It was a storybook wedding. The bride wore an elegant white dress. The groom donned a traditional black tuxedo. The bridesmaids strolled gracefully down the aisle. The flower girl and ring bearer were wide-eyed and earned coos and giggles from the crowd. The flowers were beautiful. The music played harmoniously. The candles added just the right hues to the backdrop of the ceremony.
The joy, elation and excitement of the day left Sabrina with an unmistakable glow. Within a few moments, she and Johnny had made the commitment to love, honor, cherish and respect each other in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, until death did them part.
But less than 36 months later, both Johnny and Sabrina were ready to break their covenant of marriage and file for divorce. How did something that began so perfectly grow into an unhealthy, hurtful relationship?
The transformation began shortly after the honeymoon. When the young couple walked into my office for counseling, I (Ted) remember sensing the pain, hurt and disappointment in their eyes as they began recounting their stories and interactions. Sabrina remembered one evening shortly after they were married:
“I’m going out tonight, honey,” Johnny announced on his way out the door. “I’m hanging with the boys. I’ll be home around midnight.”
“What do you mean you are going out tonight?” Sabrina protested. “I had a special meal planned.”
“Don’t you remember last week, when I told you that Craig is hosting a Texas hold ’em tournament tonight?” Johnny answered.
“Yes, I remember you mentioning it, but I don’t remember us making any decisions about it.”
“What . . . are you my mother?” Johnny snapped.
“No, but I thought it would be cool if we hung out tonight, because we’re out every other night this week with work, church and my parents’ get-together.”
“Baby, I can’t let the guys down. They’re expecting me. I’ll try to get home a little earlier, if that will make you happy.”
“Fine, I’ll see you in the morning.”
“Now you’re mad?” Johnny asked.
With that, Johnny left the house. Six months later, the marriage was deteriorating on multiple levels. Sabrina’s small annoying habits were growing too big for Johnny to overlook. Meanwhile, Johnny’s lack of attention to detail or care for hygiene were becoming more than Sabrina could handle. Instead of talking to her husband, Sabrina spent long hours on the phone each night criticizing him. She picked on the way Johnny ate and belittled him for not doing more around the house.
The couples’ communication was nearly nonexistent, and both spouses were suffering. What began as irritation quickly ballooned into annoyance, which resulted in feelings of being disrespected, devalued and controlled. Anger filled their home.
Whenever anger takes up residence in a marriage, sexual intimacy moves out. Anger is like a vacuum; it sucks the tenderness, gentleness and honor out of the relationship. As a result, Johnny and Sabrina quickly lost interest in each other sexually. Though they continued to sleep in the same bed, they never went to bed at the same time. This became the new norm for their relationship.
Nearly two years passed before Johnny came home with bad news: He had been fired from his job as a teacher in the local school district.
“They caught me looking at porn on the computer at school,” Johnny confessed.
Sabrina was shocked. What are we going to do for money? she wondered. What are people going to say?
Then an even more devastating thought struck her: How long has this been going on?
Johnny’s addiction to pornography had started in high school and progressed through college. Though he struggled with it while dating Sabrina and then during their engagement, he kept telling himself, Once we get married, everything will be all right.
Everything was all right for the first few weeks. But then the relationship soured, and Johnny returned to his old addiction.
He sat across the dining room table from Sabrina, waiting for his wife to unleash her fury. But instead, tears began welling up in her eyes.
“I have something I need to tell you,” Sabrina stammered. “Remember Jack from high school?”
“Yeah,” Johnny said, feeling a nervous tightness in his chest.
“Well, when I opened up my Facebook account online about a year ago, we reconnected. At first it was just a few emails back and forth, but then we met for coffee.” Johnny’s mind raced with questions: Did that meeting happen on one of my poker nights? Did I drive her to this guy? But he managed to hold them inside.
Johnny asked the question he feared most: “Did you sleep with him?”
“No, but we kissed,” Sabrina answered.
Then there was silence.
How could Sabrina and Johnny hold their marriage together with such distrust? How could they move beyond the anger and disappointment they felt? How could they build a new foundation for their marriage?
Sabrina’s anger toward Johnny’s addiction and Johnny’s anger toward Sabrina’s kissing an old friend are healthy responses. Any normal person would react with shock and anger. At the same time, now they both needed to make choices to resolve their anger in a healthy way. (I’m happy to tell you that they did work hard to rebuild their marriage relationship, and they did learn the life-giving principles of dealing with their destructive anger issues.
Admittedly, Sabrina and Johnny’s life had enough twists and turns to be an Everyman story. Their marriage relationship took more hits in a few short years than most marriages will experience in a lifetime. But even if your marriage is visited only with simple problems like differences in views of housecleaning, chances are, you will deal with enough irritations and occasional anger flare-ups with your spouse that you can benefit from the proven tactics we will share.
In fact, it’s often the small, daily irritations experienced over a long period of time, and not dealt with in a healthy way, that have the power to strain a marriage and lead to estrangement. That is true probably because feelings of irritation can lead to resentment and anger that continue to build below the surface, regardless of the face you or your spouse present to each other every day. And that’s a danger zone.
So, even if you would say that your marriage is good, is more than good, or it couldn’t be better, you can benefit by learning the secrets to anger control and how you can create closeness in your communication with your mate. Even if there is no problem looming in your marriage right now, you need this information, because you live in a fallen world with other fallen human beings who will rub you the wrong way, and vice versa.
Adapted from From Anger to Intimacy
Copyright © 2008 Gary Smalley. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Published by Gospel Light.