Category Archives: Marriage

Dealing With Anger: Water or Gasoline?

The issue of anger comes up frequently in my practice.  Whether it is a low grade irritability, prolonged resentment or full blown rage, it shows up in many relationships.  In dealing with anger it may be helpful to make a distinction between two different kinds of anger, good and bad.

Good anger is sometimes called “righteous indignation.”  Essentially, it is anger that is directed at an injustice.  It is a constructive anger because it seeks the good of another.  It can be used to improve the lives of people.  Suppose you saw a starving child and the sight angered you.  You know in your heart that children should be cared for and nurtured, not starved.  Your anger would be directed at the injustice.  Hopefully, you would be motivated to assist starving children in some way.  Mothers Against Drunk Driving is another example of good anger being used as a positive force.

Bad anger is basically a temper tantrum.  The self is usually the focus of bad anger.  This type of anger is not constructive.  It tends to promote the destruction of relationships, people and property.  People of all ages have temper tantrums of varying degrees.

Anger is often thought of as an emotion that “just happens.”  What is often overlooked is that anger is largely a choice we make.  It is really a secondary reaction to a primary emotion such as frustration, embarrassment, guilt, disappointment, etc.  When people do not deal with the primary emotion effectively, anger is the next recourse.

The primary emotions of anger can be placed into two main categories: feelings of being emotionally hurt and feelings of being put in danger.  The “fight or flight” reflex kicks in and people respond either by wanting to distance themselves (flight) or by wanting to lash out physically or verbally (fight).  However, once the anger begins to show up, we then have to make a choice.  This is when we decide either to pour water or gasoline on the flames.  Many folks don’t realize they have a choice at this point.  They just let the feeling take them for a ride rather than managing the feeling.  They claim they were “made angry” rather than admitting they chose their own reactions.

Road rage is an example of unmanaged emotions.  Being cut off by another driver may trigger feelings of being emotionally hurt (“How rude!  Can’t he see I’m in this lane?”).  It may frighten you and trigger fears that you are in danger (“I could have wrecked the car!”).  In any case, those primary feelings may lead to the next step of anger.  Then you make a choice: take a few deep breaths and let it roll off your back (water), or tailgate the other driver to get back at him (gasoline).

In relationships the same principle applies.  We need to take ownership of our own emotions and manage them.  Otherwise, we end up blaming others for our bad behavior while relinquishing our own power of self-control.

Watch this video and notice which person has control of his own anger and which person lets his anger take him for a ride.

A Happy Marriage: Some Reflections

What makes a happy marriage?  That’s a question with a lot of answers.  I can’t cover everything here, but there are certain qualities that come to mind.  Trust, honesty, love, respect, kindness, patience and forgiveness are several aspects of a good relationship.  Are these qualities earned or are they freely given?

A marriage needs unconditional love.  This is not the love of emotion but the love of choice.  It is “agape” or godly love.  It is a love no one can earn.  No one “deserves” unconditional love.  It is freely given by choice.  It is the kind of love that says, “I love you even though you are driving me crazy and I don’t really like being around you right now.”  It is the kind of love that chooses to be married every day, not just on the wedding day.  If someone must perform to a certain level in order to be loved, that love is conditional.  Humans crave unconditional love, not performance based love, especially in marriages and families.  Beware of “I love you, but…” statements, which often indicate that love has conditions attached to it.

Trust, on the other hand, must be earned.  Trust, like fine crystal, can be broken in an instant and can be very hard to repair, if at all.  Loving a person does not mean automatically trusting that person.  Trust is built over time by trustworthy behavior.  Words do not build trust unless those words match the behavior.  It is quite possible to love a person without trusting that person.  When trust has been deeply wounded, only trustworthy behavior over a long period of time can rebuild it.  Sometimes, trust is so badly damaged, it can never be restored.

Kindness, respect, honesty, patience and forgiveness must be freely given.  These are all linked to unconditional love.  Your spouse should not need to earn your kindness or your patience.  If you are kind and patient it is because you are a kind, patient person.  If you value the dignity of your spouse’s humanity you will be respectful, even when your spouse behaves poorly.  No one needs to earn your honesty.  Simply be an honest person.  Be forgiving.  Don’t wait for the offender to “earn” your forgiveness.  Carrying a grudge is like bearing a large rock on your shoulders.  You end up suffering the most by harboring your un-forgiveness and waiting for the offender to change.

Forgiveness is not the same as trust.  Forgiving a person does not mean you automatically trust that person.  Trust
must be earned.  Trust is conditional.  You can forgive someone while still holding that person accountable for the offense.  Forgiving a person does not mean allowing that person to continuously repeat the offense.  For example, if a man steals $100.00, you can forgive him for the theft and at the same time expect that he return the stolen money and face jail time.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean letting people off the hook for bad behavior.  In a marriage, spouses must be forgiving yet hold each other accountable for behaviors that are toxic to the relationship.

Ask yourself what qualities you expect your spouse to earn, and what qualities you freely offer.  It may open up new perspectives on your relationship.

Marriage: A Real Vocation

Recently, I was asked to participate in a discussion group about marriage.  The question posed to me was, “What are some of the biggest marriage issues you see in your therapy practice?”  I could have talked for hours about communication issues, money issues, unrealistic expectations, family-of-origin issues, gender differences, etc.  But, since it was a Catholic group with limited time, I decided to go more to the heart of the matter.  So, I began by saying that I believe three things are being extracted from marriage by society: vocation, sacrament and covenant.  One thing is being injected to replace these three things: self-centeredness.

Many people do not think of marriage as a vocation.  Rather than a divine calling, marriage becomes just another item on a list of “Things That Will Make Me Happy.”  A vocation is something to devote one’s life to.  It transcends feelings and emotions and relies on work, sacrifice, priority and commitment to bear the fruit of genuine joy and happiness that people long for.  Self-centeredness says, “This marriage is about making me happy.”  Vocation says, “We are in this marriage to serve God and each other.  It is our primary calling, not just our desire.”

Some non-Catholic Christian denominations ordain both women and men to the ministry.  I have seen it cause conflict in a marriage when both spouses feel called to the vocation of ministry.  The marriage and family becomes something to “work around” while they pursue their vocations.  There are essentially three vocations competing for attention and devotion in this scenario.  Even when only one spouse is called to the ministry it can be difficult for that person to devote enough time to both vocations.

I love that the Catholic Church regards marriage as a Sacrament.  It is “an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace.”  Marriage is a vehicle by which people receive God’s grace.  The “outward sign” is the couple.  The marriage reflects Christ as the Groom and the Church as his Bride.  From the beginning, “a man leaves his mother and father, a woman leaves her home, and the two become one.”  Christ and his Church are united as one body.  A happy marriage requires lots of grace.

It’s not surprising that the secular world has lost sight of the sacramental aspect of marriage.  Unfortunately, so has much of Christendom.  A few years ago, I attended a wedding where the minister actually made a point of saying, “This is not a sacrament, as some might think.”  I knew that some Christians disagreed that marriage is a sacrament, but I was surprised to hear that rejection stated as part of a wedding ceremony.  I was also saddened by the reminder that so many fellow Christians have been denied the graces available through the sacramental life of the Church because of the Reformation.

Most folks these days think of marriage as a contract rather than a covenant.  A contract says, “We have a deal, at least, unless one of us breaks the deal.”  Covenant says, “We’re family now.  We are blood relatives.”   Both the Old Covenant and the New Covenant of God were sealed by blood.  The family of God is a blood relationship.  A blood relative is always a blood relative, regardless of legal proceedings.  This is why the Catholic Church says that if a couple is validly married in the eyes of the Church, they stay married for life.  A legal divorce does not change the blood relationship.  A covenant is not a legal state of being, but a relational state of being.  A contract protects people from each other.  A covenant embraces people as family.

A self-centered approach to life does not fit well with the ideas of vocation, sacrament or covenant.  The Church, of course, has always known this.  As society becomes increasingly “me” oriented, marriage and family life feels the strain.  Generally speaking, as the family goes, so goes the society.  Although I can’t discuss the concepts of vocation, sacrament and covenant with all of my marriage therapy clients, I can help them to see the toxic character of self-centeredness and the joys of true commitment.  Hopefully, some of God’s grace enters the relationship that way.

Quite frankly, many couples would spend a lot less money on marriage therapists if they only took advantage of the Sacrament of Confession.  But that’s a topic for another day.

For another interesting article about marriage as a vocation read this.