Conflicted Couples: Go Be Angry if You Want


“Go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry—but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry. Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t give the devil that kind of foothold in your life.” (Ephesians 4:26-27, The Message)


Do you know what? There is no need to mess with your partner. Bark, bitch and belittle if you think that works – but you don’t need to. In the flash of a trigger moment, in the blister of anger, it is a choice whether to go for a run or run over your partner.

I am confident that most anyone can interrupt their “fight or flight” reaction to what triggers them. Let me explain a bit. Anger is a second stage emotional response to the internal experience of hurt and fear. Anger doesn’t normally exist by itself – something has startled you or hurt you. Then you get mad and you stop thinking. Mix your rapidly accelerating anger with a flash memory of harm and you have a conflict concoction common to chronically conflicted couples. Here is the formula:

Hurt + Fear + History = Anger [→ Chronic Conflict]

The hurt or anticipated hurt is the trigger. Fear is the emotional lubricant, a kind of psychological WD-40. Add in a history of harm (in this or other intimate relationship) and the result is anger, explosive or malingering, vented or suppressed.

Note the bracket and arrow in the formula above – this is where it all changes. This emotional concoction is now pushing for a body response, a behaviour. This is usually thought of as fight or flight where the fear either accelerates the conflict or, possibly, accelerates the retreat. (We are not talking about the problems of a conflict-avoidant marriage in this blog.) If fighting is the everyday response to these troubling emotions, then it has become a pattern. It’s called revenge and it is fueled by anger. Sort of like the devil having a foothold in your life, and sort of like not interrupting yourself.

Next time some thoughts on interrupting yourself.

Conflicted Couples: “I’m a Dirty Fighter”

I am the dirty fighter in our marriage. Carole grew up with the idea that to go to bed angry was about as sinful as it gets, whereas I figured that going to sleep in the midst of shared madness was one way to solve it – pretend it never happened. Carole would then wake me up to talk it through and I would be more peeved than the hours before, but eventually she would lead me through it.

By the way, the problem we were gnarling about was never the problem. More often it had to do with who was going to control this relationship we were living. Like on the dance floor, Carole loves to lead and the problem with that is that I like to lead as well. We often lead in different directions, we usually have different rhythms and we both think we are right most of the time. And sometimes we are both right, and right at the same time.

I have learned from Carole over these 39 years. I am less of a dirty fighter now. And I have discovered that there are lots of reasons to “not let the sun go down on your wrath” (Ephesians 4:26) — here are some.

1. Fighting wrecks intimacy. Not much chance for closeness, no spooning, no whatever… and forget about love-making.

2. Un-conciliated conflict disturbs your dreaming and your resting. You wake up often more tired than when you closed your eyes. Rather than 8 hours of rest you get 8 hours of wrestlessness (I know how to spell restlessness).

3. You reduce your next day resiliency. Last night’s conflict becomes tomorrow’s frustration and bitterness. Watch your angst and how on-edge you are with others.

4. Nourishing your wrath takes huge withdrawals from your emotional bank account, that accumulation of goodness and freshness that you should be adding to your marital friendship.

5. You become habituated to thinking you are “right” while being aggressively resistant to your partner. It becomes your new norm. It’s called being “passive aggressive” in psych circles.

I seem to have lots of “high conflict couples” these days in my practice. Maybe you are one of them. So I am going to create a few blogs written for you. I hope that these “Comments from the Couch” give you occasion to think, laugh, maybe get confused and perhaps make some different decisions.

Thanks for reading.

“Good Grief” [A Guest Blog]

Our guest blog is from a client-friend who has endured intense loss over the last year. This is her testimony as she learns to trust and re-experience faith.

My thesaurus indicates that the word grief can be replaced with sorrow, heartache, and misery, to name an unhappy few. In the last year any one of these words could have been used to describe me. It all started with the death of my loveable but dysfunctional brother. In turn this contributed to the rupture of my marriage. For the first six months I was in a state of shock and disbelief. I cried just driving on to my yard. I couldn’t sleep. Despite having been in Christian ministry for years I started to doubt God’s existence. At the nadir point I found myself sitting on my living room floor sobbing and saying, “God I don’t even know if you are real but you are all I have.”

Foolishly, people sometimes think we need to have faith to have our prayers answered. I am happy to report that even when we are faithless, God is faithful. Slowly, gently, God is restoring my soul. He has used nature, the love of family and friends, His word, and occasionally an overwhelming sense of His presence. At times it has almost felt miraculous.

Despite my renewed hope I still have moments of intense sorrow. Just the other morning I awoke alone at 5:00 a.m. and instantly my body was racked with pain and I felt as though my grief would crush me. My mind was screaming out, “How can this be!”

Thankfully I have learned that the intense emotion does dissipate. Instead of resisting it, I acknowledge the loss and let my body release the suffering through tears. Once the emotion is spent my spirit reminds me, “I am not alone, God is real and He is enough.”

Thinking About Making a Life Change?

The last couple of days I have been working with mature students in graduate education at Carey Theological College on the UBC campus. This is my “day job” where I am the professor of marital and family studies. One of my several tasks at the beginning of an academic year is to interpret the psychosocial assessments of first year divinity students. These tremendously capable people are in the midst of making personal and vocational life changes, many of them in midlife having succeeded at other professions. One is a chaplain with the Canadian forces, one is a building contractor, some are in education and health sciences, one is a police officer, and all these folk are looking for work success in something new.

I gave them three psychosocial assessments. The first is the Strong Inventory for assessing vocational interests. A classic test, this is outstanding for figuring out your personal preferences in the myriad of alluring opportunities. The second is the California Psychological Inventory, a personality assessment that measures the test-taker on more than 25 personality variables. This one can feel a bit intrusive – it may tell you more than you might want to know about yourself. The third assessment is the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Inventory and this assesses (surprise!) how you handle interpersonal stress and conflict.

And I have a deal for you: since I have done a bunch of these and I have already paid for several more sets, I am willing to reduce my costs so that you, my client friends, can get the benefit. Normally these tests cost out at more than $200 and I will offer them to you for $150. And that’s a deal.

For more information on my work in psychosocial assessment, please see a previous blog entitled “Life/ID: Identifying Your Life.”

Un-Naming [A Guest Blog]

A client friend talked to me about the power of labels, diagnoses and names. I asked her to write a brief blog as I wanted you to hear the thoughtfulness of her words. I think that this follows up well with my last blog on “Someone Else’s Opinion of Me is None of My Business.” The subject is “differentiation.”

“When we give something a name it acquires a weight of importance that may become too heavy. So, if I cannot sleep at 3 AM, I resist the inclination to say, or even think, “I have insomnia” and instead say, “How curious, it is 3 AM and I am wide awake.” Somehow, being “an awake person” is far less worrisome than being an “insomniac.” This inclination to deny some of life’s realities the right to a title can become a little comical. Announcing one is not going to have a “A Mid-Life Crisis” is a good way to get a laugh from your counsellor.

“Un-naming something is not ignoring it, but rather a deliberate effort to retain a personal identity that is larger than any label or diagnosis. One can seek help without saying, “I am depressed” or “I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” or whatever. The initiative to seek help can be found in naming the result I hope for as much as it is found in naming what I wish to change. If others want to give names to what they see in me, that’s alright as names can help with understanding. However, I am under no obligation to add this name to myself and carry the weight of it.”

Someone Else’s Opinion of Me is None of My Business

This oft-repeated phrase in AA and Alanon is profound in its simplicity. The capacity to define oneself in spite of the approval or judgment of another is a sign of emotional maturity and a quality that makes life work better. “Someone else’s opinion of me is none of my business.” Say it to yourself.

Differentiation is about knowing who you are, about your purpose. It is about distinguishing between the business that is yours and the business that is others. It is about self-definition and the management of opinions.

Trying to live up (or down) to others opinions of you is undifferentiation. Needing others to have your opinion is also undifferentiation. These are patterns of immaturity. Lots of conflict comes from this.

A client friend said to me this week, “I have spent my life working for my father’s approval that I have never received. I am unhappy, overworked, compulsive about everything and I no longer know who I am or what I enjoy.” He is a doctor, newly married, often angry, lost in compulsivity – what used to give him pleasure is now bland. Undifferentiation is a trap that can take years to close.

A few questions for you:

• When do you most feel yourself? When are you most in control of yourself?

• What relationships most allow you to be you? What relationships trap?

• Does your faith mostly freeze you with others, or free you for God?

This Most Terrible Poverty — Loneliness

Most of us feel lonely sometimes and sometimes often.

The other evening I went to see the movie “Eat, Pray, Love” with my son David. He is outside of a relationship at the moment and sometimes feels lonely, though his life is full and vibrant in lots of other ways. Still, to have a “primary other” in his life would be wonderful for him and, I think, spectacular for whoever the “her” is. And if you have seen the movie, it is all about exiting relationships and entering them.

Watching the movie David felt lonely. In response to his experience he sent me this wonderful YouTube video. It is lovely, focused and meaningful to a depth we don’t often plumb. It is called “How to Be Alone”.

Thinking about loneliness, I remembered what Mother Teresa said: “When Christ said: ‘I was hungry and you fed me,’ he didn’t mean only the hunger for bread and for food; he also meant the hunger to be loved. Jesus himself experienced this loneliness. He came amongst his own and his own received him not, and it hurt him then and it has kept on hurting him. The same hunger, the same loneliness, the same having no one to be accepted by and to be loved and wanted by. Every human being in that case resembles Christ in his loneliness; and that is the hardest part, that’s real hunger.

In another writing she said, “The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.”

“I’m So Glad You’re Not a Nice Person”

To be nice is to avoid risking, to feel more than think, to neglect passions, to act as if “commitment” is endurance rather than delight, to swap unique self-ness for the sort of peace that can’t be kept, to try to believe what others believe when you don’t want to and can’t anyways, to apologize for being whatever (e.g. successful, attractive, capable), to sustain relationships that should be shaken, to listen loudly to hollow fears, to not engage while all the while seeming to, to not see the humour or the art or the childlikeness in lots of everyday things, to make vital what’s redundant, to not know and express personal needs, to not be grateful from the heart, to not recognize when the situation is hopeless but not serious.

I learned this from a client friend today. She received this “not nice”  compliment – it was not mine to give or to receive. I just heard about it.

1950s Marriage Boing

I have been writing a book entitled “Couple’s Journey of a Lifetime: Mentoring for Pre-marriage, Re-marriage and Early Marriage” and I came across this funny YouTube clip on 1950s premarriage counselling. Watch it and you will discover the “Cupid’s Checklist,” a “Marriage Development Board” and advice on how to keep the “boing” in your marriage. (I might get one of those boards.) Enjoy.

Counselling Can Be Expensive (An Update)

Now that is a truism. Sometimes I tell my clients that I can’t even afford me! (I am never sure how they take that.) But how you feel about the expense of counselling depends a lot on what you get out of it.

My fee is $180 per hour (Carole’s fee is $160 per hour). I usually see someone for about 10, 1-hour sessions, so the total is about $1650 over several months. That is a lot of money. And then you take your car in for a tune-up (actually they don’t tune up anymore – they download computer upgrades) or sign up for a course at Capilano U.

Here is what I do about fees:
• I charge $20 per hour less than the going rate for Psychologists ($200 as of January, 2015). I charge less because I want to give back to you.
• Many of you will have your fees covered under an employee assistance plan or an insurance program. Make sure that you check your coverage for “Psychologists” before you visit with me.
• By the way, both you and your spouse may both be covered under your EAP or insurance program. This means that you can have twice the number of appointments for couple counselling. Imagine how many family appointments you can have!
• Keep your receipts for your income tax – some of it may be reimbursable. Ask an accountant.
• I also create my own assistance plan with your church or community group. You pay half the fee and they pay the other half for a maximum of 10 sessions. You would be surprised how many caring people want to provide financial assistance.
• I also reduce my rates for those who demonstrate a pressing need. Please let me know.

I am happy to say that most of my client-friends consider therapy to be good value and many recommend their family, friends and work associates. Counselling can be a valuable investment and worth much more than it costs.

(This blog is an update from one in January entitled “Counselling Can Be Expensive.”)