• Dr. Andrew Kitchenham

Dealing with Anger in Marriages

Last week, I presented a scenario on communication in marriages and provided some background on issues as well as strategies for using communication more effectively. This week, I will continue with the scenario described below but I will discuss strategies for dealing with anger, in particular.

To remind you:

In this scenario, Merv and Martha who have two children, Melissa (a 17-year-old) and Milt (a 10-year-old) are having marital problems and Merv is struggling with how to deal with their rebellious teenager. Melissa has been tattooed several times and has several body piercings without her father’s knowledge or permission. Merv heard from a neighbour that Melissa was out past midnight with her boyfriend (who is in his 20s) and she was sneaking in her bedroom window after “making out” with the boyfriend. Merv is furious and confronts Melissa and in their argument, he pulls on her cardigan sleeve which revealed a large red-heart tattoo on her shoulder blade. Merv loses his temper with Melissa and she retorted “get off my back and mind your own goddamn business” at which he began to physically threaten and verbally abuse Melissa. Martha and Milt witnessed the whole altercation and she begs Merv to calm down before something happens as he is prone to temper-filled rages and has come close to physically harming Martha and the children. Merv turns his anger towards Martha and tells her to leave so he can deal with Melissa. Martha has decided that she has had enough and tells the children to gather their belongings as the three are leaving to motel until Merv can learn to control his anger.

It is now three weeks since the incident and Martha wants to bring the children home as she is low on money but also wants to give their marriage another try; Merv really wants them to be home as a family but he is also feeling belittled, disrespected, and humiliated.

In this scenario, there are many issues at play and they could be unpacked if there were more space and more details (which I would get in pre-mediation and during mediation sessions). For the purposes, of this post, I believe that three main issues are communication, independence, and respect. Like many disputes, communication is at the core of this scenario, or to be more precise, the lack of communication since Melissa and Merv appear to have challenges with communicating with each other and appear to use only one communication style: adversarial. There is also an unpinning issue of Melissa wanting to have independence (as many 15-year-olds do) and Merv wanting her to remain dependent on him and Martha. It also appears that Martha is willing to give Melissa some independence as evidenced by the fact that she is not as overtly upset with Melissa’s behaviour as is her husband. Lastly, there is the issue of respect in that Merv seems like he is being disrespected by Melissa, he appears to disrespect his wife as demonstrated by his hostile behaviour to his wife, and there is clear disrespect in the way Merv treats Melissa (but is related to the first issue of communication, of course).

I would like to discuss eight strategies that are outlined in Harper’s (2004), book, The joy of conflict: Transforming victims, villains, and heroes in the workplace and at home. For the purposes of exemplification, I will describe the first two in detail that I could use to problem solve or collaborate with the understanding that the others discussed next week could also be modelled, practiced, and reinforced before, during, and after each mediation session. Merv is exhibiting explosive anger in that his anger is exhibited as” quick, exaggerated, and sometimes dangerous [actions] …, marked by loss of control and quick rages” (Potter-Efron, 2006, p. 14). The first strategy would be to teach Martha and Merv some strategies for dealing with anger so that the two could solve the problem before it becomes a problem. For instance, I might teach them the strategy of give me a one minute (Harper, 2004) that involves encouraging the person to take a minute and get off his chest whatever is bothering him and to use nonverbal communication to model genuine curiosity in the topic. The second strategy to be used inside and outside the mediation room would be teach Merv and Martha about I-statements so that they could outline the impact of the behaviour, point out the feeling, and state the desired goal all in the first person. I would give them a little business-card size reminder of the parts (i.e., When you [specific behaviour], I feel [specific feeling] and I want [specific goal]) and then have them practise with an emotion so that Martha might say “Merv, when you yell at me and call me stupid, I get defensive and hurt and I want you to stop the yelling, swearing, and name-calling and sit down with me and talk about the topic” (Lang, 2004). Third, I would provide them with some strategies to take home and try out with each other and with their two children, where applicable. I would provide them with a list of eight strategies (two of which has been discussed above). I would ask them to try out two and report back to me as a homework assignment. In this way, they could use the strategies as a way to problem solve rather than lash out.

1. Give them their “one minute”: listen to the other person with genuine curiosity, put your own story and judgements temporarily aside to allow yourself to listen deeply. Be conscious of your own body language and nonverbal cues (e.g., eye rolls) so that your posture is open and you maintain eye contact and, maybe nod periodically at what they are saying.

2. Create speed bumps: The idea here is that you would use short interjections intended to both connect with the speaker and to break their momentum since an uninterrupted angry person may feel unrecognized and get angrier. Examples of speed bumps would be to use the person’s name in any brief response (e.g., “Go on, Merv) and to repeat a key word in their rant (e.g., “Her tattoos”) to show that you are listening.

3. Show empathy: You show empathy by understanding and acknowledging another’s feelings; you put yourself in that person’s shoes rather than judge the emotion as being inappropriate. You do not parrot what the person is saying but, rather, encapsulate the emotion (e.g., Merv, I realize how stressful and hurtful it was for you that Melissa went out and got a full-back tattoo without discussing it with us”).

4. Validate their experience: You validate the person’s experience by making it universal and acknowledge that the person’s anger is normal and understandable in the circumstances. You might say, “Merv, I understand that our leaving suddenly must have really upset and surprised you so I understand how hurt you must be”.

5. Paraphrase key concerns: A paraphrase captures the person’s story and reflect a person’s key words. For example, “Martha, you feel that my angry outburst made you want to leave for own safety and the children’s safety. Correct?”. It should be noted that someone in a tirade might not appreciate paraphrasing nor may the person allow you time to paraphrase.

6. Ask open-ended questions: In asking open-ended questions, you are avoiding yes/no answers and inviting elaboration of what is at the core of the anger. You might ask, “What specifically bothers you about the fact that Melissa got a tattoo without our permission?” rather than “Are you angry that she got the tattoo?” as the former asks for a story or explanation and forces the person to identify the real problem while the latter just asks for a yes or no and can propel the person to relive that anger.

7. Reframe to focus on their unmet needs: Many times, at the centre of someone’s anger is an unmet need and that person needs someone to acknowledge that feeling or need since he or she is probably still too angry to articulate it. As the recipient, you listen attentively and make note of some of the needs and say it back to the person to check for accuracy (and the person will most likely tell you if you are way off base). It might be something like this: “Merv, what I am getting is that you need to count on my support when Melissa does something like sneaking out or getting a tattoo. You need to know that we are a team and we are united in our displeasure so we should both discuss our concerns with her”.

8. Summarize the big picture: This one can be challenging but it requires practice. What you do is hit the highlights of the person’s story without any judgement or analysis and then ask the person to check on the accuracy. It might begin with “Martha, you are worried that I might go further than yelling at you and the children so you need assurance that I will hold my temper. If that can happen, you and the children would like to come back to our house and try again.” (Harper, 2004, pp. 74-80).

When I consider this conflict, I am reminded of Fisher and Ury’s (2011) caution for mediators, “it is not enough to know that they see things differently. If you want to influence them, you also need to understand empathetically the power of their point of view and to feel the emotional force with which they believe in it” (p. 25). As a mediator, I must remain curious and dig deeply and peel away layers to get to the core of the issues and assist the clients in dealing with anger as the core need in this scenario.

Further Reading

Chapman, G. (2015). Anger: Taming a powerful emotion. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.

Ewert, C., Barnard, G., Laffier, J., & Maynard, M. L. (2019). Choices in approaching conflict: Principles of dispute resolution (2nd ed.). Toronto, ON: Emond Publishing.

Fisher, R., & Ury, W. (2011). Getting to yes: Negotiating agreement without giving in. Toronto, ON: Penguin.

Harper, G. (2004). The joy of conflict: Transforming victims, villains, and heroes in the workplace and at home. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Landau, B. (2018). Managing the process. In B. Landau and L. Wolfson (Eds.), The family dispute resolution handbook (6th ed.) (pp. 45-68). Toronto, ON: LexisNexis.

Lang, M. D. (2004). Understanding and responding to power in mediation. In J. Folberg, A. L. Milne, & P. Salem (Eds.), Divorce and family mediation: Models, techniques, and applications (pp. 209-224). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Mayer, B. (2000). The dynamics of conflict resolution: A practitioner’s guide. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Potter-Efron, P. S. (2006). Letting go of anger: The eleven most common anger styles and what to do about them. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

Potter-Efron, R. T., & Potter-Efron, P. S. (2011). 30-minute therapy for anger: Everything you need to know in the least amount of time. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

#DealingWithAnger, #MaritalBreakdown, #Mediation, #Communication

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