We know that only half of all first marriages make it. What we often don’t recognize is that the first four years seem to be important ones in shaping, making or breaking a marital relationship.
Research has long pointed to communication as core to a couple’s satisfaction and regulation of conflict. A study by Ronald Rogge and Tom Bradbury, uncovers another tipping point of early marriage survival.
- The research sample included 60 couples married less than 6 months, with average age in the mid-twenties, average incomes between 20,000-30,000 and of mixed ethnicity (White 75%, Latino 10%, Asian 7%, and African American 5%).
- What the researchers found in following up every six months for four years was that communication did make a difference in marital satisfaction and dissatisfaction, but dissatisfied couples remained together.
- The true tipping point to divorce in the first four years of the marriages for this sample was aggression.
Notwithstanding the undeniable importance of communication for marital happiness, this suggests that a crucial skill for early (and likely longtime) married couples is anger management.
Stephen Mitchell, author of Can Love Last, tells us that “The survival of romance depends not on skill in avoiding aggression but on the capacity to contain it alongside love.”
Containing anger alongside love means managing it in a way that does not escalate into verbal abuse or physical aggression. Partners will inevitably become angry but in terms of relationship stability the real question is how they handle that anger.
Anger Management Strategies
If a couple considers strategies to manage anger when they are emotionally and logically in a calm state, they give themselves tools to understand triggers, avoid escalating reactions and recover from an angry emotional state. Here are some strategies:
Establish a Relationship Safety Net
This is the implicit or stated understanding between partners that they love each other, value the relationship, will not physically threaten or harm each other, will not say the “unsayable,” and will prioritize their marriage.
- For some couples the need for a net becomes frighteningly clear the first time one or the other feels that safety has become threatened. At such times making space and time to cool down or guarantee safety may be warranted.
- It is important to recognize that violence often begins with small and ignored physical and verbal threats and boundary violations.
- We know that alcohol is a common and dangerous factor in the escalation of any couple’s arguments and expression of anger.
- What is crucial is follow-up in a calm state together or with help from a professional to re-consider and re-set the safety net.
Stop and Reflect
When we feel we have a reason to be angry with our partner there is a tendency to ruminate about it in a way that legitimizes our case and fuels the fire…
“ How did she rack up this credit card bill?”
“ He is late again because it is MY family that is coming over.”
“ I can’t take another moment of seeing the house in shambles when I walk in!”
There is great advantage before you jump into your anger to Stop and Reflect.
- Are you taking into account all the circumstances?
- Does your partner have a reason beyond his/her control?
- Are you taking the situation personally like an attack against you?
- Are you angry about something else or physically dysregulated in a way that is really driving your anger?
- Is there a way to inquire about what you are reacting to without jumping into a fight?
Timing is Everything
- As a rule of thumb consider that very few attempts to deal with a conflict lead to discussion and resolution when they are dropped on the partner as he/she is leaving for work or coming home after a long day.
- Confronting a partner when he/she is about to go to sleep or waking them up to voice anger is experienced like insult to injury—never a good strategy.
- Traveling in the car together is often a discussion time for couples. If things start getting heated; however, safety warrants that you postpone the discussion and put on the radio. The last thing you need is road rage.
Communication is Central to Anger Management
Speaking and Listening are counterparts to any successful management of conflict between partners.
- Consider that the triggers of an argument are often the heartfelt feelings on the part of one or both partners—desperate to be heard.
- If you can speak in a way that communicates your need, problem, and feelings without putting your partner on the defensive, you will be more effective.
“ I get so worried when you are late and I don’t know where you are?”
- If you listen to learn something about you and your partner rather than waiting for your turn to “fight off” what is being said, you may set a pattern for safe communication on any topic.
- If you really don’t know what to say in the face of your partner’s sharing or expressed anger, confirming and taking time is usually well received.
“ I don’t know what to say. I need to think about it.”
Verbal Abuse is Dangerous.Whether you are starting or responding, verbal put-downs, non-verbal dismissal, mocking or crude language destroy safety and respect.—Assaultive language disrupts connection. Protect by planning.
- If one or both realize that the discussion is escalating to a shouting match or verbally abusive place, have a pre-set plan to STOP THE ACTION.
- Plan for options like: Take a separate time out, re-schedule the discussion, write-up your concerns, do something physical, do something together–walk the dog, start cooking together, turn on a movie.
- Remember– You are not avoiding, you are re-setting the safety of your bond, which takes priority over any argument.
- Try again when you can to re-visit the issue by presenting it as a joint dilemma rather than an attack or accusation. Try to consider the other’s perspective in concert with yours.
Recovery and Reconnection
All couples fight. In securing the stability and satisfaction of a marriage, it is not about the fight, it is about the recovery.
Some couples just let it go and proceed. Some couples have a style of apology and forgiveness. Some use humor. Some use sex.
What you hope is that something positive comes from the inevitable clash-particularly the awareness that discord, conflict and anger are not incompatible with love.
For an interesting discussion on the Use of Movies as a proven effective way to Strengthen and Monitor your Relationship Skills, Listen in to Dr. Ronald Rogge on “ Psych Up” on Cosozo Radio