RICHARD P. FITZGIBBONS
Excessive anger is one of the major sources of marital and family stress. The recognition, understanding and resolution of this powerful emotion are important for the health and happiness of marriage, children, and family.
In this section you will be asked to identify your anger and that of your spouse on our anger checklist. Then we encourage you to read the case studies which describe the resolution of anger through the use of forgiveness. Finally, you will learn how certain virtues and the role of faith can diminish the level of anger in your marriage and home.
Please rate your spouse and yourself on the following checklist which rates active or honest anger and passive-aggressive or covert anger. Many spouses who vent their anger in passive-aggressive ways are highly skillful at acting as though they are not angry. In reality they struggle with powerful anger which they attempt to mask and then express in such manner that they hope they will be able to fool others and not be identified as being angry.
Active Marital Anger
Excessive quarreling or arguing
Overly aggressive & antagonistic
Bullying of others
Chronic violation of rules at work
Tries to ruin someone’s reputation
Quits jobs regularly
Stealing and forgery
Violent acts against people, property, or oneself
Threats of violence
Disregard for other’s safety
Passive-Aggressive Marital Anger
Always late/leaves early
Procrastination - deliberately put things off
Twists the truth
Refuse to do what is reasonably expected
Pretends not to hear or see
Walks out on people
Refuses to listen
Rehashes the past
Refuse to clean the home or oneself
Act sick or helpless
Works markedly below one's ability
Impulsive - failure to plan ahead
Deliberately avoid or ignore someone
Refuses to function as a responsible parent or spouse
Refuses to praise or compliment
Deliberately makes mistakes
Absenteeism in work
Refuses to be responsible
Refuses to work regularly
Enjoys seeing people become upset
Refuse to eat
Doesn’t receive love
Deliberately fails at work
Refuses to take care of a serious health problem
Withhold love from a spouse
Failure to attend to the needs of the spouse or children
Undermine childrens’ trust/respect for spouse or other important relatives/friends
Deliberately tries to be sick
Always in victim role
Failure to pay bills
Neglect of the home
Understanding Anger in Marriages
Appropriate vs. Excessive/Misdirected Anger
In order to prevent serious conflicts in marital relationships, it is essential to determine whether existing anger is appropriate, excessive, or misdirected. To make this distinction, it is essential that the spouses understand the nature of anger and develop the ability to express honestly disappointments and stresses which lead to angry toward a spouse in a healthy manner.
Just as there are two types of lipoproteins in the body, one of which is healthy (high density) and one which is damaging (low density), so there are two basic types of anger in marital relationships -one healthy (appropriate anger) and one damaging (inappropriate or misdirected anger). For the health of the marriage, it is essential that the excessive anger be eliminated.
Certain considerations can assist the spouses when conflicts arise in the home. After experiencing anger, the spouse who expressed anger or the recipient of the anger should try to determine whether the emotion is deserved and appropriate or whether it might be exaggerated. Distinguishing between these two different, yet similar, types of anger is critical because each calls for an entirely different response. The response to appropriate anger may be an apology or the effort to be more sensitive to the partner in the future.
The process of distinguishing appropriate and misdirected anger requires a deep understanding of oneself and one's spouse as well as patience and wisdom and may entail help from close friends. It is important to look for the truth in what a spouse is saying. Spouses, who regularly overreact or misdirect their anger, tend to blame their spouse for the painful feelings they experience. Overreacting spouses usually are unwilling to examine how they themselves contribute to the marital difficulties. Some seem to take a certain pleasure in criticizing their spouses and have difficulty making an apology. They do not admit that they overreact and there can be a stubborn refusal to consider that they, too, may have unresolved family of origin or other conflicts.
Forgiveness is possible through a process of attempting to understand the emotional development of one's spouse. As this occurs, there is growing awareness that a spouse's behavior can be attributed to their emotional scars, that the spouse loved as much as he/she was capable of loving, and that rarely was the pain deliberately inflicted. Also, the process of forgiveness enhances the ability to understand a spouse's behaviors because anger decreases.
Immediate Forgiveness Exercises
When one feels anger toward a spouse, the immediate expression of this anger can be damaging to the marital relationship. Instead of giving in quickly to the expression of anger, we recommend that the angry spouse try to inwardly reflect a number of times, "I want to understand and forgive" or "I want to forgive and love" until the anger dimishes. This exercise, which we refer to as an immediate forgiveness exercise, should decrease slowly the degree of anger. Only after the angry feelings subside, should the spouse try to communicate. We also recommend the same inner understanding and forgiving exercise when angry with children.
Many of you may believe that neither you nor your spouse could grow in the virtue of forgiveness to such a degree that you would be able to control your anger in this manner. However, if you work on immediate forgivenesss exercises, you will find yourself giving less quickly to the expression of anger toward your spouse. Then, when you try to communicate the reason for your anger, your spouse may be more receptive and less defensive because a discussion can occur without the excessive expression of anger.
The spouse's faith can be helpful also in gaining rapid control of angry feelings. Individuals report that giving their anger immediately to the Lord is helpful. Spouses also discover that giving to the Lord when angry their ultra-sensitivity, selfishness, need for control, impatience or conflict over accepting crosses to be effective in diminishing their resentment.
Clinical experience indicates that in a marriage each partner has some degree of buried anger that they bring to the relationship. The resolution of anger from different stages of life is essential and can be accomplished through the use of forgiveness.
Past Forgiveness Exercises
Unfortunately, some spouses have the mistaken idea that expression of anger is always healthy for the relationship, but this emotion can quickly get out of control. Actually, many spouses overreact in anger because of the failure to resolve resentment from past hurts with their spouse, from the family of origin hurts with a parent, or from other important relationships. Such resentment is regularly released under certain types of stress and pressures and can be misdirected at the person one deeply loves.
Clinical experience indicates that in a marriage each partner has some degree of buried anger that they bring to the relationship. The resolution of anger from different stages of life is essential and can be accomplished through the use of past forgiveness exercises.
Some people blame excessively and exclusively their spouse for their anger. This is especially the case when there has been childhood emotional trauma with parents. This problem can be worked through by helping the spouses understand the degree to which their emotional needs were not met by parents or other significant people from the present or the past.
We expect all spouses to be able to identify a number of areas in which they felt disappointment with each parent and to spend time forgiving their parents at different developmental stages. Although there is resistance to this initially, it is a basic aspect of the forgiveness process. We relate that their was only one perfect family and that we all have gifts but also disappointments and weaknesses from our parents.
The most common sources of anger which spouses bring into their marriage in our clinical experience are from the father relationship, from dating relationships in which they were deeply hurt or used as a sexual object and from divorce.
At marital conferences a question frequently asked by wives is how they can help their husbands with their anger and temper which they believe to originate from unresolved conflicts with their husbands' fathers. We encourgae these women relate to their husbands that forgiving those in their past has helped them and that their husbands might also benefit from forgiving their fathers for past hurts.
Many women whose fathers left the family, had substance abuse disorder or were selfish also help their marriages and families by picturing themselves as girls and teenagers and thinking, "I want to understand and forgive my father for all the ways in which he hurt me, my mother and the family and in which he has damaged my ability to trust my husband."
Finally, we believe much marital conflict could be prevented if past forgiveness exercises for family of origin and dating relationship hurts were part of the Church's premarital programs.
Goal - End the Expression of Anger in the Marriage
The daily exercise of virtues should enable spouses to gain mastery over their anger and other emotions. In his first encyclical, The Redeemer of Man, Pope John Paul II wrote that mastery over oneself is essential to self-giving. This self-giving then is necessary for marital happiness.
Couples are often motivated to stop expressing anger toward one another because of the ways in which this emotion damages their children. The expression of anger between a husband and wife harms children in numerous ways including:
· a fear parents will divorce or separate
· loss of a safe feeling in the home
· psychosomatic disorders including irritable bowel and headaches
· sadness and anxiety disorders
· loss of trust in parents
· a belief that parents don't really care for them
· a modeling and repetition of parental angry behaviors
The expression of anger between husband and wife also hurts them and their marriage in the following ways:
· damages the safe feeling/trust
· makes one fearful of self-giving and of receiving love
· introduces a fear of being hurt
· results in a spouse being distant
· leads to sadness, loneliness and anxiety
· wounds the sense of being a gifted person and a gift to one's spouse
· weakens self-giving to children
· increases sexual temptations
· contributes to drinking, gambling and other compulsive behaviors.
The daily use of immediate and past forgiveness exercises, coupled with the growth in other virtues, regularly enables couples to protect their marriage and children by ending the expression of damaging anger in the home. Most couples come to recognize in the challening healing process that their previous expression of anger was a sign of emotional immaturity.
Progress in Forgiveness
There are specific indicators that one has made progress in forgiveness. These include a decreased feeling of anger, a lessening of anxiety, a feeling of compassion for a spouse or those who have inflicted the hurt, and a greater acceptance of one's past hurts. Finally, as the past has less and less control over the present, there is greater trust and love in the marital relationship.
If the someone is forgiving a spouse and the anger is not decreasing, this may indicate an unconscious association with another else from the past who hurt them in a similar way or a misplacement of their anger. Also, patience may be needed because of the degree of anger which is present or it may be necessary for a period of time to avoid the person from the past one is trying to forgive.
Common Sources of Anger
The following are some of the most common causes of excessive anger in marriages. Please try to identify those which apply to you and to your spouse.
Unjust hurts/disappointments with parents
Unjust hurts/disappointments with spouse
Hurts in earlier dating, sibling or peer relationships
Hurts with in-laws
Fear and worries
The need to control
Insecurities/lack of confidence
Excessive sense of responsibility/burdens
Financial and other worries
Loss of trust
Lack of sleep
Alcohol and drugs
Excessive television/movie/sports watching
Sexual utilitarian philosophy
Causes of Anger Total:
The following case studies on dealing with the angry spouse are taken from Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope. Forgiveness helps to resolve anger from each life stage, protects marital love, and strengthens the ability be loving and giving.
The Angry Husband
Carmen and Javier had a stormy thirteen year marital relationship during which they had several separations. In spite of their intense emotional battles, they had a deep love for one another and for their two children. Javier had an explosive temper and in times of stress would be exceptionally critical of his wife. He had been verbally abusive for years and recently had been physically abusive. Carmen responded by obtaining a protection-from-abuse order from the courts which prohibited him from coming into the house for one year. This order motivated Javier to honestly face his excessive anger.
The family histories revealed that each spouse had had extremely difficult experiences with the parent of the same sex. Javier’s father and Carmens mother were both quite angry and domineering toward their spouses and their children. Javiers father was much more demeaning toward his wife than Carmen’s mother had been toward her father. However, as a teenager, Carmen would regularly ask her father why he tolerated such abusive treatment from her mother and would suggest that he leave her.
Javier was highly resistant about examining ways in which he was acting like his hostile father, instead wanting to blame his wife for all the marital stress. Also, as a result of his experiences with his father he was insecure, and used his rage to boost a weak masculine identity. In view of these conflicts the approach taken was to suggest that each of them had failed to resolve their childhood and adolescent anger with the parent of the same sex. Each was asked to think about modeling after the parent of the opposite sex, both of whom were kind and sensitive people.
The course of treatment was difficult and Javier periodically had great difficulty controlling his anger in the sessions. At that point he was advised by the therapist to stop acting like his father and cautioned that unless he could get his temper under control, he might not be allowed to move back into the family. Carmen’s major motivation for reconciliation, besides her love for Javier, was that her thirteen-year-old daughter treated her as Javier did. This was painful for her because, in view of the terrible relationship she had with her mother, she had always wanted to have a close relationship with her daughter. Carmen hoped that if Javier could learn to overcome his bad temper and treat her in a more loving manner that her daughter might model such behavior.
Javier began the work of forgiveness because he wanted his marriage to work and he wanted to move back with his family. The pressure of painful loneliness resulted in a lessening of his defenses. He hit bottom living by himself in an apartment, as he began to face how badly his father had treated his mother. He realized he was unconsciously repeating that behavior toward his wife. Then he began to follow written forgiveness instructions given by the therapist which stated that he should imagine himself as a boy and teenager telling his father that he wanted to be loyal to his good qualities, but not his anger and that he wanted to forgive his father for ways in which he had hurt him and his mother with his hostility. His work of forgiveness proceeded slowly and on some days he slipped back into acting like his angry, critical father. It took approximately six months of hard work before Javier could deal with his anger in an appropriate manner. Because Javier had relied upon anger as a defense against his feelings of insecurity, cognitive-behavioral therapy also was used to build his self-esteem. As his confidence improved, he had less need of anger to bolster his masculine identity.
Finally, Carmen and Javier were asked to forgive the offending in-laws since both harbored powerful anger and resentment against them for what they viewed as intrusive and critical behaviors. The resolution of their excessive anger through the use of forgiveness over an 18 month course of therapy strengthened their marital love and trust. There were fewer episodes of excessive anger; when they erupted, they were resolved in a rapid and effective manner.
The Angry Wife
Kareena is a 35 year-old-married mother of three who came into therapy because of her periodic episodes of explosive rage. She related a long history of marital conflict. During the arguments, which Kareena often initiated, she would verbally, and, at times, physically abuse her husband, Dennis. Kareena’s motivation for entering therapy was that her oldest child, a seven-year-old-boy, Brian, was manifesting uncontrollable anger episodes toward his siblings, parents, and peers. She felt guilty about his behavior, believing she was responsible for it.
Kareena was the oldest of four children and had been in the parental role from an early age. She had little emotional support from her mother and was subjected to abusive behavior from her alcoholic father. She thought that the awareness of her anger with an alcoholic father was sufficient to control the emotion in her own life. She came to recognize, however, that she had buried a great deal of anger with each parent and that in times of stress, in particular, she was repeating her fathers worst behaviors. Also, she came to understand that, at times, her anger was used as a defense to keep her husband at a distance because she feared that he would betray her as her father had.
Kareena had no knowledge of how to deal with her anger other than through expression. In the first several sessions she was asked to think about the possibility of understanding and forgiving before she expressed her anger. Then she was asked to think daily about forgiving each parent for how they had hurt her. In the evening after the first session Kareena called her therapist and was upset and guilty because she had just verbally and physically abused her husband. She related remorsefully that she had just learned in therapy about employing forgiveness for her rage, but had not been able to apply it.
Once she understood the process of forgiveness she decided to begin immediately by working to break the negative influence which the anger with her father had over her marriage and family life. Kareena tried daily to understand her fathers behavior as the result of his childhood experiences with an alcoholic father and came to appreciate more the emotionally wounded and probably abused little boy within her father. As this reframing and understanding increased she grew in her ability to forgive him for all the hurts of childhood and adolescence. However, in this process she discovered that she had buried violent impulses toward him. In the early phases of therapy she had no desire to forgive him and was quite angry, even though intellectually she was making a decision to forgive him. Kareena was also given a serotonin re-uptake inhibitor to help diminish her anger attacks.
Over a period of several months there was a significant decrease in her angry behavior. Also, she grew to accept the pain of her family background and to appreciate that in spite of that suffering she was fortunate to be in a good marriage and to feel basically positive about her life. At the same time her son was participating in therapy in the same practice and experienced a diminishment in his anger. In the deepening phase the quality of the marital and family life increased significantly. The children were no longer exposed to damaging behavior from their mother. Kareena was pleased that she had learned of a way to resolve her anger from the past and to control her excessive anger in daily life.
Passive-Aggressive Anger in Marriages
In many marriages the major method through which anger is expressed is in a passive-aggressive manner. Here the spouse pretends that he or she is not angry while at the same time acts passively to vent anger in a covert way toward the partner. Many individuals of this type try to portray themselves as understanding and loving while at the same time expressing their anger in a veiled manner. The most painful way in which passive-aggressive anger is expressed in the marriages is by withholding love.
Frequently, the victim of passive aggressive anger is unaware that he or she is on the receiving end of clandestine resentment. The victim of this resentment often reports feelings of anxiety, sadness, anger, and various psychosomatic symptoms. Because the victim is seen as frustrated and irritable, that person may be wrongly identified by others as the angrier partner. Meanwhile the passive-aggressive spouse tries to paint a self-portrait of a calm and relaxed person.
Passive aggressive anger can be difficult to identify and there may be major resistance on the part of the offender in admitting the release of resentment in this manner. One way in which this type of passive resentment can be recognized is through reviewing with spouses the common ways in which passive aggressive anger is expressed in marriages.
The uncovering phase can be extremely difficult because the individuals can be manipulative and highly defensive. They are often reluctant to admit that they are expressing resentment through passive behaviors. In spite of this resistance, such clients are asked to engage in a cognitive forgiveness exercise based on the history. For example, the individual may be asked to forgive a controlling or insensitive parent if that person is identified as a possible origin for such anger. Many spouses have never resolved anger with a neglectful or controlling parent and misdirect it into the marriage by acting in an irresponsible and insensitive manner. Such cognitive exercises can result in the diminishment of the anger, especially when the passive-aggressive behavior is noted regularly and clearly identified as such.
There are some spouses who will not forgive because they enjoy using their passive aggressive anger to both control and distance their partner or because they find pleasure in rebelling in a passive manner. Some of these marital cases have resulted in separation and divorce because of the refusal to part with the anger.
The Benefits of Forgiveness in Marriage and Family Life Include:
· greater ability to love and to praise
· fewer marital quarrels
· an ability to bring anger quickly under control
· protection of the marriage and children from the negative effects of anger
· decreased levels of anger in the marriage and home
· less sadness and anxiety in the home
· increased marital happiness and hope
· enhanced confidence in spouses and children
· breaking the control of others who inflicted pain in the past
· forgetting past hurts
· enhanced work and school performance
· helping to resolve negative parental behavioral/emotional patterns
· resolving the excessive anger associated with emotional conflicts
Further information on the process of forgiveness can be found on the section on the lonely/sad spouse.
Difficulties in Marital Forgiveness
A significant conflict can arise in resolving marital anger when a spouse continues to inflict hurts and pain and is not motivated to change. The following ongoing behaviors contribute to this difficulty:
· controlling behaviors
· irresponsible behaviors
· selfish behaviors
· manipulative behaviors
· emotionally distant behaviors
· addictive behavior
· insensitive behaviors
When someone is unable to think or feel like forgiving their spouse, the anger can diminish by the use of a spiritual forgiveness exercise. Here the spouse can reflect, “God forgive my spouse” or “Lord take my anger” or “Revenge belongs to God.”
Many spouses report that the use of spiritual forgiveness exercises help them resolve their anger and cope with their emotional and marital stress, while they are working on trying to improve their marriages.
1. irritability during the previous six months
2. overreaction to minor annoyances
3. occurrence of at least one anger attack during the previous month
4. experience during one of the attacks of at least four of the following: rapid heart beat, hot flashes, chest tightness, feelings of numbness, dizziness, shortness of breath, swearing, trembling, panic, feeling out of control, feeling a desire to attack others, physical or verbal abuse, and throwing or destroying objects (M.Fava et al., 1991)
Relationship Between Anger and Depression
· In a study of anger attacks at two sites, 67% of patients with depression met the criteria for anger attacks (R.A. Gould, 1996)
· the greater the degree of sadness (depression), the greater the anger
· a patient who scored at the 75th percentile on the Beck Depression Inventory ( BDI; a score of 22) was 3.2 times more likely to have anger attacks than a patient who scored at the 25th percentile ( a score of 8)
· also, patients with anger attacks were significantly more depressed than patients without such attacks
A medical evaluation should be considered whenever anger attacks or other intense expressions of anger occur in a marriage. Medications such as Prozac and Zoloft (SSRIs) have been demonstrated to decrease markedly such emotional overreactions in conjunction with forgiveness exercises.
Virtues which Decrease Anger
In Character Strengths and Virtues, 2004, Oxford University Press and American Psychological Association, Dr. Chris Peterson of the University of Michigan and Dr. Marty Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania describe the numerous benefits from the development of virtues. Over almost 30 years I have seen growth in the following virtues to be very beneficial in diminishing marital anger:
The Role of Faith in Decreasing Anger
The spiritual life can be facilitate the growth in the theological virtues of faith, hope and love and of the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude and justice all of which can protect a person from overreacting in anger in marriage and family life.
Many Catholics report a diminishment in their anger through the graces they experience in the sacraments of reconciliation and of the Eucharist. Also, others report relief from intense anger in their marriage by giving it to the Lord several times daily while they work on their marital conflicts.
Important Concepts About Anger
The following are important concepts about anger.
The Nature of Anger
· Strong feeling of displeasure and antagonism
· Aroused by a sense of injury or wrong/lack of virtue
· Initially associated with a feeling of sadness
· Later associated with pleasure at the thought of revenge
· An indicator at times of unresolved conflicts in a relationship
The Development of Anger
1. Unjust hurts and losses cause sadness, which becomes wrapped by anger
2. Excessive anger arises from the following character weaknesses:
o modeling after an angry parent
o the need to control
· one half of 1300 people had moderate to severe anger before treatment began
· the level of anger was comparable to the levels of depression and anxiety
(Posternak MA, Zimmerman M (2002): Anger and aggression in psychiatric outpatients. J Clin Psychiatry 63:665-672.)
Three Methods of Dealing with Anger
o Repression - unconscious
o Suppression - conscious
Two Ways of Expressing Anger
· Active: honestly
· Passive-aggressive: sneaky
Types of Expressed Anger
· Appropriate - to a certain hurt
· Excessive - an overreaction due to significant unresolved anger with the offender
· Misdirected - misplacement of anger toward one who does not deserve it. This type of anger is one of the most common causes of serious marital difficulties. Its cause is often the failure to resolve anger with parents or from other significant relationships.
Victims of Misdirected Anger
· Other family members
· The Church/God (see Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism)
The Journey of Anger
· May be denied for weeks, months, years or decades
· Later may be misdirected, especially at loved ones
· Not fully resolved until a decision is made to forgive
Defensive Functions of Anger
· Lack of Confidence
· Mistrust/fear of betrayal
Danger of Relying upon the Expression of Anger
1. It does not resolve anger because most couples have so much denied anger which they have unconsciously brought into their relationship
2. It harms loving relationships and leaves memories which are difficult to forget.
3. It creates mistrust, the loss of a safe feeling, anxiety and tension.
4. It harms one physically and emotionally.
Evaluate your anger
Finally, consider rating your anger on another measure, the Fitzgibbons Anger Inventory, which we have been using for almost 20 years. Please answer by identifying the appropriate number using this scale on the following anger checklist:
0 - Never | 1 - Very Little | 2 - Moderately Often | 3 - Very Often
Interpreting the scores:
- Overall Total less than 45 - Mild Anger
- 45 to 65 - Moderate Anger
- Over 65 - High Anger
- Over 6 on the Trust score - Significant
- Over 9 on the Passive-aggressive score - Significant
- Over 7 on the Violent potential score - Significant
Richard P. Fitzgibbons. "Marital Anger." Institute for Marital Healing.
This article reprinted with permission from the author, Richard P. Fitzgibbons and the Institute for Marital Healing.
The mission of the Institute for Marital Healing is to strengthen Catholic marriages and families by educating spouses and marital therapists about common causes of conflicts in marital self-giving and effective approaches to alleviating such conflicts. Through a combination of online resources, educational programs, publications, and counseling services, the Institute employs a time-tested approach to marital therapy that recognizes the importance of both science and faith in the process of marital healing.
Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons received his medical degree from Temple University School of Medicine in 1969 and completed his training in psychiatry at the Hospital of the
Since 1976 he has used forgiveness in psychotherapy, and in 1986 he wrote a seminal paper on the use of forgiveness and is the coauthor of Helping Clients Forgive(with Robert D. Enright; 2000), published by the American Psychological Association.
He has given many marital conferences on strengthening marital self-giving. Rick has also given many conferences to priests in dioceses and religious communities and to spiritual formation teams of seminaries. In 2004 he coauthored Learning to Forgive in the Classroom for the American School Board Journal and recorded a DVD on forgiveness for mental health professionals with Dr. Bob Enright for American Psychological Associations Books. He is board member of the International Institute for Forgiveness, www.forgivenessinstitute.org.
Copyright © 2005 Richard P. Fitzgibbons