Note: This is the first of a two-part series
Dear Neil: I am 26 and have been engaged for just over a year. For the past five months, I have asked my fiancé to do some housework. After asking three or four times, I get extremely upset, start yelling and we end up fighting. How can I stop getting so frustrated, upset and angry, and learn to bite my tongue?
Frustrated In New Zealand
Dear Frustrated: Our anger gives us a greater sense of power and authority over our world. By being angry we act as though we are powerful and in control. The irony, of course, is that when we are angry, we often are feeling powerless and out of control.
Usually anger is a cover for deeper emotions and issues that go unacknowledged, such as hurt, disappointment, vulnerability, fear of loss, how important am I to you, can I trust you, acceptance and approval and our longing for greater intimacy.
The reason why we find it so hard to be gracious and give in to the other person during a disagreement is that at a subterranean level we are fighting about principles or issues larger than the subject at hand. I would guess that the larger, unacknowledged issue that your boyfriend is fighting over has to do with the issue of control and power. Who’s in charge in this relationship? Who makes the decisions? Who tells who what to do?
Of course, I could be wrong. Your boyfriend may just not value the cleanliness or tidiness you do, or may just be very preoccupied with other things that feel more important to him.
Let us acknowledge that love and anger go together much more often than we’d like to think. Managing our anger poorly, and hurting people with it, is probably the most common reason for marriages to fail. Many relationships frequently fail because couples have frustrating and painful experiences that produce so much anger, hurt and resentment that their love gets destroyed in the process.
All couples have conflicts, although not every couple talks about or addresses their conflicts. Couples who do not deal with their conflicts on an ongoing basis tend to grow more withdrawn and distant from each other. “In our 40 years of marriage, we have never had a fight,” seldom—if ever—describes a close couple.
In every vital, long-term intimate relationship, the two most powerful forces affecting the relationship are love and anger. Love seeks to draw the couple together, and anger tends to drive them apart. Both are active and operative throughout the entire relationship.
How do you express anger to people you love? Most of us have never seen the effectively modeled expression and resolution of healthy anger. If your method of expressing anger leads to hurt, distance, fear or bad will, it could be argued that you are sabotaging the intimacy and the love that you desire.
Effectively working through angry disagreements permits two people to grow together. It helps couples identify areas that need work, and where adjustments need to be made for things to function more smoothly between you.
Before you speak out, ask yourself the following questions: “What is it about this situation that makes me angry? What is the real issue here?”
I will continue this discussion in next week’s column.