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-- Updated February 28, 2003 --

The Question From Angry in Arkansas.

    Dear MateGuru:  I have been married for all of 11 months. This is my first marriage. I am 27. My wife and I knew each other almost four years before we got married. We grew up in the same small town and went to the same schools, but we weren't high school sweethearts. In a way, we were the ones who didn't kind of pair off in high school like a lot of our small-town friends did. Maybe, we felt we had no other options. We were like the ones left unpaired at graduation. I don't know. We didn't live together before we got married.

    We don't really get along that well. It got worse right after our wedding. I quit my job because of a conflict with my boss and my wife ended up so stressed out about it that she has never forgiven me, even though I got another pretty good job in six months. We just don't talk very much. If we do start talking, we always end up in a fight or some kind of argument. I don't know how to keep myself from getting into an argument. I really don't want to, but it seems to always happen.

    My wife's an angry person, too. So, it is a problem, you see. I stress out easily and take things way too personally. I think it is because I was criticized so much by my mom and dad, but more by my mom. She hated me, as far as I could tell. I have never forgiven her for hitting me when I was a kid and I just don't even talk to her now, even though I bump into her now and then. My dad died two years ago. Can you believe, my mom is already remarried? She was always pretty darn selfish. I have one older sister.

    I have tried several techniques for keeping my anger under control, like counting to ten, trying to not take things personally, but it is not working. Since my wife is the same way, I tried to talk to her about us both getting into marriage counseling or anger management counseling, but she says "no way." What do you think I should do?  Signed:  Angry in Arkansas

The Answer.

    Dear Angry:  There are many things that can get us into an angry space in our lives. We can be overstressed. We can be living such a complicated life and feel so pressured that just some little thing will set us off. A lot of road rage is like that. We can have a chip on our shoulder from a past experience that hurt us, so we go around ready to "fix" anyone who might look like they are going to hurt us again. We may misinterpret what people say as being more critical than it really is.

    Anger is a fact of life. It can be a normal and natural emotion that can be protective and which is appropriate and healthy for self-confidence or it can be over-reaction, destructive, manipulative, and punishing. It sounds like you are carrying a real chip on your shoulder about your mother. You also may be carrying a grudge about your wife not forgiving you when you lost your job, among other things. Now, I am not saying that it sounds like it is all that easy to live with your wife's angry outbursts. But, you may find, if you work on your own "grudges" that you will soften up with your wife. And, maybe that will be a start. There are no guarantees as to your wife. However, for your own good health, I recommend just going ahead and getting into counseling no matter what your wife or your friends think.

    One of the things you will likely have to face up to in the process of counseling is forgiving your mother. Yes, that will be part of becoming a less angry person. You may think you have every reason in the world to be angry at her, but that anger will eat you up. When you forgive someone, it does not mean that you condone their behavior toward you. To forgive them means that you are giving up your own painful grudges. This lightens your load in life. We are all human and rather imperfect. Maybe your mom's mom was cruel and that is why your mom carries around so much anger and selfishness. Usually there is a generational aspect to chronic anger. Give other people space to be a little stupid (we all are), or a little confused (we all are), or imperfect in some other way, and you will be learning to give yourself the same appreciation and space.

    What will your wife do? I don't know. I think if you can learn to say things to her like "I know you are really angry with me. I am sorry. I will do my best to win back your love. Can you just take it a little easier on me?" (And mean it.) She may be an overcritical person, but you won't soften her up by just counterattacking or taking her "crankiness" too personally.

    In your case, I think there are specific triggers to your anger that are related to your experiences with your mother, feeling criticized, maybe belittled and shamed and then learning to be defensive as you grew older. So, doing some work on the triggering events and disarming them would be good.

    Learning to breath deeply while repeating a key phrase to yourself will help you to not over-react. Find a key phrase that will work as a self-hypnosis tool for calming yourself down. It could be as simple as "I will be calm" or "relax" or something longer like "listen and surf rather than react and hurt." Just about anything that will help you smile inside and make you pause before you react will be helpful (emphasis on the "smile inside").

    For more discussions, information, and advice about anger management, check out some of the following Web sites:

    I hope that helps. Take care, and thank you for writing!
    Posted by:  Ron Sterling, M.D.    Read our Disclaimer.

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RON STERLING, M.D.
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Updated February 28, 2002
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