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Resolving Anger in Your Marriage (Part 2 of 2)

Air Date 10/22/2014

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Pastor Ted Cunningham talks about his personal experiences with anger and explains how he worked through his emotional struggles in order to protect his marriage. (Part 2 of 2)

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Episode Transcript



Pastor Ted Cunningham: Think about the people consumed with anger, sitting at home and wanting to lean into their spouse or to their child. And yet, this anger, this poison that's in their soul just sits there, while they're trying to lean in and trying to be a good dad, trying to be a good mom.

And this is why I think one of the greatest things we can do as husbands, wives, moms, dads is to find ways to resolve that anger and resolve it so we can find deeper levels of intimacy.

End of Recap

John: Well, that's Pastor Ted Cunningham offering a perspective on taming anger and restoring intimacy. And he's back on today's "Focus on the Family." Now he's written a book with Gary Smalley called From Anger to Intimacy: How Forgiveness Can Transform Your Marriage. And we'll be returning to that today. Your host is Focus president and author, Jim Daly and I'm John Fuller.

Jim: John, there was so much good stuff in the program last time and we just ran out of time, so we wanted to come back today, continue to talk with Ted Cunningham about this issue of anger. And I think in the culture today and in our own relationships with our spouses, with our children, the anger issue is prevalent. It's just there. It's like we have shorter and shorter fuses in our lives today. And it may be pressure. It may be lots of things. We'll talk about that. But we wanted to come back today and continue to talk about anger and the way it plays into our relationships and how God views it in our lives.

Just let me say, if you're in that place where you're strugglin' and your marriage is tough and you don't know if you can get to the next day. Perhaps you're not pleased with the anger that you see in your spouse or yourself. We're here for you. Focus on the Family has caring counselors. You can call us. We will do all we can to put resources in your hands, to talk through the issues with you. To provide perhaps even local counseling opportunities that you can follow up on.

Beyond that, we've recently acquired the National Institute of Marriage in Branson, Missouri. It was started by Gary Smalley and in fact, Ted is from the same town, Branson--

John: Uh-hm.

Jim: --which offers intensive counseling for couples on the verge of divorce. And again, if you're in that spot, I think it's one of the best investments you can make. And just call us and ask for information regarding the National Institute of Marriage.

And through all these sources that we're talking about, things like the daily broadcast and the other tools, we're hopin' to reach almost 3 million couples this year along. And what a goal. And you know what? When we really get down to it, John, keeping families strong is the best thing we or anybody can do in this culture, because everything is built upon the strength--

John: Uh-hm.

Jim: --of the family. I'm more and more convinced of that. And as we talk to Presidents and Supreme Court justices, that theme just keeps coming out in those discussions, how the strength of the family translates into the strength of the culture. And this is a good work for all of us to be doing and I hope folks will consider supporting Focus in this effort. Join us. Be a part of the adventure. I think there's great days ahead, not difficult days.

John: And you can find out more about getting help for your marriage or a difficulty in life. And you can donate to this ministry when you call 800-A-FAMILY; 800-232-6459.


Jim: Ted, last time we talked a lot about the impact of anger and there was a lot of emotion in you. And folks, if you didn't hear the program, download it. Call us or write us, e-mail us. Get a copy of the CD, because it was powerful. You know when it is, when you sit behind the microphone a lot and I could feel just your heart was there and people connect with that.

Moving ahead today, talking about drinking buckets of poison as you described it yesterday, how anger affects you and how you need to deal with it, let's move to that perspective. The Scripture talks a lot about anger and it says in some ways, people would interpret it to say, it's okay to be angry. Just don't let the sun go down on your anger. Deconstruct that Scripture for us. What is that really getting at? Is it okay for me as a spouse, as a husband, to be mad throughout the day, as long as I say I'm sorry at night?

Ted: Yeah, (Laughing) I don't think the issue is anger. I think the issue is unresolved anger. Know why you're getting angry, what you're getting angry for, so I get angry as we should over injustice. Like if we see an injustice, we want to do something about it or we want someone to do something about it. We want it to be resolved.

It's the anger from events and circumstances and broken relationships and hurts and pain throughout life that we never resolve, that we leave boxed up or in the suitcase, never unpacking it, never understanding, why am I still angry at this 10 years later? And I believe, had I not had the help and the support of Gary, throughout that time, I would probably still be leading today out of a lot of that. Because what happens with anger, when someone desires to start unpacking it for you, like maybe in a new marriage or in a new job or in a new church, when someone starts to help you unpack that, that's when you get stronger. And you can get even more angry, 'cause I don't want you going there. That's not your place to go there. Do not help me unpack that.

So, the reason we use the term "personal responsibility" is, I want to be the one that unpacks it. I want to unpack it with safe people. I want to unpack it with, this is why I feel this way. This is what leads to the anger. But as far as getting angry at events in life, I don't believe we need to camp there. We need to camp with the unresolved anger, to always allow something to make you angry and to never ask the right questions or deal with it. That's the bigger issue.

And so, I think that's the emphasis of the text, to not let the sun go down on that anger. You know, in our home and I forgot who taught us this, but it was like you know, declare one of the lamps in your home the sun. And let's work through this until this sun goes down. You know, we've heard the joke before, but the whole idea of what happens if we're fighting when the sun goes down? Does this mean we have 24 more hours to let the sun go down again? No. The emphasis there is working through it and resolving it.

Jim: That's the metaphor.

Ted: Yeah.

Jim: I mean, I think that is a place where it's not literal. It's the metaphor--

Ted: Yeah.

Jim: -of resolve the unresolved anger.

Ted: That's right.

Jim: Ted, let's talk about that, because there are wives and probably some husbands who are struggling. When you've encountered a couple and you've coached them out of your own personal experience, you and Amy, and they don't seem to get it, what typically is the hindrance when you're talking to them about how to stop drinking the poison of anger and how to look at the primary drivers of what is going on in your behavior that leads you to anger. When you've counseled and talked to this couple over months, perhaps even years now, and they come to you and Bob is still doin' it.

Ted: Hm.

Jim: And I don't know what to do, Pastor Ted.

Ted: Yeah.

Jim: Bob's still goin' there. We've been at it a year now.

Ted: Yeah.

Jim: I'm runnin' out of patience.

Ted: Yeah.

Jim: What do I do?

Ted: Yeah. I love the word picture of the love jug, because to me, when I see a husband and a wife connected to one another as the source of life, and there's toxicity in their soul and they're giving one another the overflow of toxicity, someone needs to break that. So, this would be Greg Smalley's analogy of just … and again, people argue with this, but I get it. So, process this before you reject it outright.

It oftentimes only takes one spouse to turn a marriage around, because it's the first spouse that says, "I am going to disconnect from my husband." Or "I'm going to disconnect from my wife as the source of life and I'm gonna plus into the true and only source of life. Jesus is the source of life, not my spouse. I need a fresh supply. I need something to resolve this toxicity in my soul and it's not gonna be this love jug over here in my spouse that's feeding more of my toxicity.

What's the greatest marriage on planet earth? It's a husband and wife, both connected to the true and only source of life and giving one another the overflow out of that, knowing … and so, to me, I keep going back to that couple. Again, I oftentimes feel like the world's worst counselor, because if I'm still meeting with them in two years and we haven't gotten anywhere, I'm like, we maybe want to get a professional involved (Laughing) with this at this point, 'cause I'm not getting' anywhere.

But when that light bulb goes off and the husband or the wife goes, "I think I get it." I think I get it." He's not in charge of my love job. He's not in charge of my heart. I am gonna unplug from him. I'm not gonna look to him anymore, 'cause when you look to your spouse as the source of life, you look to them as the solution to all of the problems.

Now you're stuck. You're waiting for them to change. When they change, then my love jug can be refreshed. And I always love to use this illustration, because you know, the goal is to be as full as possible with God's love each and every day. That's the goal. And again, we're all human, so there are days I leave the home and it's at a quarter of a tank or it's at a half or three-quarters.

The desire is as full as possible, because I'm gonna come across all these other love jugs all day that I'll be giving overflow to again. But what is codependence? Codependence is waiting for those love jugs to pour back into you. But I want to go out and be freed. I want to serve. I want to pour into them honestly with zero expectation for them to pour back into me. Can I give you one example on this--

Jim: Sure.

Ted: --to show you? My wife … so we live in a tourist town. And she said, "I don't know if you've noticed, but you really engage with tourists. Like you engage 'em, great conversations. You're animated." 'Cause I am a relational guy. She goes, "You love talking to 'em." When you see a church member, you're a little more reserved.

Jim: Huh.

Ted: She said, "Let's unpack that." And I'm going, "Okay, let's unpack that. (Laughing) But why do I do that?" Because that tourist, I'm able to serve them and there's no expectation coming back to me.

Jim: And they don't know you.

Ted: And they don't know me.When you serve someone that's a love jug you're connected to, but you know often, it's like I'm gonna serve and pour into this person right now and there's gonna be expectation to do it again. It's interesting how expectation is tied to anger, that how …

Jim: Talk about it.

Ted: How we withdraw from people when we feel too much expectation. If you think about this in marriage, think about what would happen if you get up in the morning and reach for your Bible instead of the phone and you begin to fill your soul with the words and teachings of Jesus, rather than the latest news cycle, 'cause you want a full love jug. First person you're probably gonna see … well, maybe in most homes, your kids. You'll be pourin' into your kids and they may not be pourin' back into you.

Then you're gonna pour into your spouse. But think about going throughout your day, pouring into people with zero expectation of them coming back. Now how do I get angry with the person that I don't have any expectation to get something in return? I think that's the true heart of serving.

Jim: Right.

Ted: I've come to serve, not be served. I think that removes the expectation. But what you get with the exhausted spouse, now exhaustion, tied to expectation, Ted, I've been doin' this for a year. I've been pouring into this man for a year and I'm getting nothing back out of him. I don't know what to tell you, other than to paint a beautiful picture of continue serve.

John: You know, Ted, last time you shared very candidly about the anger you had when, as a young pastor, you were essentially asked to step down from the church. And you kinda caught yourself thinking through. I mean, I don't know what pictures were going through your mind, but it seemed like you were processing pictures of when that anger toward the church spilled out towards Amy. f Amy were saying, "You know, for a year this guy's been mad at me," practically what are some things she did to disconnect from you as her source? I mean, I'm assuming she was walkin' with the Lord and putting up with this godly man who was angry.

Ted: Well, and I think at that point in my life, the church was my source of life. The church was my identity.

Jim: Affirmation, all of that.

Ted: Yeah and as a young guy in ministry, I mean, you're looking for that. And when you're not finding that, I would say this is what I love, now being married 18 years, I mean, Amy is one that is always … she's listened. She affirms. I kid her all the time, because she has zero, I mean zero people pleasing gene in her. She doesn't have it. It doesn't exist. (Laughter) And I tell her sometimes--

Jim: She's unique that way.

Ted: --I tell her sometimes, shouldn't we care just a little what people think of us? She goes, "Nope." This is Amy, 'cause she has such a confidence in the Lord that I can tell you that I don't have. I still … I fear men. I fear pleasing men. I fear … and she just walks with this confidence of knowing who her source is and it inspires me.

John: So, did that anger slush out toward her, but she didn't receive it?

Ted: Early on, I think what it was for me was just primarily a distraction. My anger led to a lot of distraction and what next? And how do I process this? And insecurity, but in the early stages of that, I really did lean into her. I wanted her. I mean, I moved towards her, rather than away from her.

And I think I would just encourage anyone who's really dealing with anger right now and they've not spent the time at the primary level, lean into your spouse. Lean into your family. These people love you. They care for you. Even if right now, that's not showing or it's not manifested (Laughing) in your home, lean into them. And have the honest conversation with them. I don't know what's going on and I don't know why I'm this way. I don't know how long I've been this way. But would you stick in there with me while we figure it out together? To me, the most beautiful scenes are a dad who's maybe struggled with anger for a long time, just falling on his knees before his family and saying, "Help me figure this out."

John: That's a tough one, if you don't know what the answers are.

Ted: Exactly. It's vulnerable, extremely vulnerable.

John: Well, some really practical help for really any relationship you have. But we're specifically targeting marriages and how to strengthen your marriage relationship, even in the midst of anger, on today's "Focus on the Family." And we'll encourage you to stop by the website to find out more about the book from Dr. Gary Smalley and Ted Cunningham, From Anger to Intimacy: How Forgiveness Can Transform Your Marriage. And today, for a gift of any amount, the gift that will change lives as we discussed earlier, we'll send you a copy of this book as our way of saying thank you., And you can donate at

Jim: Ted, let me ask you this. Last time we touched on how to apologize, but we did that fairly quickly. Let's come back to that for a minute. How do we craft an appropriate, heartfelt, honest apology, when we've wounded someone?

Ted: Yeah, it needs to be rooted in my actions and my words, not the emotions of the other person. And I think that's where I make the mistakes. I say this often and remind myself of this as often as possible, that it is not about apologizing for what Amy is feeling. I want to validate what Amy is feeling. But I want to know what I did or what I said to cause that. And I know what that is. I can spot that, even in my attitude. And so, words and actions are one thing. But I can also apologize for my motives. I can apologize for my manipulation. I can apologize for when I'm trying to control the situation and she feels disconnected.

Her primary emotions that we've been talking about are disconnected, abandonment, rejection. And so, when I don't take the time to listen to her, find out what she's going through or I want to rush through it, I mean, I can even apologize for the amount of time I've given something. But the idea of a marriage being transformed by forgiveness is, that we would have a judgment-free zone.

Jim: Now I gotta ask the question. Someone hearing this right now goin' home tonight, may try this, because they're on their last string of their marriage.

Ted: Uh-hm.

Jim: And they're feeling it and they're thinkin, okay, I'm gonna go home and just lay it out there.

Ted: Uh …

Jim: How can you counsel that person to do it as best as they could do it?

Ted: Yeah, don't do that. (Laughing)

Jim: Yeah.

Ted: What I would say is, you become the safe person before you become the one that lays it out there.

Jim: Give me the practical way--

Ted: Uh--

Jim: --you approach that.

Ted: -- you take something from the past that you know of, something that you've judged in your spouse, some part of your spouse's history that you've never been able to resolve or let go, that you're able to receive that in a judgment-free zone. You're able to take that and show your spouse you're a safe person. I think for the person hearing this going home and goin', I'm gonna lay it all out. I'm gonna be vulnerable and be honest. Before you do that, I mean, you want to get to that point, but before you do that, ask, how safe am I?

Jim: Hm.

Ted: So, what … ?

Jim: So, it's a process.

Ted: Am I gonna receive what I give?

Jim: Right.

Ted: If I'm giving this, then I would hope I can receive it. But again, this comes back to expectation. Because one of the things we do here in the ministry, is we put ourselves out there to people who don't care for us or our message. And it's not a safe place. But here, we're talkin' about marriage. And we want the marriage to be the safest place on earth. I want the home to be the safest place on earth. It's one of the things, you know, I'm working through with my kids as they're growing up in the digital age, is how do I respond as a dad, rather than react when things hit our home and things come out and technology and all that and teaching our kids, you know, guidelines for online … all of this. I mean, I want to make sure they understand I can tell my parents anything.

Jim: Right.

Ted: I can communicate; I can share anything with them and the way dad hears that and receives that, he's guiding me and he's directing me-

Jim: Hm.

Ted: --in a spirit of love. And … that same desire we have for our kids, even though we react, Andy Stanley said it a couple weeks ago, react on the inside, okay? (Laughter)

Jim: That's a discipline though, Ted. That's hard--

Ted: It is.

Jim: --to do for some people, because they've lived in a very flashpoint kind of way. It's, you do this to me and I respond, the way that you've talked about. How do you get to that point where you can think it through inside before you speak? I think introverted people probably find that easier to do than extroverted people, for example--

Ted: Uh-hm.

Jim: --where we tend to reflect immediately what's being thrown at us. We turn it right back on people, perhaps through sarcasm or whatever tool that we use to deflect those things. How do we take a deep breath, count to 10. I mean, what mechanism can you use?

Ted: You just said it, because of the coping mechanisms that we have. And my coping mechanism is humor. When I am preaching, I'm a very kinda in the moment preacher. I like to be well-prepared, but I'm pretty in the moment. And when I get to a tender place in a message and I feel something coming out, I go right to a joke to try to bail myself and the congregation out.

When I've given a theology or a point that I can tell they're sitting in and it's too much to take, I just, man, I throw out a little joke. And I have people in the congregation that will come to me now after a message and frustrated. They'll say, "You did it again. We were sittin' in it and you bailed us out." And I've had to fight against that coping mechanism to say, okay, it's okay for us to be in this for just a little bit and not rush out of it.

And when I first started learning about primary emotions and how to deal with them, I remember Gary saying, "This is gonna take you years to learn how to do this as a discipline, just to process. This is what I'm feeling. This is what I just felt." So, I would say to a couple hearing this right now, go home and get this started without the expectation of, you know, we're from anger to intimacy tonight. Just like we say with discipleship in our church, think in terms of months and years, not days and weeks.

Jim: Hm.

John: Yeah, I can hear myself going home tonight and wanting to be that safe person. And so, I pull something out from 15 or 20 years ago in our relationship. And I say, "You know, I've struggled to deal with this, but it's all good now." And Dena's response would be, "Why have you been so dishonest with me?In trying to be a safe person, I've just now raised all sorts of questions about the integrity of the marriage and the communication. You know what I'm sayin'?

Ted: Yeah. Yeah, this is my mom tellin' my dad, "Hey, if there's a meal that I make that you don't like, would you let me know?" And like 20 years later he says somethin' that he didn't like and she's like, "Why didn't you tell me this sooner?"

Jim: I never did like that macaroni and cheese. (Laughter)

Ted: So, I think--

John: Practically, how do you--

Ted: --the issue is--

John: --do that?

Ted: --so we've talked a lot about unresolved anger. But I would focus on the unresolved issues. Every marriage has unresolved issues and issues that we just don't go to. You know, it may be money in your home. Like, I kid all the time, you know, I grew up in a home that taught savings was money you put away for a rainy day. Amy grew up in a home, savings was the difference between the actual price and the sale price. The way we handle money, in many ways, an unresolved issue. And so, bring up the unresolved issue more than the event from--

John: Okay.

Ted: --15 years ago. I would focus on what you've never been able to resolve, keeping in mind again, a core principle of Gary Smalley's for year[s], that the issue is rarely ever the issue. There's always something goin' on below the surface. So, don't stay focused. Take the issue and show your spouse how you can be safe with it, 'cause we want to get below the issue and find out what's really driving the emotion.

Jim: Ted, we have gone in and out of the discussion between your experience as a pastor in the church and feeling that anger when people didn't like you (Laughter) and how they would confront you and then, how that plays out in marriage. And you've been very vulnerable and I want to say thank you for that, in terms of you and Amy's relationship and just, that's where we connect, because we see all of our behavior in some ways in other people. And that's how we see it in ourselves. So, thank you for that vulnerability.

You made a comment about Gary Smalley and his involvement in your life, which has been profound, I can tell. And I want to end here, because I think it gives us hope, whether vocationally in our friendships or in our marital relationship. And that is, to lean into the difficulty. I try to manage that way here at Focus. We have conflict over things. We have meetings where we want to have conflict, because I believe when the sparks are flying, actually the Lord's at work. When things are buttoned down, patted down, put away, we're not really gettin' to it. And that's true in our marriages, as well. Talk about what Gary said to you that challenged you in seeing difficulty as an opportunity.

Ted: He did what he does better than anybody on the planet. He pictured a special future for me, and this is part of the blessing, he and John Trent, when they did The Blessing years ago. And I have parents who love me and pictured that special future for me growing up. And my mom wrote beautiful letters to me as a kid of what she thought God might call me to do. And so, my parents understood that concept.

And there was just something about that day when Gary said to me, that I'm done at this church. I'm washed out. I'm a mess. And he starts laughing, as only he can do. And I'm just lookin' at him like, what is going on with you? And he stopped and he said, "Have you paused to thank your Father in heaven for what you're going through?"

And I said, "No." He said, "Most guys are not blessed with this treatment until 10 to 15 years out of seminary. And God is blessing you with it in the first five months." He said, "You should be praising your Father in heaven." And I had no clue what he was talking about, but he was in James 1. He was fully in James 1, "Count it all joy."

And he started painting a beautiful picture of the future for me. He said, "Ted, God is raising your threshold of pain. And what He's allowed you to go through is going to allow you to process even more, 'cause you're not done getting hit in life. You're gonna get hit in life." And he said, "And there's gonna be difficulties, but man, He's allowing you to learn from this. The trial is what we lean into, to grow our character." And he said, "This is an opportunity for you to look at your primary emotions. This is an opportunity for you to really see what's going on and ask the hard questions."

And so, we paint this beautiful picture for couples all the time. You know, you've hit this wall, okay. No, we are not advocates for divorce. We're not rushing to the divorce. We're gonna begin painting a beautiful picture. And what do we believe a beautiful picture of marriage is? It's not going back to what you had. This is what most couples never really grasp. We want to paint a picture for you of a future you never dreamed possible. We want you to know, you can have a marriage that you haven't experienced yet up to this point.

And this trial is an opportunity. It's a doorway. It's a pathway for you to get there. Are you gonna lean into it? Are you gonna unplug from one another as the source of life? You gonna plug into the true and only source of life? And begin asking the real questions and resolving this anger and pressing in and leaning in to one another, not as the source of life, but as one to go through this with, as someone to go through this grind with.

Jim: Ted Cunningham, I so appreciate your perspective, both days. It's been great to talk with you. You've talked about the importance of an apology being rooted in words and actions. And going from anger to intimacy is a process. Don't expect to accomplish it in days or weeks. It's more months and years. But be committed to the process, 'cause God'll show up there. And I so appreciate again, your vulnerability. Thank you so much for talking with us about your book and Gary Smalley, your co-author, From Anger to Intimacy. Thanks for bein' with us.

Ted: Thank you for having me.


John: And I've gotten a lot out of this conversation, as well and I really appreciate your heart and wisdom. Ted, has brought his personal journey to bear on this subject of anger and marriage and we're grateful for that.

Now his book, co-written with Gary Smalley really takes you deeper and with it in hand, you can learn to break that cycle of anger and the power of forgiveness and caring for your own emotions in that process. It doesn't mean you just check 'em at the door. It means dealing well with them and the book is really an effective tool for your marriage or perhaps somebody in your family or your circle of influence. So, please get a copy today.

In fact, we'll send that to you as our thank you for your gift of any donation to Focus on the Family. We rely on your gifts, your financial generosity to continue producing radio programs, websites, videos, so much more, all designed to undergird and support the family. And when you donate today, as I said, we'll send that book, From Anger to Intimacy to you. Our number is 800, the letter A and the word FAMILY; 800-232-6459 or you can donate and learn more about the book at .

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team here, I'm John Fuller, thanking you for listening and inviting you back next time for more trusted advice and encouragement, to help your family thrive.

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Ted Cunningham

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Ted Cunningham is the founding pastor of Woodland Hills Family Church in Branson, Mo., a comedian on the Date Night Comedy Tour and a popular conference speaker at churches and events across the nation. He has authored several books including Fun Loving You and Trophy Child. He has also co-authored four books with Dr. Gary Smalley and one with his wife, Amy. Ted and Amy have two children, Corynn and Carson.