In a healthy marriage both spouses feel free to express their emotions, needs and desires. It is inevitable that expressing emotions can, at times mean expressing healthy anger and engaging in conflict. Anger is a healthy part of a relationship if the anger is properly expressed.
During my work as a marriage educator I remember one couple, Joan and Mark, both in their late 40s. They came to me for help in the hope of saving their marriage from divorce.
Joan had suffered from depression for the majority of their 20-year marriage. Both expressed a deep love for each other but Mark felt he could no longer handle Joan’s constant state of depression.
Joan had been through therapy, with several different therapists. She had been on medication and off medication. Nothing Joan tried as far as addressing her depression and finding a solution had worked.
For some reason she could not “feel like the person” she was before she married Mark. After determining that there were not genetic or physical reasons for Joan’s depression I was lead to the conclusion that her depression had to be related to the marriage in some way.
I had a strong feeling that Joan’s depression was situational and from observing Mark’s demeanor had a good idea what the issues were in the marriage causing the depression. He was a take control sort of person. Often answering questions meant for Joan.
Most situational depression is caused by anger at others or anger at others that has been turned inward. I suspected that Joan’s depression was nothing more than anger and resentment toward Mark. Anger that she had turned inward upon herself.
When I ask Joan and Mark how often they got angry at each other and they responded NEVER, I knew my suspicions were correct. I explained to them that arguing was a way of being heard, of both of them having their needs met. And that when one or the other shelved their needs in order to keep piece in the marriage, then that person was not really a part of the marriage. Was not at all necessary!
Joan had given up herself when she married. She thought it her Christian duty to submit to her husband and in her submissiveness didn’t like making waves or rocking boats. Joan was the type person to go along with her assertive husband’s ideas of what was right and wrong for the marriage and them as a couple.
If done correctly arguing, conflict and friction in a marriage will sharpen and strengthen the marriage. I worked with Joan and Mark for a few months. Joan had to learn to be more assertive. Mark had to learn that his way was not the only way.
As Joan became more comfortable expressing her emotions and her needs the depression began to lift. She was able to turn all that anger and resentment outward in a healthy manner. In doing so she saved herself and her marriage!
What are the rules of healthy arguing that I taught Joan and Mark?
- Speak the truth in a loving manner. Anger can be communicated without name calling, yelling, screaming or threatening. Feelings of anger do not have to replace feelings of love. It is important to realize that being angry with someone doe not mean you no longer love them.
- No shoulds or shouldn’ts are allowed in your talk to each other, because the spouse using them is being a parent instead of a spouse. You don’t tell a spouse what they should or shouldn’t do. You tell a spouse what you would like them to do and then give them the opportunity to choose whether or not it is something they want to do.
- Use “I feel” messages. Remember, along with emotions come facts. Both should be argued and in a way that does not put the other spouse on the defensive. An “I feel” message allows you to express how you felt about something he/she did or said. It gives you the opportunity to express your feelings but doesn’t necessarily mean you will get your way but you will at least get to express your feelings.
Consider this though, “I feel” messages will be met with more openness than saying, “You always so and so,” or “You hurt me.” You want to talk about how you feel, not point fingers at what your spouse did or didn’t do.
- Don’t jump to conclusions about what your spouse is thinking or feeling. If you want to know, ask him/her. Just because you share your feelings doesn’t mean your spouse “heard” what you were saying.
When communicating we need to express and listen to be understood. A lot of us are guilty of hearing something other than what is actually being said. Make sure that you express your needs and that your spouse understands those needs. Asking him/her to repeat back to you what you’ve said will help. You can’t resolve a misunderstanding if you are being misunderstood!
Joan was under the misguided impression that if she shared her feelings and expressed anger at her husband he would withdraw from her, that they would grow apart. Feelings of anger, when properly shared do the same as feelings of love; they bring a couple closer together.
You get to know and understand each other better. You feel safer within the relationship if you know it is safe to express your feelings of anger. You learn that marriage is not a competition, a game where one spouse has more control than the other.
Nothing promotes love and intimacy more than working together without fear of reprisal…with a commitment to doing what is best for the marriage.