I will never forget the day when Ann approached me in the kitchen and began critiquing me about something in our relationship. At that point, we had been married for about five years. She meant to be constructive—that is, she really wanted to help me— but she had not yet learned how to do it without hurting my feelings. I felt belittled, which rarely leads to any good place for men or women.
This feeling was like a fuse, and it only took a few minutes before the rest of me exploded in anger.
What happened next remains clear in my mind, because this particular day was one of those turning points in our relationship. Ann was very disappointed. “Every time I bring something up, you get mad,” she said. “So just forget it. Why waste my time? You just blow up.”
As she turned to walk away, I screamed after her, “I do not! What are you even talking about?” (Nice move by the way…yelling back at my wife!)
She gestured toward me as if she were a prosecutor pleading her case before a judge. “There you have it—exhibit A! Thank you. I rest my case.”
CAN SOMEONE PLEASE HELP US?
We all get angry at times—it’s part of being human. The problem is that we often don’t recognize or comprehend the roots of our anger, so we don’t know how to handle it when it comes. If you are driving a car and you notice steam or smoke billowing out of the engine compartment, you can’t simply continue driving; you must pull over immediately and check under the hood to see if your engine is overheating, or worse.
An argument, like smoke billowing out of a car, is often a symptom of a deeper issue—not always, but often. And especially if there is serious “heat” in an argument regarding a particular topic or discussion point, wisdom says that you should pull the argument over and check under the hood to determine what the real problem is. So, when anger pops up in conflict—as it almost always does—you need to check under the hood and ask yourself, “What’s causing that anger?”
For the first time in my life, the hood had been raised, and I could see at least a little of the real problem. My angry words had been bouncing around the kitchen like bullets ricocheting off concrete—and even though Ann was my best friend, my words were far from friendly fire. They were downright mean.
Check Under the Hood
Deep down inside, I knew she was right, but I just couldn’t admit it to her yet. But that particular argument did lead me to begin checking more often under the hood to try to determine what was going on. Why was I so angry all the time? A few days later, I was meeting with the three men who, to this day, I call my personal accountability group. Once every week, the four of us get together to talk about our lives and deal with the nitty-gritty of being husbands, dads, and brothers in a fallen world. These guys know everything about me.
I asked them, “Of all the emotions you experience as a man, which one do you feel most often?”
They looked at me like I was suddenly wearing a pink dress and high heels. “Emotions? What on earth are you talking about?” They knew what I meant, but they enjoyed giving me a hard time. “You know, emotions—like joy, happiness, sadness, anger, frustration? Which one?” In a heartbeat, they responded in unison: “That’s easy—anger!” So I told them about the kitchen incident a few days earlier and my habitual pattern of lashing out in anger whenever I experienced conflict with Ann. “I need to find out where this anger is coming from,” I said. This conversation raised the hood just a bit more, because for the first time, I was willing to invite someone else to look under there as well.
I began to study anger, and I learned that psychologists call it a “second emotion.” This means that anger is not usually the first emotion we feel in a stressful situation. The first emotion may be hurt, frustration, fear, or something else—but we instead jump to anger because we’re too uncomfortable with the initial emotion. In that kitchen argument with Ann, I was feeling hurt, but I didn’t know how to admit it. So, I let myself immediately default to anger instead. I honestly had no idea that I flipped to that second emotion all the time.
But everyone else realized it—and especially Ann. I also learned about different types of anger. Situation-specific anger is related directly to the situation or circumstances that spark it. Usually, this type of anger is easier to control, and, in fact, it can sometimes even be constructive. For example, one might feel righteous indignation at an injustice or when one witnesses cruelty. This is the righteous anger that motivated William Wilberforce to courageously work to end the slave trade. It also motivated Jesus to drive the money changers out of the temple (see John 2).
Another type is displaced anger. This anger is misdirected toward the wrong target. When one is angry over a situation at work and comes home, only to yell at a child for spilling milk at the dinner table, that’s displaced anger. Anytime a road-raging driver begins tailgating me, flashing his headlights and honking to try to pass me, I really wish I could sit down with the guy and say, “You’ve got displaced anger, dude. What’s your real problem? Here, let me help you look under the hood.” That would probably not turn out well.
Three Steps to Dealing with Anger
For situation-specific or displaced anger, I’ve learned what I call the “ABCs of Handling Anger.”
A: Acknowledge and Admit Your Anger
Paul tells the Ephesians, “‘In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (4:26). This verse implies that anger is a natural, God-given emotion. Why else would it say, “In your anger”? Everyone will deal with anger at some point, but this doesn’t necessarily mean we have to sin—or miss the mark—because of it. So plan to deal with it, but better yet, plan to deal with it now. Get over it quickly. Don’t let it fester inside.
Unfortunately, many Christians find it very difficult to admit when they are angry. They think anger is always a sin. I remember sitting in a meeting with the elders of our church. The guy sitting next to me was obviously becoming more and more angry over the situation we were discussing. I leaned over and whispered, “Hey, dude, you’re getting a little hot, huh?” “No, not me,” he replied. “Yeah, you are.” I could tell he didn’t want to admit it. “What makes you think I’m angry?” “Because there’s fire coming out of your nostrils!” I laughed. And yet he still kept denying it.
Anger is not a sin, but if we don’t acknowledge it early, it can certainly lead to sin.
God knows every thought and emotion we have, so why hide them? Be honest about those moments when you’re angry with your spouse. The second we finally admit we’re angry is the second we finally start moving toward getting a grip on this anger. This honesty will put us miles ahead in the process of finding resolution and peace.
B: Backtrack to the First Emotion
This one is huge because it is so easy to go around and around in a moment of heated discussion and literally get lost in your own argument, forgetting what the initial issue was in the first place.
So go back to the root cause of your anger and find the emotion you skipped over in favor of anger instead. Was it fear? Sadness? Hurt? In my own marriage, I usually skip over hurt and take the fast lane right to anger.
I have realized that I just don’t do emotional pain very well. In fact, I don’t know many guys who do. I believe that women are much better with this emotion. Have you ever come home to find your wife in tears on the couch? You ask her why, and she says she has just had the hardest day and that the kids were mean to her.
Now flip the coin. Women, have you ever found your husband sitting on the couch in tears because someone hurt him emotionally at work? Probably not. Instead, he just reacts in anger toward you all night and you don’t know why . . . and neither does he. Well, now you know.
Usually when I teach this practice of “backtracking to the first emotion,” I wrap an extension cord around my waist with the plug hanging on the floor. I then try to backtrack down the cord to find out what it’s plugged into. That emotion of hurt or frustration is what I really need to deal with rather than just exploding in anger. Once I know what that emotion is, then I can actually do something about it.
I need to be honest with myself and admit that I’m hurt and that I’m not comfortable with that emotion. Then I need to be honest with my wife. “Honey, that hurt me. What you said made me feel devalued as a man. That’s why I lashed out.” Now we can truly communicate.
This is where communication starts. I listen. My wife listens. And together, we start making headway in our conflict. For most of us, it’s not fun to go there, but trust me, it works.
C: Confess Your Anger Appropriately
There are appropriate and inappropriate ways to confess your anger. Confessing appropriately means coming clean about your emotions and mistakes with honesty, gentleness, and self-control.
I remember a day when I picked up our boys from gymnastics practice. Ann normally picked everyone up, but on this particular day, I was the chauffeur. When my young son CJ saw me instead of his mom, his first words—in front of the other parents, mind you—were, “Oh, it’s you, Dad. I thought Mom was coming.”
I cringed at his obvious disappointment, but I tried to mask it. As we were walking out, I was talking with a mom from our church when CJ began tugging at my pants, asking me—well, more like badgering me—to buy him a snack from the vending machine.
Still reeling from his initial greeting, I snapped at him, “CJ, just hold on. I’m talking.” “But, Dad, I want something.” “Just hold on!” I said in that loud-yet-still-quiet-enough-to-remain-unembarrassed sort of way that most parents have mastered. “But Mom always gets me something!” Inside, I had run out of patience. I reached down and squeezed his arm to get his attention, but I didn’t realize how angry I was—and I squeezed his arm too hard. He screamed out in pain. I mean, really screamed. In front of all those parents. I could just hear them thinking, Isn’t that Reverend Wilson? Should we call Child Protective Services, or at least just leave his church and tell everyone why?
It was not my finest hour. On the drive home, I came to my senses and went through the ABCs in my head as I drove. You can do it that quickly. I admitted my anger, backtracked to the hurt that sparked my anger, and realized that I needed to confess my anger to my sons. “Boys,” I said, “back there at the gymnastics center, did you think I was mad?” Wide-eyed, they nodded yes in unison. (Side note: the kids see everything.) “Do you know why Dad was angry?” CJ piped up. “Yeah, I didn’t interrupt you properly.”
He assumed the fault was all his, which is what we teach our children to do—mainly because we as parents have such a hard time being honest with our children about our own faults in the process. I decided that I needed to address my mistake, not just let it be eclipsed by their childlike innocence—which I knew might do the trick this time, but wouldn’t last forever.
“CJ, you wanted Mom to pick you up instead of me. You’re seven years old, and of course you wanted your mom. But it hurt my feelings, and I took it out on you. Guys, Dad was wrong. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have squeezed your arm so hard, CJ. That anger was inappropriate. Will you forgive me?” Before my confession was even finished, CJ replied, “Oh yeah!” (Side note: kids are usually quick to forgive.)
That was an incredible moment with my sons, but the best part of the story is that twenty minutes later, when I walked into the house, Ann got a husband who was no longer carrying displaced anger that would have ended up being directed at her.
Gaining control of our anger is critically important. If we don’t get back to the source, we will continue to carry that fire into our marriage, most definitely hurting the ones whom we love the most. They deserve better than this from us.
The above is an excerpt from Dave and Ann Wilson’s 2019 release, Vertical Marriage: The One Secret that Will Change Your Marriage. [Symbol] Copyright 2018 by Dave and Ann Wilson. Requests for information should be addressed to: Zondervan, 3900 Sparks Drive SE, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49546