How To Be Good and Angry–at the same time
Susan Gregory Thomas tells the tragic story of two divorces.1 The first was the divorce of her parents, resulted in what can only be described as a lost childhood. She writes, “I spent the rest of middle and high school [after the divorce] getting into trouble in suburban Philadelphia: chain-smoking, doing drugs, getting kicked out of schools, spending a good part of my senior year in a psychiatric ward.”
The second divorce is the story of the break up of her own marriage, although she was determined, she says, never to get divorced herself. “But,” she writes, “marriages do dissolve, even among those determined never to let it happen. After nine years, my husband and I had become wretched, passive-aggressive roommates.” Four years after her own divorce she wonders if there was something she and her husband could have done differently.
I assume that her divorce, like all divorces, must have been motivated by negative feelings towards one’s spouse. Therefore, if I had the opportunity, I would answer her question thus:
You could have done something different with your anger which drove you into the divorce court. Instead of being passive or active aggressive with each other, you could have owned your anger and the hurt which fueled it. Then instead of acting your anger out in either a passive or aggressive manner, you could have learned to stay engaged
without either attacking or withdrawing. Instead of letting your anger control you and push you into a divorce you did not want, you could have put yourself in control of your anger. You could have learned to be good and angry.
There is an odd verse in the Bible which says, “Be angry” (Eph 4:26). I don’t take this as an encouragement to be angry or to incite anger in someone else. Rather, it is a recognition of the fact of anger.
We cannot help but rub one another the wrong way. I am going to feel hurt and angry by others, even when they are not trying to hurt me, and others are going to feel hurt and angry by many of the things I do. Anger is a simply a fact of life.
Of course, being angry is easy, although some of us have a hard time acknowledging our anger. But there is more to this text. It says, “Be angry, and sin not. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Eph 4:26-27a). How to be good and angry–that is the trick that Susan Thomas should have learned if she wanted to avoid a divorce.
There are at least two unproductive and unhealthy ways to respond to anger; one looks like a skunk and the other a turtle. When the skunk is upset he hikes his tail and sprays his enemy with a terrible stink. When a person is in the skunk mode in response to anger, we call it retaliation or revenge.
Some people identify anger with retaliation. But getting even is only one way to respond to anger and not a very helpful way. Getting even never works because the hurt I inflict upon you is always perceived by you as worse than the hurt you might have inflicted upon me. So you must then try to even the score by hurting me again. Then, of course, I have to hurt you to get even. So getting even produces a more and more lopsided score, at least in the minds of both parties to the conflict.
The second way of dealing with anger is modeled on the behavior of the turtle. Although the turtle’s response of pulling into his shell does not look like anger, psychologically it is a similar, defensive response. Giving my antagonist the cold shoulder, or stalking out of the house after an argument, or not showing up for an appointment with someone I do not like are all expressions of anger.
Although passive ways of showing anger allow us to pretend that we are not angry, the other person will experience us as hostile. My passive aggressive display of anger hides my anger only from myself. Although my partner will consciously or perhaps unconsciously perceive my anger, the fact that I disown it only serves to confuse both of us. It is then difficult, if not impossible, to deal productively with our differences.
Early in my counseling career I encountered a couple where the wife had accumulated mounds of passive, unacknowledged anger. Judy was a sweet, caring wife, raised to submit to her husband and do everything possible to meet his every need.
Sam was a genial, out going husband. He was not really mean, but on the other hand, it would be an understatement to say that he was not very sensitive to Judy’s feelings. When he wanted sex, she always gave it. After satisfying himself, he would get out of bed to smoke a cigarette and watch a baseball game on TV. No cuddling, no conversation with Judy. It would be fair to say that while he smoked she smoldered
One day after fifteen years of what Sam thought was a wonderful marriage, Judy announced, “I want a divorce.” But she did agree to come to marriage counseling with Sam. After hearing their story, I remarked to Judy, “You must be pretty angry with Sam.” Totally unemotionally she replied, “No, I’m not angry. I just want a divorce.
She was never able, even with my sympathetic prodding, to own how intensely angry she felt toward Sam. Anger was just not something nice girls felt. Nevertheless, she did divorce Sam.
Judy helped me learn that one of the most destructive ways to deal with anger is to repress (not suppress) our anger. Repressed anger is anger that we do not even realize we have. Repressed anger never gets resolved. It poisons not only our relationships but our very bodies. Repressed anger will give us high blood pressure, headaches, backaches, ulcers, and possibly even cancer itself.
Besides active aggressive anger or passive anger there is a third choice, namely, responsible acceptance of anger and respectful engagement with one’s partner regarding the hurt and anger one feels.
This demands, first of all, an honest acknowledgment of anger, which is not too hard for the skunk. He can smell his anger. But it is a different story for the turtle, who can pull into his shell and pretend that he doesn’t have any feelings., least of all anger. Nevertheless, a healthy response to anger begins with the ability to identify it, to own it, to say, “Yes, I am angry. This is the person with whom I am angry, and this is why.”
Once I have owned my anger, I have to decide what I will do with it. It does absolutely no good to complain about the person who has made me angry. Indeed, the more I focus upon the person who has offended me, the more angry I become.
The temptation for the skunk is to vent his anger, to let it out in a torrent hateful words. Some psychologists actually used to recommend this as a helpful way to deal with anger. The reality, however, is that venting does not help anyone deal with their anger in a positive way. The more I vent, the hotter I become.
Granted, I have been treated unfairly, but no matter how atrocious the behavior of my antagonist, the simple fact is that once I have been mistreated, I am the one left with the anger. My anger belongs to me, not the person who activated the anger. It is up to me to decide what I will do with it. The person who hurt me may not be of much help. My anger is my responsibility. It is up to me what I will do with it.
Do I want to nurse my anger or do I want to let it go? Do I want to hold on to my resentment? Or do I want to engage the person who has hurt me with the goal of moving toward forgiveness and reconciliation?
Either I decide to forgive or I do not. And no one, not my friend, not my pastor, not my counselor can make me do it or even show me an easy way to do it. It is hard, very hard.
“To err is human; to forgive is divine.” Forgiveness is the work of God. Consider that the most powerful act of Jesus on this earth was not walking on water, healing the sick or raising the dead. The most powerful thing he ever did was to voluntarily lay down his life for his enemies and to ask God to forgive them. If I learn to forgive, I am learning to imitate God.
When I decide I to forgive the person with whom I am angry, that is the first step toward reconciliation. On the other hand, my antagonist may be in no mood to be my friend. My forgiveness does not guarantee a mutually happy friendship. It only guarantees my personal emotional and spiritual health. I forgive for my own emotional and spiritual health. For more suggestions about how to forgive see the chapter on “Forgiveness: The Spiritual Task of Marriage” (page 173).