Anger in marriage can’t be good, right? I mean, aren’t couples supposed to get along and resolve their differences without feeling angry at each other?
It turns out, no.
In fact, couples that proudly proclaim “We never fight” are often the ones who eventually land in divorce court. There are, however, exceptions. Some couples tend to minimize differences. These couples are labeled “avoidant” couples, and they can get along quite well by making a goal out of ignoring differences. As long as no dramatic crisis challenges their togetherness, they stay calmly engaged.
For most marriage, however, conflicts, or efforts to resolve disagreements are essential.
Gender Differences in Marital Spats
Women and men don’t act alike in marriage, as if you needed me to tell you that. Research* has found a few differences, however, that might surprise you. As you might have guessed, women are the ones to bring up complaints, and they do it 80% of the time in marriages. They are the emotional monitors of the relationship. They pay attention to the “thermostat” of the marriage. The conversation might go like this:
She: Honey, what’s wrong?
She: You’re awful quiet…
He: I’m fine. Nothing’s wrong.
She: Are you mad because I’m going away this week-end?
He: No, I told you I didn’t care. Enjoy yourself.
She: Was it the conversation with your brother?
He: Sheila! I told you nothing was wrong!
She: Okay, but I know when you get that look…I hope you’ll talk to me about it later…
Three hours later, he tells his wife that his brother said something to him in the phone call that really bothered him, and they discuss it.
Women have been socially conditioned to tune into and discuss feelings. Men, on the other hand, have been taught to stuff feelings and focus on action. As the saying goes, “men join teams to compete, while women compete in order to join teams“. Girls will stop the game rather than risk hard feelings between the players, while boys will fight about it, and when push comes to shove, they repeat the play that was in question. This youth-based inexperience with emotional communication has other interesting physiological ramifications.
Men are much more easily autonomically aroused by perceived challenges in their marriages than women. This arousal (increased heart rate, blood pressure, sweating, and the like) happens more quickly to them. While this physiological arousal is horribly noxious to both, men take a longer time to calm down. Men also have been demonstrated to become physiologically aroused by even low levels of conflict, such as their wives’ complaints, and they become more easily withdrawn and defensive.
Another fascinating finding is that men ruminate after ineffective marital fights, especially if they withdraw in an effort to calm themselves down. Thoughts such as: “I don’t have to put up with that!” or “She’s going to be sorry she said that. It is so untrue!” tend to continue the autonomic arousal. If his goal was to take a break from the “hassle” and calm down, his brain is not cooperating.
Unresolved disagreements will often ramp up a wife’s complaints transforming them into criticisms. Criticisms are much more physiologically arousing to men than are complaints. The difference between them may seem subtle, but are, in fact quite different. Take the proverbial toilet seat discussion:
She: Jim, I found the toilet seat up again. Will you please try to remember to put it down after you use it?
She: Jim, what’s the matter with you? I’ve told you a 1000 times to put the damn toilet seat down, and you never do! I can’t believe how selfish you are. You never think of anyone but yourself!
You can see that in the first example, the “complaint,” the wife focuses on the action (i.e. putting the seat down). In the second, the “criticism,” not putting the seat down becomes a character flaw, and the comment turns personal. There are a lot of “you never!” or “you always!” type comments in criticisms.
Men also can complain, but they do it less frequently (20% vs. 80%). This might have something to do with the autonomic arousal I mentioned earlier. Rather than risking an emotionally upsetting exchange, they adopt a “let sleeping dogs lie” approach. They may claim that they are “easy-going,” while accusing their wives of being “a nag” or “always complaining,” when things turn sour.
Both men and women tend to criticize, and get defensive equally in troubled marriages.
Not all fighting is healthy, however. Fights become damaging when they are filled with ridicule, mocking, defensiveness, contempt, disgust and belligerence. Stonewalling also enters the picture. Of partners who stonewall, 85% are men.
The gender differences between men and women can sometimes bring on these more harmful and destructive battling styles.
Take for example, Sheila and Jim. Sheila is upset because Jim refuses to talk to her about their plans (or lack thereof) for the upcoming week-end. He stonewalls her attempts by dodging the issue:
She: Jim, what do you want to do this week-end?
He: You want to do something?
She: You know I want to do something. I keep asking you. Do you want to go to the movies?
He: (Silence. Picks up the newspaper.)
She: How about going to dinner somewhere nice. I heard about a new Italian place that opened up across town…
He: (He keeps reading without looking up or acknowledging her.)
She: (raising her voice) Don’t you want to go anywhere? Why are you such a stick in the mud! Hey!!! I’m trying to talk to you and you’re still reading the paper!
He: (from behind the paper) Now I’m not allowed to read the paper?
She: (mocking him) “Aren’t I allowed to read the paper?” No Jim, you aren’t, because you can’t concentrate on two things at the same time. What am I even doing in this marriage? We never have any fun. You won’t help around the house, you’re hardly ever home, and when you are home, you’re on the computer or reading the paper. You’re useless!!!
He: (tosses the paper down in a huff and leaves, with a roll of his eyes.)
In this example, Sheila has heightened the anger, ridicule, and mocking in response to Jim’s stonewalling. Instead of directly expressing his opinion, Jim has dodged the issue by picking up the paper. When she calls him out on it, he changes the subject to whether or not he’s allowed to read the paper. The more Sheila escalates in order to demonstrate her frustration, and engage Jim, the more he stonewalls and defensively withdraws. She then resorts to “throwing the kitchen sink at him,” i.e. complaining about every past grievance. His eye-roll at the end is his final communication. Sheila reads it as: “You are being ridiculous. I won’t engage with you any further.” He’s probably flooded with emotions (and adrenaline) at this point, and if she does get him to engage, that’s when he’s likely to “say things he didn’t mean.” Why isn’t Jim addressing his wife’s concerns? Maybe he feels that saying that he doesn’t want to go anywhere this week-end, will start an even bigger battle. He figures by keeping his mouth shut, he’s doing them both a favor. He isn’t.
If complaints or criticisms get men going, nothing upsets a woman, physiologically, as much as stonewalling. Stonewalling is a set of behaviors that demonstrate that a person is unwilling to deal with the disagreement, and so sits in stone-faced silence, withdraws or walks away. Unfortunately, raising her volume is likely only to intensify Jim’s stonewalling, and the relational interaction spirals further downward. Men do 85% of the stonewalling in marriages, while women bring up 80% of the complaints.
More important than angry expressiveness, is the style each couple uses in conflict. One may be volatile and actively engage in the battle. Another may be avoidant or attempt to sooth the angry spouse. A mis-match of conflict engagement can intensify the problems. A person who soothes a volatile spouse will not be warmly received. A volatile spouse is likely to feel rejected with an avoidant partner. And while the soothing spouse attempts to engage and reassure, the avoidant prefers to dodge and distract. Any of these three styles can make for effective conflict resolution as long as both partners share the same style.
Couples who fight as often as they enjoy each other are quite likely to split up, according to research. Five positive interactions to 1 negative interaction is the minimal baseline that stabilize any given couple. Happy couples have ratios closer to 20 to 1.
One thing all couples share is what researchers call “perpetual problems.” Perpetual problems are problems that never go away, no matter how hard one tries. Here the goal is not to resolve the difference, but to keep a good sense of humor about it, accept it as a “third force” between you, instead of attacking each other. Happy couples are also similar in other ways. Wives in these marriages tend to have “soft start-ups” or a way of introducing a complaint that frames the issue less harshly. (i.e.: “I know you have a lot on your mind but…” or “It’s not a big thing, but it really bugs me when…”) Perpetual problems are also handled with a sense of humor. Take this comment from one husband said in front of his wife:
He: She never met a pair of shoes she didn’t want to take home.
In an unhappy marriage,” them would be fightin’ words,” but in a happy one, the wife might laugh and agree. She might point out that he’s much better at saving money than she is, and he might add that like her shoe-buying habit, he can go overboard in the ‘Scrooge Department.” It is a difference they’ve learned to live with in each other.
Finally, happy couples tend to be biased in a positive way toward each other. Even a comment that researchers agree was “hostile” or “rude,” might be interpreted differently by a contented spouse. Positive emotions act as a buffer that allow even hostile comments to take on neutral or positive meaning. He or she may (mis)interpret it as “he/she was just tired” or “It is an issue they feel strongly about.“ Finally, even in the most heated argument, each partner knows how to signal the other to de-escalate the anger. Humor, apologies, or accepting and acknowledging the others’ point of view, all tend to keep the happy couple from flooding, falling into criticism, getting defensive, or stonewalling. The wife will interpret stonewalling as “he’s got to have some time by himself to calm down” instead of feeling rejected. The husband will see the complaint as an attempt to get along better, and connect rather than bat it back and get defensive.
Anger, as research has shown, activates the right side of the brain in PET scans, the “approach” side, whereas fear and sadness reside on the left. Therefore, instead of defining anger as necessarily a destructive emotion, it is best thought of as electricity that needs to be harnessed and directed. The protective “insulation” are the good feelings, respect, and esteem both partners have for each other. Anger instead of being seen as damaging, can be the energy that brings about constructive change, airs differences, and seeks greater understanding and contentment between partners.
If it is kept under control.
* John Gottman from the University of Washington has spent 25 years studying the physiology, facial expressions, blood pressure, rate of perspiration, tone and verbalization of couples in his apartment “lab” in Puget Sound. His work is one of the few that studies these couples over time to determine which variables are associated with marital dissolution and which are linked to marital happiness and stability.