- Anger directed at spouses increases their anxiety, lowers their ability to trust, weakens their confidence, increases their irritability, and can harm their physical health. Tweet This
- Forgiveness enhances confidence and helps to resolve feelings of sadness and anxiety. It can also prevent the recurrence of these feelings. Tweet This
- Most of the anger people experience within marriage is aroused not by real injustices but by minor stresses and mishaps. Tweet This
Editor’s Note: The following essay has been condensed from Chapter 1, “Forgiveness Reduces Anger,” in the new book, Habits for a Healthy Marriage (Ignatius Press, 2019) by Richard P. Fitzgibbons, MD. It has been used here with permission.
Scott’s jaw showed the unmistakable sign of clenched teeth as he entered my office. Behind Monica’s forced smile, her eyes were cold. When they sat down, their stiffness and discomfort were clearly apparent.
“Monica says I’m always mad,” Scott began, “but if she would just be a little more understanding—”
“Me?” Monica interrupted. “I’m not the one shouting and screaming and carrying on all the time.”
“If you would just treat me with more respect and listen to me, I wouldn’t have to raise my voice to get your attention.” Scott’s voice grew louder and his face redder.
“I might be able to figure out what you want if you weren’t yelling at me day and night,” Monica replied.
I quickly called a time-out.
Scott and Monica obviously had difficulties with excessive anger. After a few probing questions, it was clear that Scott reacted to any perceived slight with intense anger. In her turn, Monica withdrew and gave Scott the cold shoulder. They would reconcile for a time, but soon the pattern would repeat itself. Anger was seriously harming their marriage and diminishing the strong love they had for each other.
Over the next few sessions, as they worked at trying to understand the origins of their difficulties, they realized that neither one intended to hurt the other. They did harm to each other because they lacked knowledge about their emotional weaknesses and did not understand how to master their anger. They slowly came to recognize that they had each carried into their marriage significant unresolved anger from their families of origin, which contributed to their overreactions. Scott’s father was emotionally distant, and Monica’s father had been an alcoholic. Both fathers struggled with their tempers and frequently overreacted in direct and passive anger.
Scott’s and Monica’s anger diminished through a process of uncovering and resolving buried anger by growing in the habit of forgiveness. Practicing forgiveness did not come naturally or easily for them; it required hard work.
The Nature of Anger
Anger is a strong feeling of displeasure and antagonism, most often aroused by a sense of injury or wrong. It is a natural response to the failure of others to meet one’s needs for love, respect, and praise. Excessive anger can be the result of selfishness, anxiety, sadness, or modeling after an angry parent.
Anger is usually present when there are conflicts in relationships, whether at home, at school, at work, or in the community. Being angry or dealing with an angry person can be a daily experience for many people. In a study of 1,300 psychiatric outpatients, one half had moderate to severe anger, which was comparable with their levels of anxiety and depression.
When a person is hurt by another, he first experiences sadness, followed by anger. This anger can then encompass the sadness and the anger from the past, causing a person to overreact to the present situation and making it more difficult to resolve. Pope John Paul II warned that, without forgiveness, one could be a prisoner of past anger. People usually tend to think of their anger as justifiable and appropriate. Excessive anger, however, is neither of those things, especially if it punishes people in the present for injuries done by others in the past.
Forgiveness is the most effective way to reduce and to master anger in married life.
The obvious damage caused by anger is the emotional and physical harm inflicted on those at the receiving end of a person’s wrath. Not surprisingly, studies have found a ten-fold increased risk for depressive symptoms in those living with an angry spouse. People are hardwired to receive love, respect, and sensitivity, not bitterness, from others. Anger directed at spouses increases their anxiety, lowers their ability to trust, weakens their confidence, increases their irritability, and can harm their physical health.
The children of angry people also suffer harm. Children crave a feeling of safety in the home, which is dependent on their parents’ stable union. Quarreling between their parents causes children to suffer sadness, anger, anxiety, insecurity, and fears about the possibility of separation or divorce. It might cause children to feel guilty, wondering if they contributed to their parents’ anger, or to develop physical illnesses, including irritable bowel syndrome, or psychological illnesses, such as anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Less obvious is the harm anger does to the angry person himself. Although anger in its early stages is often associated with the sadness caused by being hurt, it can later be associated with the pleasure derived from its expression. This ugly phenomenon is often seen in a person who, when young, feared his father yet never expressed anger at him but later finds pleasure in expressing anger at his spouse or at someone else. The enjoyment of angry feelings and of the high associated with its arousal and release can become a serious psychological and spiritual disorder. It can also become a danger to one’s physical health. A Harvard Medical School study found a more than two-fold greater risk of a heart attack after an outburst of anger. The greater the intensity of the outburst, the greater the risk. Clearly, mastery over anger is essential to health and well-being.
Three Ways to Deal with Anger
Most of the anger people experience within marriage is aroused not by real injustices but by minor stresses and mishaps. When anger develops from something of this sort, there are three basic options for dealing with this complex and powerful emotion: (1) deny it, (2) express it actively or passively, or (3) forgive the perceived injury. Forgiveness is the most effective way to reduce and to master anger in married life. It alone can resolve the anger from past disappointments with others that most spouses unconsciously bring into marriage.
During childhood, the most common psychological method for dealing with anger is denial, which for many people continues into adult life. The reasons for denial are numerous and include the need to idealize one’s parents, siblings, or peers; a lack of knowledge about how to resolve anger with forgiveness; fears and insecurities about expressing anger; a sense of shame; a fear of sadness associated with anger; a desire to maintain a peaceful and loving home life; and loyalty to parents. For a child, the relationship in which anger is denied the most is his relationship with his father. The major reasons for this are the fear of an angry response from his father or the fear that a greater distance from him will develop.
As time passes, the dangers of relying on denial to cope with anger include sadness, anxiety, insecurity, and even an increase of the very anger that is being denied. The failure to admit and to resolve one’s anger can lead to its being misdirected at siblings, parents, peers, and eventually one’s spouse and children. This psychological dynamic is a major cause of overreactive anger in married life.
The major way to overcome denial is not the one most often recommended—that is, to express anger at others. This creates more tension for the angry person and those around him. There is a much greater benefit in thinking,
I want to overcome the possibility that I am in denial by exploring the need to forgive. Do I need to forgive a parent, a sibling, or a peer who hurt me in the past? Do I need to forgive my spouse right now?
The psychological reality is that most spouses do not know how to express anger fairly because they have brought so much buried unconscious anger into their marriages. Most husbands and wives don’t realize that receiving anger from the person whom they trust and love most in their lives can leave deep wounds. Every time anger is expressed between spouses, trust decreases, and, subsequently, feelings of love also diminish. The expression of anger does not fully resolve this emotion and does not help to resolve marital conflicts.
The use of forgiveness, however, does resolve anger from both present and past hurts, thereby diminishing marital stress. It helps to eliminate angry outbursts. The path to forgiveness begins with identifying the ways anger is expressed, either directly and honestly or indirectly, in a passive-aggressive, or masked, manner. The following list can help to identify the types of active and passive-aggressive anger in a marriage:
- Being easily annoyed
- Negative communication and criticism
- Silent, cold treatment
- Irresponsible behaviors
- Withholding affection and expressions of love
- Deliberate sloppiness, lack of care for the home or oneself
- Uncooperative behavior
- Lack of support
After identifying the ways anger is expressed in a marriage, spouses can move on to the best method for dealing with this emotion: forgiveness.
Forgiveness involves uncovering anger from one’s family of origin, from past relationships, and from one’s marriage, and then deciding to work on letting go of this anger without misdirecting it at one’s spouse, children, or others. It also involves choosing to forgive immediately the person in the present who has aroused one’s anger. Forgiveness therapy is a psychologically proven method for diminishing and resolving the damage caused by excessive anger.
Forgiveness can produce many benefits. It can help individuals forget past painful experiences and free them from the subtle control of people and events associated with these events. It can facilitate reconciliation between spouses and between them and other family members. And it can decrease the likelihood that anger will be misdirected in the home. My colleague Dr. Robert Enright has demonstrated through numerous studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison what we see daily in clinical practice: forgiveness enhances confidence and helps to resolve feelings of sadness and anxiety. It can also prevent the recurrence of these feelings.
The Process of Forgiveness
Although forgiveness is the most effective method for gaining control over the strong emotion of anger, it does not come naturally or easily. After uncovering the deepest origins of anger, which are often denied or unconscious, and trying to understand the life journey and past relationships of the person who has inflicted the hurt, there is still the work of forgiveness itself.
The first step in the process of forgiveness is for both spouses to identify their childhood experiences of being hurt by parents or others. Each spouse needs to identify the parent who disappointed him more. Next, it is helpful for each spouse to try to understand the other spouse’s parental relationships. As this uncovering work proceeds, couples develop the awareness that a spouse’s behaviors can most often be attributed to past emotional hurts from parents or others or to modeling after and repeating a parent’s personality weaknesses. Looking at the past to understand the present usually leads to the realization that people often do not deliberately inflict hurt. Even people who are deliberately cruel have often suffered some sort of trauma early in life.
After both spouses achieve a certain amount of self-knowledge and knowledge of the other, the work of forgiveness can begin.
Richard Fitzgibbons, M.D., has treated and written about excessive anger and other psychological conflicts in marriage, children, and priesthood for 40 years. He is the co-author of Forgiveness Therapy, which initiates a new system of psychotherapy.