Too many of us think that anger is like flatulence: it’s an uncomfortable feeling that grows bigger and bigger, but if you just let it out, you’ll feel so much better.
Anger doesn’t work that way. When we let anger fly–by yelling, or saying hurtful things–we often make a situation worse. And that’s because in our anger, we’re not “in our right minds”. Anger isn’t just an emotion; it’s actually a physiological response.
When you‘re mad, adrenaline starts surging. When you feel threatened, your brain enters a “fight or flight” response, where blood flow rushes to the brain and out of your extremities. Your heart rate increases. Your body gets primed to flee, if needed. All of your senses are heightened.
This cycle starts because the limbic system takes over, inhibiting rational thinking and putting you into emergency mode. It often takes up to an hour after feeling anger for the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher order thinking, to start functioning normally again.
And if we give in to that anger by erupting, we prolong the whole process. In a marriage, that’s dynamite.
But avoiding anger with your spouse isn’t realistic. The person who is closest to you is going to hurt you, embarrass you, or just plain aggravate you at times. You can’t stop anger; you can, however, stop erupting.
Here’s how: normally it takes up to an hour to start thinking straight again after anger. Empathy, though, can speed up that normalization process. When we choose to step outside of ourselves and recognize that the other person in front of us is our ally, we can halt that chemical reaction and stop the “fight or flight” response.
That‘s because deliberately making the choice to feel empathy activates the cerebral cortex. When we access that, we can slow the fight or flight response and bring back rational thinking.
Think of Your Spouse As an Ally, Not an Enemy
When you‘re in the middle of a conflict and the anger starts going, then, you face a choice. You can view your spouse as an ally, or you can continue fighting, lashing out, and trying to win.
What’s the essential difference?
Anger says: you are the problem. I need to defeat you. I need to win, and you need to lose.
Empathy says: you aren’t the problem; we simply have a problem–together. So let’s work at how to solve that problem so that both of us win.
Anger will only result in either win-lose–or more likely lose-lose. Empathy looks for the win-win!
What Reaching a Win-Win Looks Like
Early in our homeschooling life when our girls were in first and third grades, my husband and I faced a crisis. He was a busy pediatrician, on call two or three nights a week and in the office every weekday. Time as a family was scarce. I was busy with the girls, but my writing career was also blossoming. I had just received a book contract and needed time to write.
Meanwhile, Keith was approaching burnout. He desperately needed some time to relax. And one of his favorite hobbies is reenacting historical battles using miniature soldiers. Sounds super geeky, I know, but our small town boasts a bunch of guys who love doing this too, and Keith wanted one night a week to join them.
I experienced that request as a personal affront, and the anger started to build. The house and the kids were all my responsibility. I had put my career on hold so that he could go to medical school and open his practice, but I needed an intellectual outlet too. I wanted time to pursue my own career, and he was trying to take time for a hobby on top of the career he already had.
Didn‘t he respect my career goals? Didn‘t he realize that I needed some time away from the kids too? But he was equally desperate: Didn‘t I realize that he needed some downtime, especially since he dealt with life-and-death issues that were wearing on him?
We went around in circles until Keith stopped us.
“Sheila, we‘re being ridiculous,” he said. “I know you love me and want me to have free time, and you know I love you and want to see your writing grow. We just have a time problem, that‘s all.”
When he put it like that, we were no longer in attack mode. We were in problem-solving mode. And that was so much better!
Many marriages get stuck in these conflicts because spouses approach conflict in win-lose mode.
You both want opposite things, so obviously only one can win. Either Keith had time to play with the guys, or I had time to write. Instead, prepare the groundwork so that it‘s easier to find the win-win.
After Keith identified our time problem, we stopped fighting over who should get time off, and we took a step back. Keith legitimately needed time with his friends. I legitimately needed an extra half-day a week to myself to write. So we asked ourselves: How can we find that time? We prayed that God would give us great ideas, and He did! We threw out different ideas, from finding baby-sitters to putting the girls in school, until we found a different solution. We decided that we valued time more than money. Keith decided to close his office on Thursday afternoons so he could homeschool the girls, something he wanted to do anyway, and then I could write. And every Tuesday night, a pile of guys rang our doorbell and headed downstairs to act out the Civil War.
When you‘re facing a conflict, don’t ask yourselves who is right and who is wrong. Instead, ask yourselves: What are our unmet needs? And what are the different ways that we can meet each other‘s needs? Brainstorm together. Go for a walk together. Write them out. Take a few days if you have to.
Sheila Wray Gregoire is a Christian marriage and sex author and blogger. Her latest book, 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage. Head on over to Sheila’s blog at To Love,Honor and Vacuum to find out how you can get some downloadable freebies–and enter a contest to win Sheila coming to speak at your church. To check out Sheila’s latest book, please click on the cover!