Q: My husband has a temper. When he gets upset he is very condescending; he yells at me, insults me, and blames me for everything. I’ve tried defending myself, I’ve tried speaking calmly, and it doesn’t help, so now I just shut down. I don’t respond. Why would I if what I say just makes him mad? Then again, silence makes him mad, too. I don’t know what to do.
Thank you for reaching out about this. I imagine it feels like whatever you do is “wrong” and your hands are tied. Your husband seems to struggle with accountability and with expressing hurt, frustration, and overwhelm in ways other than anger. This is, sadly, all-too-common. Your response to shut down because you don’t know what else to do is natural, but as you’ve pointed out, it isn’t changing anything.
In conflict, people tend to pursue or withdraw, attack or avoid. We know that contention is not of God (3 Nephi 11:29), but it’s important to recognize that Jesus didn’t back down from conflict. He spoke His mind and held people accountable. There is a healthy way to work through conflict so that it brings you closer together instead of driving you apart. In what I’ve learned and read, it can be boiled down to five steps.
Step One: Recognize Your Body’s Signs of Anger. All of us get angry, and sometimes our anger gets out of hand. We say and do things that we later regret or we shut down and push others away; neither of these helps us to get the closeness we want. Our bodies actually warn us that this is about to happen with signs like accelerated heart rate, feeling “hot” (Exodus 32:19), shallow breathing, clenched fists and jaws, and more. How does your body let you know that you’re angry? Pay attention, because that’s your cue to move to Step Two.
Step Two: Stop and Calm Down. Get some exercise. Listen to music that calms you. Take a hot shower. Meditate. Especially effective is taking slow, deep breaths; this will increase blood flow and oxygen to your brain, helping you to think more clearly. Most importantly, pray fervently and sincerely for your anger to dissipate, as Nephi did (2 Nephi 4:27-31).
Step Three: Identify the Vulnerable Emotion Underneath the Anger. All anger is actually a vulnerable emotion in disguise. If someone insults you, under your anger is hurt. If your teen walks in three hours past curfew, under your anger is fear and worry. If someone publicly chastens you, under your anger is embarrassment. Instead of just recognizing the anger, calm down and ask yourself what you’re really feeling.
Step Four: Put Yourself in the Other Person’s Shoes. When I’m upset, I’m 100 percent certain that I’m right and the other person is wrong. It’s only after I calm down (Step Two) that I can start to see things from their point of view. Often I realize that I’ve made mistakes that need correcting and apologizing for. It’s important to realize that everyone’s behavior makes sense to them, so if I think someone’s being an idiot, irrational, or a jerk, it often means I’m not trying hard enough to understand their perspective. Even if I disagree with, and can’t condone, the other person’s words or behavior, I can always relate to the emotions they’re experiencing. Remember the words of the hymn: “Who am I to judge another when I walk imperfectly. In the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can’t see. Who am I to judge another? Lord, I would follow thee” (Hymns # 220).
Step Five: Calmly Express Steps Four and Three. Tell the other person what you imagine their experience to be like without claiming to know what they’re going through. “I imagine that feels like . . .” or “If it were me, I would feel . . .” are good ways to start. As they see that you’re trying to understand their experience, they often calm down and share more. Listen to understand, not to refute or add your two cents. Then, trust them with your vulnerable emotion instead of manipulating them with anger; letting someone know that you’re hurt, scared, sad, or embarrassed often draws them near, while expressing anger always pushes them away or makes them fight back. “A soft answer turns away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger” (Proverbs 15:1).
I know from my own experience that these steps are true principles. I’ve seen them work in my marriage and in the marriages and family relationships of my clients. Practicing them tends to increase mutual understanding, dissipate the spirit of contention, and invite the Spirit of the Lord.
If you’d like more help resolving conflict in your marriage, try my free mini-course. God bless you.