Handling Anger in Marriage: Understanding the Iceberg

by | Dec 7, 2020 | Resolving Conflict, Uncategorized | 14 comments

Handling Anger in Marriage: Anger like an Iceberg
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Many marriages are plagued by anger, and yelling matches or big angry outbursts.

People will often say, “I have a temper problem” or “he has an anger problem.”

As we finish up our series on emotional maturity, I promised to spend a little bit of time on anger because so many find this difficult to deal with.

Sometimes we have good reasons for feeling angry in marriage. Anger, in and of itself, is not a bad emotion. Sometimes anger is an appropriate emotion to show in different situations (as Jesus clearing the moneychangers’ tables in the gospel accounts show), though HOW we handle anger can be problematic. “In your anger, do not sin,” says Ephesians 4:26. Anger is not the problem necessarily; what you do with it is.

Other times, though, anger becomes a problem in our relationship because it’s the go-to emotion whenever something bad happens.

For many people, anger is a safer emotion to show than any other emotion.

Anger, you see, is a protective emotion, and often a “secondary” emotion. What we’re actually feeling is rejection, or disappointment, or fear, or insecurity, but because those feelings are so terribly uncomfortable to us, we turn to anger instead because that’s safer, and it allows us to go on the attack to protect us from whatever was causing those other feelings in the first place.

Anger, then, is like an iceberg. You see the yelling and the raging above the surface of the water, but there’s a whole lot more going on underneath.

Anger is Like an Iceberg

That’s how The Gottman Institute describes it:

If you’re unsure of why you’re feeling angry, try thinking of anger like an iceberg. Most of an iceberg is hidden below the surface of the water.

Similarly, when we’re angry, there can be other emotions hidden beneath the surface. It’s easy to see a person’s anger, but it can be difficult to see the underlying feelings the anger is protecting.

For example, Dave believed he had an anger problem. When his wife would make a request of him, he would criticize her. He didn’t like his reactions, but he felt he couldn’t help it. As he worked on discovering his dreams within conflict and started noticing the space between his anger and his actions, he opened up the door into a profound realization.

He didn’t really have an anger problem. Instead, he felt like his wife was placing impossible demands on him. By seeking to understand and accept his anger, rather than fix or suppress it, he began to improve his marriage by recognizing his anger as a signal for a need—a need to set healthy boundaries for what he would and would not do.

The Anger Iceberg

The Gottman Institute

So how should you handle anger in marriage?

If you’re the one feeling the anger

Remove yourself from the situation and allow yourself some time to get a handle on what you’re feeling.

Take some deep breaths, recite a few Bible verses or read a Psalm to calm yourself (Psalm 23 is a good one), and then ask yourself:

  • What am I feeling right now other than anger?
  • What happened right when I got angry?
  • What is it that I need in this situation?
  • What’s a way that I can express that need?

For instance, let’s say that you’re a stay-at-home mom and you’ve had a horrible day with the kids. The living room is a mess. You’ve got a low-grade headache. You’re trying to get dinner on, and your husband comes in and tries to take care of two of the kids that are bickering over a toy. He turns to you and asks, “who had the toy first?”

And you just lose it. You yell at him because he should be able to figure something out with the kids without you having to do everything.

Now, what if, instead of yelling at everyone, you were to say, “I can’t deal with this right now. Give me twenty minutes and I’ll be back down,” and you go and sit in the bedroom for a bit. You take some deep breaths. You sing a song to yourself. And then you ask those questions. And you realize:

I’m tired. I feel like I don’t have control of anything in my life right now. I feel like I’m doing a really bad job.

What was going on right before?

The kids were bickering. And that leads you to another insight: Sometimes I am just sick of them. I am. I just want to get away and not have to deal with them. Does that make me a bad mom?

What is it that I need in this situation?

I may need some down time. I may need some time when the kids aren’t my problem. I may need some help parenting them so they don’t fight so much all the time. I may need some help figuring out how to organize the house because I can’t handle this chaos.

What’s a way that I can express that need?

I can go downstairs and tell everybody that I love them, but i’m tired and need some help. And then my husband and I can talk about getting me more margins or more organized or just more coping skills.

If your spouse is the one expressing anger

Scenario 1: The anger is really an outburst of rage, with yelling, belittling, and instilling fear

First, realize that you cannot have a productive conversation with someone when they are angry, because they’re in “fight or flight” mode where they’re working out of the instinctual part of their brain that reacts, rather than the higher part of the brain that’s involved with reasoning. You cannot reason with an angry person. You need the anger defused first.

So you can say, “I see that you are angry. Take some time to calm down and then we can talk.”

Please know: If you feel like you have to sit there while you get yelled at or you will make the situation worse; if you feel unsafe, as if your spouse will get physically abusive or abusive in some other way if you don’t allow yourself to be raged at this is not a safe situation. Call the police if there is an urgent need; call a domestic abuse hotline; or, if this is a chronic problem where there is no immediate danger to your safety, seek out a licensed counselor to help you draw boundaries and decide what to do.

If they will not leave the room to calm down, then you can leave the room (and take any children with you). A simple, “I can see you’re angry, but I am not willing to talk to you when you are angry. When you have calmed down, I’ll be happy to revisit this with you.” And then go.

Scenario 2: The anger is not full-blown rage, but rather something that can be dealt with.

One of the biggest mistakes that we can make when a spouse is angry is to try to talk them out of being angry.

When someone is in fight or flight mode, you can’t reason with them. But that fight or flight, anger reaction often dissipates when they see you not as someone who is attacking them, but as someone who is their ally. So if the anger isn’t something that is blowing up and becoming rage, try to “stand on the iceberg with them”, as the Gottman Institute says.

“I can see that you’re angry and that you’re really upset by this. I know this is hard. Can you tell me what you’re feeling?”

Try hard not to get defensive and not to talk them out of it. What you want to do here is help them get below the surface and see what they’re really feeling.

So in the same scenario as above, here’s what the husband could do:

Husband: “Wow, honey, you sound really angry. Has it been a hard day for you?”

Wife: “I’m just so sick of having to do everything by myself! Why can’t you figure out what’s going on with the boys? Why do you always need me?”

Now, here’s where things get dicey.

This is a MAJOR danger point in the conversation.

If I were that husband, I’d be really inclined to defend myself right now. But remember: You’re trying to go below the surface, not trying to talk them out of the anger. The goal is not to show why they have no right to feel angry and why you are right; the goal is to help them understand what’s happening inside so that anger is no longer the go-to response, and so that you can feel on the same team again.

Husband: “You sound like  you’re feeling really alone. Do you feel alone about other things?”

And then let her talk. And in talking, the anger may dissipate, and she may find what those things are below the surface.

Expressing what we need in a situation is far more vulnerable than expressing anger, and people often need help to get to the bottom of their needs. But it’s a journey worth taking! And if you have trouble talking about your needs, our emotional needs exercise can help. Just put your email in below to receive it for free!

Handling anger well involves mirroring back the emotion, not the facts.

Don’t engage in the factual argument, but engage in the emotion. When we can act as a mirror for our spouses, allowing them a safe place to go below the surface, often they can make those discoveries more easily and THEN you can get solution focused. Once you start going below the surface, often the anger will turn to frustration or fear or disappointment or discouragement, and then the anger will often turn to tears. And tears can be easier to handle. Then the “fight or flight” mode is gone, and you can actually engage in the rational side of the brain again.

Keith often says in marriage conferences that “your wife can ask you questions for free that you’d pay a psychiatrist hundreds of dollars to ask you.”

And the same thing goes for husbands: we can help each other glimpse below the surface and develop healthier emotional coping mechanisms.

It’s not easy. It means stopping being defensive. It means stopping our natural inclination to get our back up. It means putting our own egos on hold for a bit. But if we can engage in this, we can help our spouse grow!

Handling Anger in Marriage: Anger as an Iceberg

Is anger an issue you’ve dealt with over your life? Do you find that it’s often a cover for something else? Or does your spouse struggle with anger? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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14 Comments

  1. Jane Eyre

    Outside of marriage, a lot of people try to railroad me. They see a (normally) “nice” person and decide that the best solution to their problems is to make everything my problem. In my dysfunctional family, the “solution” was for me to play nice with my abuser. Other times, I will repeatedly state that the way they are behaving is unacceptable. The person will mouth platitudes about how they understand and then it starts right back up again.
    Anger is weirdly effective at getting people to snap out of their trance. It’s like their brains go on autopilot to pretend that there is not a problem and to find the most low-conflict way out. (Often, that way out is the most unjust.) In the situation of continuing to be rude to me after a boundary has been drawn, anger is very effective at getting the behaviour to stop. Expressing the hurt and humiliation does nothing; rage gets the point across in record time. They are often playing little games with boundaries and anger makes the game not fun anymore.
    Not long after figuring that out, I also figured out that I do not want to be around people who behave this way. If “hurt” is not a safe emotion to express, these aren’t safe people.
    It also spills over into interactions with my husband. In my brain, expressing hurt does not communicate to the other person that there is an actual problem; anger, however, does. I do my best to overcome this, take my anger down myself, profusely apologise, and try to lead conversations with what hurts. If, 20 seconds into the conversation, we both think my hurt is a problem that is worthy of trying to fix, I don’t feel the need to be angry to get my point across.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Really interesting, Jane. I agree–if you’re in a relationship where the only emotion they’ll listen to is your anger, then that’s fundamentally not a safe relationship. If your hurt doesn’t register, that’s not healthy.
      I’m glad you’re learning that in marriage you can express hurt. That’s great–and so important.

      Reply
  2. Kacey

    I’ve been finding when I’m stressed (or even disappointed) that I get really angry at people in my head. I imagine yelling at them, sometimes people I know, sometimes just hypothetical conversations with strangers. All in my head, not out loud. Doing this doesn’t help me figure out why I’m upset, but I have a hard time improving.
    It also makes things harder when I have legitimate things I need to address with my husband. My mind’s already affected by anger that probably isn’t fair.

    Reply
  3. Phil

    Well I am super late for the party today! I have made no secret around here that anger is an issue for me. Anger is an area I am currently focused on and I just had a GIANT break through this past week. I had the most bizarre encounter that sent me through the roof and with the help of so many things that I have worked on in my life and from hanging around here – more recently the stonewalling podcast – the results of identifying a situation and using coping skills and having an outlet of resources to allow me to just vent and then taking the tools to work at the situation and come out clean…..there is BIG change occurring within me. It’s a story way too long for here but one day I will share it I am sure – cuz well…I am good for that around here… It is so super important…. I am however sitting here putting hard thought to the question: do I find that anger is a cover for something else? Thats got me somewhat stumped. I never really thought of it that way. I guess fear is the word I come up with. Tonight I spilled a vat of hot chocolate in my truck….luckily it stayed within the floor mat. My anger was limited for this event – however when I look at that what was the anger about? Honestly? I just didnt want to deal with it. It definitely was the fear of being late. I was already running late and now I am later…the mess, the time and the hassle…this is an elementary thing here but to just be able to step back and look at that…guess what? After my small fit of anger outburst (swearing) I still had to deal with it! So what did I accomplish in my anger? Nothing. One item I am trying to work on is using my anger for the positive. Thats a really hard one but thats a large part of the bizarre encounter I had that has induced change. It really feels like a button was pushed and then a wire was uncrossed…profound.

    Reply
    • Elsie

      What about general anger that isn’t directed towards a person? My husband is angry all the time by small, normal, everyday frustrations. He will get very upset and start cursing over things like accidentally dropping something on the floor in the kitchen, not doing well while playing a video game, etc.
      This happens now on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day. He’s rarely angry at me but it’s still hard to live with someone who is constantly getting upset and angry. I’m not sure how to handle it. I’d like him to stop because it causes me a lot of stress (I get triggered by anger because my Dad used to get angry with me when I was a child) but it also feels unreasonable for me to ask him not to get angry.
      He’s not an expressive person so I don’t want to discourage him from expressing emotions but I’m also afraid that when we have children, our kids will follow his example and throw tantrums every time something is hard or frustrating. And it’s so exhausting to live with someone who is frequently in a bad mood just because of the normal frustrations that we all have to deal with. Some of my husband’s family also act like this so he may have learned it from his family but I don’t want this kind of behavior to be part of our family

      Reply
      • Andrea

        I don’t think it is at all unreasonable for you to ask your husband not to get angry at the normal frustrations that we all have to deal with. When you say “this happens now on a daily basis,” does the “now” mean that it didn’t used to happen on a daily basis, that it’s gotten worse over time? Because if that’s the case, it will likely keep getting worse and if he’s rarely angry with you now, he might become so more often. I would look out for that, start keeping a diary, and definitely do not have children with him until this is resolved.

        Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        That’s a genuine issue, Elsie, and I think it is worth talking to him about. What does he say about it? It could also be that he could benefit from seeing a licensed therapist, too, and learning how to channel his anger into something else.
        I’m curious–did he grow up playing video games? For many boys especially our emotional development stops at a point where an addiction starts, because we take all of our negative emotions and numb them through the addiction, so that we never learn to deal with them. So it could be that he never learned to properly process anger and frustration.

        Reply
      • Elsie

        Thanks for your comments. I knew before we got married that he got angry/frustrated sometimes and we talked about that when we were engaged. It’s been lately since COVID and being stuck at home for the past 9 months that he’s gotten angry more frequently, it’s been a rough time for everyone’s mental health but it’s definitely becoming a bigger problem now than it was earlier.
        I know I should talk with him but I’m so exhausted. After your series on housework, I read Fair Play and have started to discuss with my husband how we can redistribute the household work because I felt burdened. My husband doesn’t pay attention to problems in our relationship so it’s always on me to bring it up and try to solve it and I just don’t have the energy to do that anymore. Maybe counseling would be a good idea for us.
        We get along well day to day but we also don’t deal with problems and I’m worried that this dynamic will hurt our marriage in the long term. I also wouldn’t be surprised if video games are contributing, my husband spends a lot of time playing video games, like several hours a day. I know this post sounds negative but my husband is also a wonderful man in many ways and we do spend time together, we talk, we minister together at church, we enjoy being with one another. I just want us to have a strong foundation for our marriage and not ignore our problems.

        Reply
        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          That’s honestly a good thing to want! And it’s wise to try to deal with these things before you add the stressor of kids. Saying that you have problems doesn’t mean that your husband isn’t great or that you don’t love him. We all have issues! And seeing a counselor doesn’t mean that your marriage is in trouble, either. It just means that you’re being wise and you want to make sure you’re both growing and growing in the same direction.

          Reply
      • Angela Laverdi

        Elsie, I have the same issue as your husband about getting frustrated daily. I drop things ALL THE TIME, knock stuff over, spill things….daily…all.day.long. Its frustrating and infuriating. Why can’t I be like everyone else who ISN’T clutsy??? I cant tell you how extremely annoying it is to be like this.

        Reply
    • Elsie

      Sorry, Phil, my comment was meant to be a separate comment, not a response to your comment. I’m glad you are making breakthroughs with dealing with your anger and I hope my husband can also learn to deal with his anger in a healthy way too.

      Reply
      • Phil

        Elise/Andrea – In reading your discussion I had comment – Elise – I so identify with your husband. Look – here it is….my mouth is a toilet. In more recent past I was trying super hard to clean it up. Particularly around my family. It is something I recall not wanting to be part of as a kid but the kids I was around I guess I just caved. Somewhere along the line I decided it was ok to say all the swear words except the F word. Not sure at what point but all bets were off and it became a part of me more or less permanently at probably around 13ish. I can recall the first moment I lost it in my driveway at our old house over 10 years ago when my oldest son was flipping out about something and I used the F word not at him but within the context of it all. Up until that point I was able to some how separate my swearing in front of my kids to other environments. I have however never looked back…and so yes it does get worse….and worse yet my admission here is I have used it AT him (and my other kids) a ton gradually more over time. I have had to apologize to my son MANY of times 9 (and my other kids as well) for my behavior and my mouth. However – my oldest? He is straight as they come. I told him when he was much younger on the topic of swearing. If you don’t start you don’t have to stop. That mantra has carried over to my other kids. I am sure at this point my older will carry a clean mouth into his adulthood. Sure he has heard enough and may one day screw it up…but some how he has been able to be clean…and I believe its not just in front of me but in general….yes I get reports from his brother and sister and his peers and others…So I guess my point here is there is hope….There is a danger of course….I will tell you that when I tried to stop the swearing it about drove me nuts. There was another part to this equation but I am not getting into that here….The bottom line is I am not ready for that one yet. Honestly…right now I gave up on that one…my counselor kind of maybe told me wrongish…..but he said well….it is part of your culture of your family. Hate it but he is correct….doesn’t make it right….but it just is. With regard to Andreas comment….I would say that you have every right to set a boundary – the thing is…you can’t ask him to not get angry. What you can do is ask him to change the way he displays his anger. <—- Now this is easy to write….I am not very good at this…..but I certainly give it an honest work out. Thats what I am working on…and have been since I am 7/8 years old….really tough stuff. Prayers for you and your husband Elise. I pray for hope and change within your marriage dynamics :).

        Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m so glad this could get you thinking in a positive way, Phil! I’m excited to hear about your breakthrough. That sounds amazing!

      Reply
  4. Tiere

    My husband has anger in his porn recovery and I’m angry as well. Any advice? Please help

    Reply

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