Focus on the Family

Coping with Alienation, Anger, and Anxiety in Marriage

Silhouette of a couple holding hands at sunset, but the man is fading away because of the alienation, anger, and anxiety in their marriage.
Do you feel distant from your spouse even when you are in the same room? You may be dealing with learned coping mechanisms from childhood.

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Does your marriage suffer from one of the three A’s: alienation, anger, or anxiety? I call these the “triple threat.” Any one of which will spur husbands and wives to handle the issue by trying to fix their spouse’s behavior.

But after multiple attempts at changing each other, many couples find themselves emotionally exasperated and physically separated, seeking professional counseling to restore the relationship. I’ll hear things like this:

  • He is always angry.”
  • She worries about everything and is never happy.”
  • He spends more time playing video games than playing with the kids.”
  • She does chores after the children go to bed and won’t sit still to watch a movie with me.”

What if a piece of the solution lies in understanding your spouse’s emotional stress and the communication underlying the behavior?

The three A’s triple threat are reactions or coping skills to stressors an individual feels in the midst of conflict or life events. We all need coping skills to deal with stress, but at times they can become unhealthy and problematic.

Often our reactions to conflict and stress are imprinted from early life experiences, hence we learn coping skills (healthy and unhealthy ones) in our childhood. Alienation, anger, and anxiety developed from a young age will likely show up in your marriage too. If you and your spouse could better understand what drives your “default reaction” or unhealthy coping skills, you could grow and move toward healthier responses in your marriage.

Let’s break down the triple threat behaviors and take a closer look at each one.

Alienation in Marriage

Alienation can present itself throughout marriage in many different ways:

  • Avoiding
  • Escaping
  • Withdrawing
  • Shutting down

The spouse of someone who copes by alienation says things like: “He never shares his feelings with me” or “She is always busy cleaning the kitchen and never has time to talk to me.”

A spouse who shows alienating behaviors most likely was encouraged to focus on tasks rather than feelings during his or her childhood. Therefore, this individual finds comfort in tangible projects, task completion and logical discussions.

This individual struggles with emotions and feelings. Her emotional vocabulary is limited. When her husband needs more emotional discussions, she may appear disinterested. So she may be truly lost interacting at this level.

Add negative emotions (conflict) and this individual quickly retreats to the kitchen or garage to work on a task because intense emotions and conflict can seem threatening. But alienating behaviors in marriage really communicate “I’m overwhelmed and fearful” and “I’m not adequate or enough for my spouse.”

How to Grow in Dealing with Alienation in Marriage

If this is you:

Learn to increase your emotional vocabulary by describing your emotions with nuance. For example, anger could also be described as bitter, irritated, or grouchy. Would you be mad when the car wouldn’t start or merely frustrated? Sadness could be felt as hopeless, dejected, or crushed. If a friend received a cancer diagnosis would you feel afraid or full of despair? (See “Soul Words” list.)

If you find yourself withdrawing during a conflict with your spouse, challenge yourself to re-engage by expressing a desire to understand and hear more of his or her struggle or frustration.

If this is your spouse:

Allow space and time for him or her to express feelings and emotions. Have patience as the avoiding spouse attempts to identify and express vulnerable emotions; bear “with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2). Consider that vulnerability was often not encouraged or tolerated in his or her childhood. This is new territory for your spouse. They did not mean to alienate you in your marriage; it is just what they do to feel safe.

Avoid attacking your spouse with “you” messages such as “You never do (fill in the blank)” or “You don’t seem to care about (fill in the blank).” Instead, stay calm and express your emotions with “I” messages. For example, “I feel confused when (fill in the blank)” or “It makes me feel uncared for when (fill in the blank).”

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Anger in Marriage

Anger can present itself as:

  • Explosive verbal expressions
  • Resistance
  • Stubbornness
  • Rage
  • Controlling or manipulative behaviors

God gifted us with all our emotions, even anger (Ephesians 4:26-27), but this powerful emotion can become destructive and damaging to ourselves and others. The spouse of an angry person says: “She’s never happy with anything I do” or “He reacts in harsh tones over simple things.”

Unlike individuals who alienate in marriage, individuals with unhealthy anger often experienced a childhood that was chaotic, unpredictable, and possibly unsafe. They struggle to trust others and themselves, and thus stay on guard, anticipating conflict. So they feel they can gain control of a situation through explosive emotions.

Instinctively their default reaction is to control the interaction. Due to their history, feeling out of control or sensing chaos equals danger. But ironically, angry outbursts really communicate, “I’m afraid of being hurt” or “I feel unsafe.”

How to Grow in Dealing with Anger in Marriage

If this is you:

Learn to examine your feelings and identify emotions that go a layer deeper than your anger. Increase your emotional vocabulary to talk about those other feelings such as sadness, hurt and grief. You may have blocked these vulnerable emotions over a long period of time. A counselor, 12-step anger-management program or support group can be good resources for you.

Create healthy stress relievers in your daily routine. Healthy outlets for the overwhelming energy created by anger can help reduce the frequency of explosive reactions. Physical exercise, a healthy diet and proper sleep are lifestyle factors that can make a calming difference.

If this is your spouse:

You may see your spouse as a controller. Both you and your spouse need to set limits and consistent boundaries. Remember your spouse’s recurring pattern has been one of distrust and uncertainty. The relationship can begin to heal when he or she senses safety, honesty and predictability in the relationship.

Communicate to your spouse your desire to hear his or her pain and struggle. You can also encourage couples counseling as a way to learn and practice healthy communication skills.

Monitor your safety. Not all expressions of anger are physical or life-threatening, but know when your physical safety is at risk. Leave immediately (taking any children with you) and seek a safer place such as a friend’s house, a shelter or a hotel. Seek professional help and notify the appropriate authorities.

Anxiety in Marriage

Anxiety in marriage presents itself as:

  • Nervousness
  • Edginess
  • Exhaustion
  • Excessive worrying
  • Feeling “stuck”
  • Feeling scattered

An anxious person’s spouse might say, “She always sees the negative side to everything and focuses on what could go wrong” and “She never seems able to relax.” An individual can struggle with making decisions or even tending to daily activities due to high levels of paralyzing fear.

This individual’s childhood likely involved an overprotective and highly fearful parent or a parent with high levels of anger and criticism. So the default response for this person is anxiety and worry with an intense focus on pleasing others to create emotional peace and to avoid rejection. This is different from people who alienate or are angry in marriage since the anxious person is often dependent on others’ feelings in order to feel stable.

He or she may be unaware of how much the anxiety exists in her day-to-day life. Since he has lived with this sensation for most of his life, he doesn’t recognize it as unusual. The anxiety-filled person uses high levels of anxiety to attempt to communicate the need to be reassured.

How to Grow in Dealing with Anxiety in Marriage

If this is you:

Begin to explore and take note of your anxiety levels by journaling. Rate anxiety on a scale of 1 to 10. List ways to reduce anxiety. Create a “tool bag” of helpful anxiety-reducing behaviors such as deep breathing, listening to music, relaxing in the outdoors, taking a warm bath, or memorizing key scriptures such as Philippians 4:6 and Psalm 46:1.

Work on allowing others to be upset, frustrated, or uncomfortable with a situation. Avoid stepping in too quickly to fix the problem or create peace and harmony. This will help others (especially children) learn problem-solving skills. It will also help you learn that others’ difficulties don’t result in rejection of you.

If this is your spouse:

You may see your spouse as needy and high-strung. Be aware of your tendency to be annoyed or dismissive of your spouse’s anxiety. Develop compassion for his anxiety and work to understand childhood experiences that may have created his response.

Offer support and encouragement when your spouse makes an effort to face her fears or minimize her anxiety. This will increase her sense of security in the relationship and decrease the fear of rejection.

Is Healing from Alienation, Anger, and Anxiety in Marriage Possible?

We all have experiences that have shaped us — some in good, healthy ways and some in bad, unhealthy ways. Alienation, anger, and anxiety don’t have to remain a threat in your marriage. Use the tools in the “How to grow” sections for each threat to minimize the hurt in your marriage and wait to see how God grows and heals your marriage.

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