Editor's Note: Do you need sound, Biblically-based advice on an issue in your marriage or family? Dr. David Hawkins, director of the Marriage Recovery Center, will address questions from Crosswalk readers in his weekly column. Submit your question to TheRelationshipDoctor@gmail.com.
“What about the way she treats me?” Ken said angrily, looking to me for help. His wife, Elizabeth, had just shared her frustrations with him during their counseling session.
Elizabeth winced as Ken continued to escalate.
“I don’t know why it’s always about what I’ve done wrong. How can she sit here and go down a list of every mistake I’ve ever made. She makes just as many as me, you know.”
Elizabeth started to cry. It had taken great courage for her to voice her concerns. She had even asked Ken if she could share some of her complaints about his behavior. Now, after having given her permission, he turned the tables on her.
“Ken,” I said slowly. “Do you see what just happened?”
“Yeah,” he said gruffly. “I see how we overlook her faults and focus on mine. I see how it’s all about me. I see how I’ve got to make all the changes.”
“No Ken,” I said. “Do you notice how you’ve escalated, becoming more angry by the moment? Do you notice that the angrier you get, the more accusations you make. The angrier you get, the narrower your focus seems to be. The angrier you allow yourself to become the more you talk in black and white terms.”
Elizabeth was silent now, slumped down in her chair. She wiped the tears from her eyes. Ken seemed to ignore her obvious distress.
Having worked with Ken and Elizabeth for several counseling sessions, and now working with them during a Marriage Intensive, I had witnessed Ken erupt like this many times. Always remorseful later, he seemed carried away by his emotions. He seemed oblivious of his actions while angry, but was always sorry hours and days later.
This counseling session reminds me of a letter I received from a man recently.
Dear Dr. David. I’m not sure what to do, and am hoping you can help. My wife loses her temper, and during her temper outbursts she says very mean things. She attacks me verbally, makes everything out to be much worse than it is, generalizes problems and hurts my feelings. It seems that for a short time she actually loses her perspective. She is always sorry later, but then the damage has been done. I’m wondering what I can do about this. I’ve warned her that I can’t take much more, but this doesn’t seem to slow her down. She’s always sorry later. Do I need to get tougher? Help.
Losing perspective during times of heightened emotion is nothing new. Elijah wanted to kill himself when in the midst of heightened discouragement. King David became despondent when in the midst of grief. Each of us knows what it’s like to get into a “mood” where things appear dark and bleak.
Thankfully, there are simple tools we can apply when in danger of losing perspective. Moods can be managed; anger can be contained. Let me share with you the counsel I gave Ken.
First, take responsibility for your emotion. We never need to let ourselves, or others, be victimized by our emotion. While we can’t always contain emotion, we can choose what we want to do with it. I told Ken that he had to take responsibility for the things he said when angry. Being angry is not a “free ticket” to say what you want.
Second, anticipate challenging feelings. Ken needed to anticipate times when he might feel angry, and when angry, he needed to make healthy choices. For example, we agreed that when he began to feel angry he would give us a signal so he could choose to take a time out. He agreed to watch his emotion careful, especially when engaged in a thorny conversation with his wife.
Third, make healthy choices when emotional. It is rarely wise to keep conversing when angry. The Apostle James said anger is like a small spark that sets a forest ablaze, and he was right. When emotional we need to make choices to calm ourselves down—not try to problem-solve with our mates. Scripture tells us that we are not given a spirit of fear, but a “spirit of power and love and a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7)
Fourth, consider the message in your emotion. Our emotions are energy in motion, and as such contain important information. Since anger is considered a secondary emotion, when angry ask yourself what other feelings lay beneath your anger. Are you feeling hurt or sad? Are you afraid of something? Is there something you need from your mate? Sit back and consider what your emotions are saying.
Fifth, remember that words cannot be taken back. Ken has much repair work to do with Elizabeth for words spoken during his angry outbursts. She doesn’t simply “bounce back” after he has a tirade. While he was able to “speak his mind,” his marriage is now in a state of crisis, largely because of unmanaged emotion. Innocent people are often hurt with emotion run amok.
Finally, set boundaries in your relationship about rampant emotion. It is one thing to tell your mate you won’t tolerate emotional outbursts. It is quite another to establish consequences for such outbursts in the future. One couple I know decided each was entitled to leave the home for the evening if their mate had a temper tantrum. Upon returning the offending mate had to apologize, accept responsibility and make appropriate amends.
The message is clear: rational discussion usually ends when there is unbridled emotion. Emotion often clouds our perception. Harsh words are spoken, accusations are made and blame often occurs. These words cannot be taken back, and this damage can be avoided. Remember, heightened emotion often undermines respect, a necessary ingredient in healthy relationships. Choose to keep your emotions balanced, healthy and respectful.
I’d love to hear how these strategies work for you. Please feel free to contact me for further information or advice on Marriage Intensives or consultations on what may be needed to assist you in your marriage.
July 27, 2009.
Dr. Hawkins is the director of the Marriage Recover Center where he counsels couples in distress. He is the author of over 30 books, including When Pleasing Others Is Hurting You, Love Lost: Living Beyond a Broken Marriage, and Saying It So He'll Listen. His newest books are titled The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Healing a Hurting Relationship and The Relationship Doctor's Prescription for Living Beyond Guilt. Dr. Hawkins grew up in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and lives with his wife on the South Puget Sound where he enjoys sailing, biking, and skiing. He has active practices in two Washington cities.
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