Ted Cunningham: From Anger to Intimacy

ted-cunningham

Ted, what do you know about anger in marriage?
You begin by trying to figure out how much of the anger is rooted in the marriage. What we’ve come to find is very little anger begins in the marriage but it’s brought into the marriage.

For example, we have a socially acceptable word in our culture for anger called “stress” — and we even brag about this form of anger. You know I’m stressed. I’ve got too much goin’ on at work. Oh, traffic was crazy today, totally stressed out. I’ve got kids at home and I’m stressed. Because you’re never going to hear anybody run around going, I’m angry. I’m mad. What happens is something we call “transference”. We bring anger or stress home from work, home from traffic, our 401k — all of that causes great frustration.

Anger has three sources: hurt, fear and frustration. Couples begin to transfer the frustration, the hurt, or the fear — that isn’t even in the home — into the home because it’s the most comfortable environment. So we’ve got to start asking the question: What am I really feeling? Anger is not a primary emotion — it’s a secondary emotion — and where is the source of this anger? Where did it start? If I’m bringing it out on the spouse or on my kids, I need to pinpoint where this thing originated and begin dealing with it.

So, the cause of anger goes deep.
Yes. Every couple brings a suitcase into the marriage full of past hurts, fears and frustrations. If we’re not careful we’ll begin to think that our spouse’s issues are really my issues and that I did something to cause that. We have to guard against this source and solution problem where my spouse is the source of all of my problems.

That puts me in a place of being stuck. There’s really nowhere for me to go. I can’t blame my wife, accuse her, point the finger of accusation at her to say, You’re the reason I’m feeling this way. It could be something I brought into the marriage from childhood, from work or from just listening to the news. How many couples are acting out on one another because they’re watching too much depressing news?

How should a couple approach forgiveness?
I’d start with what’s been holding you back. There’s several reasons couples withhold forgiveness.

We withhold forgiveness because we fear that we’ll be condoning the offense; we fear that we’ll be invalidating or minimizing the hurt and pain that was felt. A lot of times we’ll withhold forgiveness because we believe that we need to hold on to our anger to coerce an apology.

It’s like the marriage trump card. We hold on to that card thinking, Hey, as long as I hold the trump card I have the upper hand in the marriage.

We’re not so much interested in the offense or what made us angry as we are with: What are you going to do with your anger? Are you going to resolve it? Or are you going to sit on it? Will it escalate? Is the primary roadblock selfishness? I don’t want to forgive you because I enjoy being the victim. I know that sounds weird to say — I enjoy being the victim — but when we enjoy being the victim, what we’re really saying is: We like being in control of this relationship and by forgiving you, I let you off the hook. I don’t excuse behavior or make excuses for the offense that you brought on to me, but ultimately I lose power — when just the opposite is true.

When we learn to forgive and operate in a spirit of forgiveness, the Scripture says that we are freeing ourselves, setting ourselves free from prison. The bottom line is you and I are going to need forgiveness in the future, so we better start learning how to forgive our spouse in the present.

Ted, you have said, anger is a secondary emotion. What do you mean by that?
Most men struggle with the fear of being controlled. We don’t want to be told what to do. We don’t want to feel like a failure. We want to look successful.

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For most women, generally speaking, it’s the opposite. A woman’s primary emotion is the fear of being disconnected from. They always want to feel connected to.

I used to think my wife was trying to control me. What I’ve come to learn is, it’s not about her telling me what to. She’s trying to connect with me — that’s a big difference. Let’s deal with things at the root level, at the primary emotions, so we don’t get to the secondary emotion of anger.

What happens when anger escalates to abuse?
The victim of physical, emotional, even sexual abuse has to find a way to forgive because it affects every other relationship. Anger is not a respecter of persons and it will resurface in other relationships. People often push back and say, You gotta be kidding me. You’re telling me I have to forgive that guy and go back into that? No, I’m not saying you have to go back into that situation. What I’m telling you is you have to find a way to forgive because you can’t close your heart off.

That’s why the writer of Hebrews says, “Don’t allow any root of bitterness to grab hold of your heart” because it comes out in every other relationship and especially our relationship with God. Scripture says, “You and I do not generate one ounce of love. God is love,” period. And you and I love because He first loved us. When we’re closed off to other people, we are unable to receive the love. I’m not asking you to give your measly love or my measly love or your measly forgiveness and my measly forgiveness to another person. I’m asking you to be filled so that you have something to give to another person.

Ted, what we see frequently is couples caught in this vicious cycle of argument and conflict and anger, and it’s a tit for tat — back and forth and back and forth. What would your advice be to a couple that’s caught in that cycle?
Number one, instead of giving the kids a timeout, start giving yourself a timeout. We’re not capable of anything productive in the first five to 20 minutes after an escalated argument.

It takes about 20 minutes for our heart rate to come back down to a resting rate. It’s in that time we need to own our emotions and take them before the Lord and realize that it’s my control issue. I don’t need to be her lord and master. There’s nowhere in Scripture that says it’s my job to be my wife’s lord. I need to get off my mate’s case and quit trying to change her.

My apologies for the first several years of marriage were ridiculous. I used to say things to my wife like, I’m sorry if I offended you. You know what we’re basically saying is, You shouldn’t have been feeling that way. Or, you shouldn’t have been offended. I also said things to her like, I’m sorry that you feel that way — basically taking no personal responsibility for my own words and actions.

The quickest way out of the cycle is to take 100% personal responsibility for what you are feeling, what you are thinking, what you are saying, and what you are doing and get off your mate’s case. Scripture says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” That word “opposes” means God literally stands against the proud. I see that playing out in marriage every day. They drag their spouse to a marriage seminar to get fixed. They hand their spouse a book to read to get fixed. They preach to their husband or to their wife to get fixed.

Scripture says God stands against that type of behavior. He is not going to step in and do anything so long as you and I think we’re in charge and we’re the ones running the show. My challenge to every spouse is to back off your mate and let God do what God does — and that is change people.

Copyright © 2009 by Growthtrac

About Jim Mueller

bio-jim-muellerJim is the founder, with wife, Sheri, of Growthtrac Ministries as well as Program Director of GrowthtracRadio and the architect behind growthtrac.com. Jim holds a B.S. in business management and is a facilitator for PREPARE/ENRICH, the most widely used customized couple assessment tool. He has authored numerous articles, interviewed leading relationship authors and Christian artists, and has contributed to Dr. Les Parrott’s book, The Complete Guide to Marriage Mentoring. Jim has worked for more than 15 years to help premarital couples and married couples build and maintain healthy relationships.

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