What messages did you get about anger when you were growing up?
I bet you heard statements like these:
Girls shouldn’t get so mad.
Don’t curse. It isn’t very ladylike.
Guys don’t like angry, bitter women.
Calm down. You’re being so dramatic.
The people who instilled this kind of thinking in us weren’t doing us any favours. Misconceptions about anger and a lack of healthy strategies for dealing with anger can damage your relationship. So, let’s get a fresh perspective on this intense emotion that you might fear and avoid.
When Anger Goes Wrong
Far too many women think anger is telling them something negative about themselves. Thanks to what they learned from their families of origin and our culture, they fear deep down that anger means they’re a bad, aggressive person. They believe that if they could just be better somehow, they wouldn’t get angry.
These beliefs lead to:
>> Tolerating behaviour that makes you feel disrespected. For example, your husband habitually runs late. Or even behaviour that harms your family, like overspending.
>> Avoiding anger at all costs. Never having an argument doesn’t improve your marriage. In fact, the opposite can happen if you are sweeping issues under the rug.
>> Seething silently in resentment. In many marriages, women build up resentment around housework and emotional labor.
>> Withdrawing and becoming depressed. This happens when you lose any hope of getting your needs met.
>> Complaints that do give voice to your anger, but in a way that’s unlikely to get your husband to change what’s making you angry.
>> Mean-spirited venting with friends. Again, this might feel like you’re doing something with your anger. But you’re actually just cultivating contempt for your husband while avoiding the real issues.
>> We all have a breaking point. If you suppress anger long enough, you’re likely to lash out. When that happens, your words will be a lot more hurtful than the ones you would have chosen if you’d addressed your anger earlier.
How Anger Can Help You
You may not realize that anger doesn’t have to result in screaming and wounded feelings. It can actually help you improve your relationship. Anger also isn’t some indication of your character, or lack thereof.
The very wise psychologist and author, Harriet Lerner, recommends viewing anger as a warning signal. It reliably tells you when something is wrong and you need to take action to protect yourself.
To use anger in a positive way, first notice how you react when you notice angry feelings surfacing. If you tend to judge yourself and say, “Ugh, I shouldn’t be such a bitch,” or push your anger down with “No time to feel that now!” see if you can just let yourself feel the emotion without trying to judge it or squash it.
Instead of recoiling from your own anger, tune in and ask yourself what your anger is trying to communicate to you. Some common messages behind anger include:
Your needs aren’t being met.
You are being disrespected.
You are doing too much.
Someone has crossed a line with you.
When you have a handle on what’s causing your anger, you can act on it in a more effective way and use your anger as catalyst for positive change. For example, you can establish or affirm healthy boundaries around what you will do, how much you will give, and what you will tolerate. You can lovingly but firmly stand up for what you need and what you expect.
Read More About Women and Anger
I won’t lie to you: while embracing your anger is liberating, it can also be an uncomfortable journey. All of those early messages are deeply ingrained in our minds, and our society still has some deeply messed up attitudes about women and anger. To aid you in this work, I recommend Lerner’s book The Dance of Anger, as well as my own book, Strong Women, Strong Love: The Missing Manual for the Modern Marriage.
Getting on each other’s nerves during COVID-19 lockdown? Here’s a great article about how to manage those feelings of irritation and overwhelm.
Do you lose your temper often only to say or do things you regret?
We’ve all been there. One moment you are fine, but then someone or something triggers you. You “lose your mind” and can’t control yourself. You are “flooded.” You find yourself yelling at your partner, giving disproportionate punishment to your kids, slamming doors, threatening to quit your job, and spiraling downwards.
Several minutes or hours later, you calm down and realize, with regret, the damage that you have done.
During the coronavirus epidemic lockdown, anxiety, uncertainty, and conflicts are especially increased in relationships. These conditions make emotional “flooding” more common and harder to control than in other, more normal times.
The good news is that you can help minimize such flooding. The first step to minimizing flooding is to understand how our brain is hardwired.
Sometimes venting to your friends about your husband’s
little quirks crosses the line from joking to betrayal. Consider these
How would your husband feel if he heard what you
were saying? Would he laugh along or feel hurt?
How would you feel if he were saying something
similar about you to his friends?
Gossiping about your husband can also becomes a betrayal if you’re talking to others about issues in your marriage instead of working on them directly with him.
2. Ignoring Your Spouse’s Intimacy Needs
It’s not a betrayal to have a sex drive that’s out of sync with your partner’s. But it does become one if you don’t communicate about what’s going on with you or if you stop caring about his needs as well as your own.
Being sexually rebuffed without explanation can cut
especially deep for your husband if he isn’t big on intimate conversation and
mainly shares how he feels about you through the sexual connection.
3. Showing Disrespect
Your marriage doesn’t always have to be full of romance and passion. But it does consistently require the two of you to respect each other.
When respect breaks down, that sets the stage for deeper
trouble in a relationship. The problem is that it’s easy to become so busy and
stressed that we forget to treat our spouses with common courtesy.
It’s tempting to think “Well, that’s just how it is when life is so hectic.” But even little acts of disrespect can deeply damage a relationship over time.
4. Not Being Present Emotionally
This is another everyday betrayal that stems from busyness and stress. We all need to be seen, to be affirmed, to be valued — especially by our spouses. But sometimes we are so engrossed in all the other demands on our time (our phones, the kids and on and on) that we stop noticing each other.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that if you can claim even a few minutes a day to focus just on each other you can make your marriage stronger.
5. Failing to Share the Load
It takes work to maintain a marriage, a family, and a household. There’s no one right way to divide all these responsibilities. Different strategies work for different couples.
The important thing is that the way you are handling things feels equitable to you both. If one of you feels like you’re on your own (as women often do when it comes to emotional labor), resentment starts building.
Do any items on this list hit a little too close to home for you? You and your husband can find ways to strengthen your intimacy and teamwork using the concepts in my bookStrong Women, Strong Love.
If you’re looking for ways to make your marriage better, there’s a strategy you may have never considered. It’s surprisingly simple, and it addresses a common point of tension. Yet very few women use it.
Ready? Here it is: Give partial credit.
What do I mean by partial credit? Let me explain by giving you an example I hear about all the time. A wife asks her husband to take care of some things around the house while she is out. He accomplishes almost everything she wanted him to do. But maybe he doesn’t do the job exactly as she would have.
What do you think she focuses on? That’s right: the fact that the task is not finished in the way she defines it. She’s only giving credit if everything is done and done right according to her standards— which doesn’t help anyone. The husband loses his motivation to do more around the house, and the wife loses out on the work he could be doing.
Giving partial credit works out a whole
lot better for everyone. Let’s look at why that is.
Why We ‘Grade’ So Harshly
I don’t think women intentionally avoid
giving partial credit. It’s just a function of how we are used to doing things
and the stress we are under.
Women are taught to look for ways to be
helpful without being asked and to go the extra mile. If one woman is doing a
task, another will typically jump in and try to help if she can. Men, on the
other hand, won’t usually insert themselves into a task another man is doing unless
he is asked to do so. Men consider that being respectful.
In general, men also approach delegated tasks a little differently. They will usually strive to do exactly what is asked, and only that. So, if you’re mad at him for not doing more, he’s not really going to understand that. For example, if you asked him to run the dishwasher and he did that, he might be frustrated when you’re upset he didn’t also clean the kitchen counters because it was so “obvious” they were dirty.
Women are often multitasking and juggling more than men, thereby carrying a larger mental load. We want tasks to be completely done, with nothing left to address or worry about, so they can be totally off of our minds. There’s a psychological phenomenon at play here: the Zeigarnik Effect. Our brains remember incomplete tasks more readily than those that have been completed. Having too many loose ends can literally create mental stress by nagging at us.
What’s the Real Issue?
Shouldn’t he just know that the rest of the
kitchen needed cleaning? Well, yes, but is that what you specifically asked him
to do? If the only thing you did in response to the work he completed is to
complain about what he didn’t do, he’s going to feel discouraged and micromanaged. He’s
also going to eventually feel like nothing makes you happy.
Instead, try giving partial credit. Just
say, “Thanks so much for loading the dishwasher.” This doesn’t mean you are giving up on his
helping to clean the rest of the kitchen. But instead of implying he “failed”
at the task you asked him to complete, make a more specific request next time:
“Would you mind loading the dishwasher, cleaning the countertops and emptying
the dishrack please?” Trust me, he’s not going to be offended by this
level of detail.
The other important thing you can do
moving forward is having a farther-reaching discussion about how the mental
load of the household is distributed. This is especially important if you’re the
one with a to-do list a mile long. At the end of the day, the problem isn’t
really that he didn’t clean the rest of the kitchen, it’s that you are managing
far too many details in your household, and that’s exhausting. Open his eyes to
this so that the two of you can work out a better division of both physical and
Extend More Credit
Especially this time of year, partial
credit is a useful concept to remember in your other relationships too. The
holiday season brings a lot of expectations — and hurt feelings when those
expectations don’t get met. How would it feel to give partial credit to your
sister for at least waiting until after dessert to start complaining about her
ex? Or to your in-laws for not overspending as wildly as they used to on the
kids’ gifts even though they didn’t follow your wishes exactly?
I’m wishing you lots of peace and joy in
all your relationships this holiday season. For more advice on better
communication in marriage, pick up a copy of my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
If your husband has had an affair,
you’re hurt, you’re angry and you have some big decisions to make. Should you
try to repair your marriage? Or should you end your relationship because of his
There’s no decision that’s right for every person. Today I
want to give you some questions to consider that will help you make the best
choice for your marriage.
How Badly Did He Mess
How long was he unfaithful? Has he had multiple affairs? Were his infidelity physical, emotional or both? How emotionally entangled is he with his affair partner? A one-time slip might feel less daunting to work through than an ongoing pattern of cheating.
How Much Do You Have
How long have you been married? Do you have children? Are you deeply involved in each other’s families? While infidelity is devastating in any relationship, you may feel more motivated to stay and work it out if you lives have been deeply interwoven for years and you still have kids at home.
How Is Your Marriage
What else isn’t working? What is working? Do the positives of your relationship give you a strong
enough foundation to rebuild your marriage? For example, do you share values,
parent well together and still have a friendship? Or have you been feeling
disconnected from each other for years?
Are Other Issues
Is he experiencing addiction or mental illness? Is there a
history of infidelity in his family? All of those factors can make repairing
your relationship more difficult.
Did He Learn His
Does he understand the pain he caused you? Has he apologized sincerely? Is he showing you with his actions that he’s willing to do the work needed to save your marriage and to be faithful going forward?
If You Decide to Stay
See a therapist. Healing after an affair is possible. But it isn’t easy. If at all possible, get counseling as a couple.
Set boundaries. If you tell people close to you about your husband’s infidelity, their first reaction might be to urge you to leave him. That’s understandable. They’re hurt and angry on your behalf. But they can also become a barrier to your reconciliation. Remember, it’s your decision whether or not to stay with your husband. And you’re under no obligation to reveal all the details about what’s happening in your marriage to anyone.
Realize that things are different now. Even if you stay together, the marriage that you had before is gone. Going forward, you’re building a new relationship. The good news is that, while neither of you will forget this painful chapter, you can create a healthier and more honest marriage than the one you had before. As you do, I invite you to use my book Strong Women, Strong Love as a resource.
You’re the kind of person who avoids conflict. Your husband, on the other hand, seems to relish picking fights. It’s driving you crazy, but is it a serious problem in your marriage?
The answer is “it depends.” Let’s look at some reasons he may argue with you.
#1: He Just Likes to Debate
Some people just love to spar over politics, which “Avengers” movie was the best, where to order pizza … and on and on. For others, this is exhausting. That being said, very few people actually enjoy aggressively stirring up real arguments.
If he’s a debater and you’re not, the important thing is realizing that the two of you have different styles, and that you must learn to peacefully coexist.
“Respect” is really the key word here. If it suddenly feels like he’s talking about you, instead of, say, politics, pay attention. There’s a big difference between “I disagree with your candidate” and “You’ve got to be an idiot to vote for that guy.” And the latter statement is a sign of a deeper trouble in your marriage.
#2: He Wants to Talk EVERYTHING Out
You and your husband may be different in how much you feel a need to discuss things. Maybe you usually shrug off little annoyances, but he tends to make everything “a thing.”
You grit your teeth and put up with his family. He doesn’t hesitate to tell you how much your mom drives him nuts. You don’t say a word when he’s binge watching his favorite show. He lets you know he’s unhappy with the amount of time you spend on Instagram. Why can’t he chill out?
Maybe he came from a family where everyone expressed themselves openly, and your family was more reserved. Or, perhaps you were taught to let little things go, and he wasn’t.
Whatever the case, there isn’t necessarily a “right” approach. Some people with great marriages don’t express conflict openly. Others bicker all the time. The frequency of your arguments isn’t nearly as important as what’s going on in them. As long as you remain respectful, you’re on solid ground. (See “The Right Way to Fight With Your Husband.”)
Possibility #3: It’s Really About His Unmet Needs
Unmet needs can sometimes also be the source of intense conflict. The influential psychologist Marshall Rosenberg, creator of Nonviolent Communication, noted:
criticism, judgment, diagnosis, and expression of anger is the tragic
expression of an unmet need.
Could this be true of your husband? Is it possible his agitation is really about a need that’s not being met? Maybe he wants more time with you? More appreciation? Consider listening deeper for that unmet need rather than joining him in the fight. How would your response change?
Now this doesn’t mean that he has license to yell or throw tantrums and to expect you to read his mind. He has some responsibility to ask for what he needs. You have every right to ask that he be calm and constructive.
No matter which one of these scenarios applies to your marriage, please know that you and your husband can manage it together. Understanding the reason for the disagreement is important in helping you determine how to respond. Next time he picks a fight, I hope you’ll start by asking yourself, “Why is he arguing with me?”