a private journal. The Word says "Better a patient man than a warrior, a man who controls his temper than one who takes a city" (Proverbs 16:32). Do what it takes to grow in patience.
Manage it. "Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry" (James 1:19). You may have to remove yourself from the situation for a while before you try to resolve the hurt and restore the relationships involved. If yelling is your nature, learn to speak quietly and slowly. Empathize with those who hurt you. Do not seek revenge.
Resolve it. Develop a plan to use the anger for deeper spiritual growth and sanctification. Pray and surrender it to the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:16) and forgive those who have wronged you. As you do, "Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor and evil speaking be put away from you," and instead "be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God in Christ forgave you" (Ephesians 4:31-32, NKJV).
1. Lawrence J. Peter.
2. Michelle McKinney Hammond, personal email, February 21, 2007.