The Anger-Dependent Marriage
Sandy and Greg had been married for ten years, had two healthy kids and were committed to family values. They had one major problem — they couldn’t seem to disagree without getting into a fight.
Within five minutes of a therapy visit, they were both bickering. Sandy would make accusatory statements like, “You constantly set me up to be the bad cop in the family, and you want me to do all the work.” Greg would grin and respond, “You like doing all the work,” ignoring Sandy’s concern and causing more anger.
Greg and Sandy are an example of the hostile-dependent couple, one of the major types of couples combinations. Hostile-dependent couples have difficulty with both intimacy and independence, and they often become trapped in self-destructive cycles of yelling, instigating anger, stubborn defiance, and nonproductive conversation.
Instead of talking out their feelings, hostile-dependent partners act them out, leaving each partner longing for a meaningful connection. An example of acting out may be throwing a dish when you are really hurt and angry at your partner. Typically, partners in a hostile-dependent relationship:
• don’t share their needs or vulnerabilities
• push each other away but demand nurturance
• don’t see the other partner as a separate person
• express hurt and anger in verbal and physical attacks
• resort to name-calling when upset
• walk out on fights
• aren’t able to function independently in the marriage
If you feel you’re a hostile-dependent spouse, practicing the positive coping tools in this article can help you to listen calmly, develop some separation from your partner, and develop an ability to understand your partner. With this understanding comes improved communication, the ability to compromise, and renewed intimacy.
Why Are You So Hostile?
In their book “In Quest of the Mythical Mate,” master therapists Pete Pearson, Ph.D., and Ellyn Bader, Ph.D. write that each partner in a hostile-dependent relationship “clings to the fantasy that the partner is finally the one and only person who can make up for everything their parents and family did not provide for them as children.”
When the fantasy doesn’t become reality, one partner can become demanding, angry and unable to understand the other’s point of view because of the self-absorption caused by childhood deprivation. Hostile-dependent couples are overly dependent on each other: they can’t live with each other because of the rage, and they can’t live without each other because of the severe deprivation.
Here are the four steps to help you break the habits of hostile dependency:
1. Contain Your Anger
Learning to contain your anger can be a major challenge, but you’ll find that it offers numerous rewards.
Find your triggers: When you recognize the things that trigger your anger, you’ll be able to stay objective while engaging in a disagreement rather than responding impulsively. Sandy learned to tell herself, “Greg is behaving immaturely by giving me the silent treatment, but I’m going to stay in neutral and not get hooked in.”
Practice deep breathing: Once Sandy clearly understood what Greg did to pull her into overreacting, she learned to practice deep breathing rather than aggressively expressing whatever she was feeling at the moment. Deep breathing can give you a new focus, which will help you relax and respond in a less reactive manner.
Ask good questions: This can help both of you to think about what you’re doing and stay out of emotional reactivity. When Greg complained about having to drive the kids, Sandy learned to “be curious not furious” by asking questions like “How do you feel about driving the kids?” or “What made it such a hassle?”
By asking these questions, Sandy began to understand Greg in a new way that led to some healthy compromises, and she felt a growing confidence in her ability to take charge of her emotions.
Know what you feel: Healthy people know what they feel and what to do about it. Developing the ability to recognize core feelings — sad, mad, angry, frustrated, and happy or loving — will help you to communicate your feelings rather than impulsively dumping your tension.
Instead of passively making sarcastic comments or giving disrespectful looks, Greg agreed to become more aware of his feelings by practicing “red-light therapy.” Whenever he was stopped at a red light, he asked himself, “What am I feeling now?” and he gradually became aware of his core feelings.
2. Take a Time-out for Healthy Action
As soon as you notice you’re headed toward destructive communications, tell your spouse you’re taking a time-out. A time-out gives you a chance to calm down and think out the points you want to get across, enabling you to begin a mature discussion in a more neutral tone. Remember that the partner who requests the time-out is responsible for scheduling a future discussion at a mutually agreeable time.
Anger is a signal to take action, and you’ll feel better when you get something accomplished during the time-out. Make a list of five easy things you can get accomplished during time-outs that help you calm down as you reflect on the good qualities of your spouse.
During Greg and Sandy’s time-outs, he went to the garage to sort through a box of clutter, and she practiced yoga. As they neared the end of therapy, Greg had gotten rid of almost all of the boxes heaped in his garage, and Sandy had slimmed down and mastered several yoga poses. They learned that they could use their anger productively, get things accomplished and have more productive conversations.
3. Make Healthy Fighting Agreements
Healthy fighting occurs when partners do the following:
• take turns listening to each other
• talk out their feelings
• focus on one topic
• paraphrase what the other has said
• ask good questions to facilitate understanding
Unfortunately, couples in hostile-dependent relationships often use the “furious four” fighting tactics:
2. threatening divorce
3. throwing or hitting things
4. walking out on a fight
Sandy and Greg made and honored an agreement to stop using these destructive tactics, and they greatly reduced the negativity in their disagreements.
4. Learn to Apologize
A sincere apology has real healing power, but learning to apologize can be a challenge to the hostile spouse. As hostile-dependent people grow and mature, they’re able to recognize their partners as separate individuals and empathize with them.
Take some time to imagine what your partner may be feeling, and carefully consider your next move. Greg learned that Sandy really wanted to be closer to him, and Sandy realized how much Greg wanted a loving marriage. With this knowledge, they were able to move forward and develop the skills that improved their relationship.
With a serious commitment to improving your marriage, you can jump the hurdles that are part of the evolution of all marriages, and it’s worth every bit of your effort. Don’t beat yourself up if you regress under stress, but do your best to hone your new skills and “go from a maze to amazing.” If you find that you need additional help, please contact a counselor or therapist.
About the Author:
Dr. Wolters specializes in relationship therapy, child and adolescent therapy, and in the early identification and treatment of mood disorders in teenagers and young adults. She has helped many couples revitalize their marriages, improve family functioning and create healthy environments for children and teens. You can visit her website at www.PatriceWolters.com