Seeing Red: When All You Feel Toward Your Spouse Is Anger
In This Article
About the Author
Tara Riggs, (MS, RMFT-I) is a Licensed Professional Counselor specializing in Marriage Counseling, Infidelity Recovery, Anxiety & Depression, and Family Relationships. You can schedule an appointment with Lacey for online counseling or in-person at our Pensacola-Navarre, FL counseling center.
Everything she does grates your nerves. He speaks and somehow crawls under your skin. You’re seething between conversations, envisioning the next one, playing out how the conversation will go and how you can finally make him see. If you didn’t know better, you’d shake him and wake him up; make him see what he won’t see. All you can see is red. Arguments seem to go from 0 to 60 in a millisecond and next thing you know you are screaming at each other and then icing each other out.
You try to come back together but the tension is so thick that you can barely seem to be in the same room together. Your stomach is constantly in knots, your body is tense and ready for the fight, and nausea seems to go with you whether you’re together or not. Maybe you’ve prayed- begged God to open his eyes so that you can get to the other side of this; to get back to the days when you could enjoy each other; when all you knew was you belonged to each other and that was enough. Where did we go wrong? How did we get here, and how do we find our way back to each other?
If you have found yourself asking these questions and feeling this way, read on to discover the answers you’ve been looking for. In the article below you’ll discover:
- How did we get here? Going from rose-colored glasses to seeing red.
- Why is red all I can see and anger all I can feel? Getting under the anger and making sense of why it comes out that way.
- Why isn’t it working?- the effects of anger on the spouse.
- How do I stop? Owning my part of the cycle.
How did we get here? From rose-colored glasses to seeing red.
Let’s start by taking a closer look at how your anger got so hot. All couples fall into patterns when it comes to conflict, but all of these patterns are not created equally. The most common and ensnaring pattern couples find themselves in is what Dr. Sue Johnson, developer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, calls “The Protest Polka.” It is a pattern in which one partner protests disconnection and conflict by going after the other partner, pursuing them to make them see from their own perspective.
The protesting pursuit usually starts out innocent enough with asking for wants and needs to be met directly, such as, “Honey, can you please try to make sure your dirty clothes go into the hamper when you take them off?” Or it can look like playful flirting, such as a gentle caress, a come-and-get-me-wink, or pulling her close when you want your spouse to put down the phone and give you some attention. But sooner or later, these things don’t work anymore. Maybe the pressure at work got worse. Maybe a new baby or third baby is changing up the dynamic. Or maybe a conflict got swept under rug but stills lurks in the shadows of your mind.
Slowly but surely, we up the ante. That clear and direct ask doesn’t work anymore so the bitterness and resentment build, and the new norm instead becomes a passive aggressive slight about the maid getting fired. Contempt makes its way in and the slight becomes a direct aim for the jugular. Comments are aimed at the core of who your spouse is and their weaknesses are used as ammunition against them. Often times, this is where you might drag other family members through the mud just to twist the knife a little more.
Meanwhile, we corral our own army of supporters, and friends become aware of the issues that were once private. Protection of the spouse to others goes out the window. The sweet, flirtatious calls for attention fall by the wayside, replaced by nit-picking, criticisms, accusations, and threats. Maybe this was a gradual change across 10 years. Maybe you can look back to a year ago and remember when everything seemed so easy. But it happened, and the anger is fiery hot, and all you can see is red.
Why is red all I can see and anger all I can feel? Getting under the anger and making sense of why it comes out that way.
None of this feels good. Some of the time, you might end up feeling really guilty for what you said and how the argument went. And maybe you’re asking why? Why is anger all I feel and red all I can see? Well, remember that “Protest Polka” I was talking about earlier? Well, as they say, it takes two to tango…or polka in this case. As you pursue, sweetly at first and then more intensely when it doesn’t work, your partner probably pulls away. Maybe he pulls away to more work, more time with friends, more time on social media, more hobbies, more projects, etc. It’s more of everything else but you. He doesn’t just pull away physically, he also shuts you out emotionally. He’s no where to be found. Won’t give you anything to work with. His facial expression is blank. His answer is always, “I don’t know.” He seems to just go into a cocoon and there is no telling when he will come out of it.
Maybe at first you waited patiently. Maybe not. Maybe you’re burning hot, seething, seeing red, and reliving everything he’s ever done to hurt you. Maybe you’re questioning whether this marriage was right after all. Maybe you’ve turned all the blame on yourself and you’re angry for what you said and scared to death that this time was the straw that broke the camel’s back and it’s over. But whatever form it takes, insecurity has taken the wheel and you are not longer on solid ground.
Here’s the kicker: You might not believe me, but you’re not actually mad at your partner. You’re mad at the disconnection. You’re mad that he doesn’t see you. It’s like you’re invisible. And no matter how loud you yell, he doesn’t hear you. You’re mad there’s an enormous mountain between you neither of you seem to be able to climb, and, if you’re honest, maybe it feels like you’re the only one climbing.
The Tip of the Iceberg
Let me explain. Your anger is actually the tip of the iceberg. Anger tends to be a very loud, encompassing emotion. When we feel it, it’s all we feel. We might feel a burning sensation like our blood is boiling. Everyone knows when it’s reached it’s boiling point. If they’re smart, they’ll run the other way or they’re going to get burned. It also easy to feel because it makes us feel powerful when we feel powerless. It makes us feel big when we feel small, and it makes us vivid when we feel invisible. There’s no denying a person who’s angry.
However, if we were to peel back the anger and take a look inside when you’re thinking about your relationship, we would find a lot more going on. We’d likely find guilt for all the things you said and how you said them. We’d likely find sadness too. It’s a far fall from what we were and the fun we used to have. We are struggling to hold onto the memories we share and the love that was supposed to last through think ’till death do us part.’ The sadness of hope deferred that makes the heart sick (Prov 13:12).
All the hopes and dreams of being truly and deeply known, of finally being understood, of ‘happily ever after” have faded. If we looked really deep in the iceberg, dug deep into its core, we’d find fear. Fear you’ll be all alone when all is said and done. Fear whether you’re married or single you’ll still end up alone because even when he’s here, he’s not really here.
That feeling of being alone might feel really familiar. It might feel like the home you grew up in when no one cared to know you deeply. Or maybe home was so unsafe you never even got the chance to know yourself deeply because you were so busy just trying to survive. Maybe it feels the way you felt in school- the last one picked, no social group to call your own, just can’t seem to fit in feeling. And that is tender…acute….soft…vulnerable… You probably can’t sit in that for very long, so the anger comes out to protect you from being that scared little kid ever again. And that’s all your partner ever sees: anger. But that’s not because it’s all that’s there.
Why Isn’t It Working? The Effects of Anger on the Spouse.
We established earlier that your anger is really just a protest of disconnection. It’s your way of saying, “Stop. This isn’t working. We’re not connecting here.” The problem is you have had to up the ante. The louder you get the more he goes away and the more he goes away, the louder you get and round and round we go. Your anger has been rendered powerless. It’s no longer doing what it’s meant to do- create change. Or if it is, the change is short-lived.
Your partner is also protesting the disconnection, but rather than protesting with anger, he protests by going away, believing if he can go away, he can stop the escalating conflict, quell your anger, and the in time the storm will pass. It’s not ideal, because he knows it’s not what you want, but it seems to be the lesser of two evils. It may be difficult in the moment, but it protects the relationship for the long term by not allowing it to get to the point of no return… or so he thinks.
But just as your anger is not effective in creating change, so is his withdrawal, because the storm doesn’t pass. In fact it lingers like a funnel cloud looming above your heads, needing just the tiniest flicker of a breeze to intensify it back into the destructive whirlwind. And do you ever wonder where he goes when he is away? It may look like he’s lost on social media, or house projects, or work or kids. But his mind is at work trying to make sense of your anger. See his mind needs to create a story that makes all the confusing pieces fit together. His brain has to make a narrative about what this anger means about him, about you, and about your relationship. And the same insecurities that grip you, grip him.
Your partner is also afraid of being alone and afraid he isn’t good enough, or is too much, or some combination of the two that makes him unlovable. And the thought of life without you and the reality of his own imperfections are enough to keep him in the protected cocoon where the insecurities combine with the aloneness and slowly eat away at his soul, leaving him without confidence, bitter, resentful, and detached.
How do I stop? Owning my part of the cycle
You’re exhausted, hopeless, and out of options. You’ve read the books, spoken to your pastor and nothing has shifted. The cycle has to change and I am here to help. You may not want to hear this, but the first step in changing this pattern is to own your part of the cycle. This isn’t a him issue, or a her issue. Both people play a role and both people have to own the responsibility for the part they play. Your anger hasn’t worked. In fact, we’ve discovered that it actually intensifies the cycle and creates the opposite result of the one you want- so maybe try another angle. For so long your eyes have been on your partner- what they’re doing, not doing, or not doing right or enough. But it’s time to shift your focus and take a good look in the mirror and a good look within.
Here are 3 steps to create the change you’ve been longing for:
- Look at the state of your own heart. Have you been guarding it against bitterness, anger, and resentment or have those taken root? Your heart is your own, and more than anyone else, you have been entrusted to care for it well. What might that look like for you?
- Put yourself in your spouse’s shoes and see things from their perspective. Think about their history. What happened that contributed to how he responds? Can you imagine what it might be like to be on the receiving end of your anger and the comments that flow from it? Take a look at your words, actions, and expressions. What might your spouse be learning about your love for him?
- Do what only you can- own your part. What are you doing to contribute to the dynamic? Can you change the criticisms to look for the good? Exchange the complaints for appreciation? You used to be able to ask for what you needed in a kind way that honored your spouse and the image of God in them. Take steps to return to that. He is still an image-bearer: loved, chosen, and adored by your Heavenly Father and worth the sacrifice of His Son. Can you hold that in your heart as you look at him? Can you pause to pray before you speak, remembering your intention when you vowed to love him for better or for worse?
If you can put these three into practice, the dynamic of the whole relationship will change. And with the help of a trained therapist, you can begin to see each other differently, as your true selves, being seen, heard, and loved just as you are… and maybe, just maybe you’ll find that clearly seeing and being seen in this way far outweighs seeing red.
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