AngerCoach Show – Episode #11 – Anger and Sex

This months episode we discuss the relationship that sex and anger share. As a practicing Psychologist and Marriage Therapist, I have come across many couples who experience sexual frustrations in their relationships. Often times anger can arise from sexual frustration, and as this episode discusses, sexual frustration can result from anger. In this podcast we teach four practical and easy-to-employ techniques for reducing sexual frustration and anger in your relationship.

Please note: This anger program and these anger tips are not meant to substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or advice. If you have intense, serious or chronic anger problems, or you have to deal with someone else who does, you should immediately consult a mental health or medical professional for help.

How To Tank Your Relationship- Lesson 2

blackandwhitethinking

In our last blog, we taught you Lesson 1 of how to tank your relationship: React to bad behavior by your partner  in way that indicates that you think they are 100% wrong and you are 100% right. Then assume that there is only one way (your way) to view or look at the situation, so there is no need to try to see things from the perspective of your partner.

Today we continue with our lessons on how to tank a relationship- just in case Lesson #1 hasn’t worked for you yet:

How to tank your relationship: Lesson 2- Handle anger toward each other poorly.

african american couple fighting

To tank your relationship, get “stuck” in your anger either as the partner with the original anger or as the partner who is on the receiving end of anger. Either way, getting stuck in anger can quickly turn to  disgust. Eventually, you might even get to contempt for your partner which is a deathblow to most relationships. With a contemptuous attitude, you don’t even bother to get angry back at your partner because you tell yourself “I won’t stoop to my partner’s level by getting angry.”  So you stonewall (don’t talk at all to your partner), become passive-aggressive (get back at your partner in a sneaky way), or emotionally shut-down.

Fact is, research on successful couples (as described in a book by marital therapist Brent J. Atkinson called “Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy”) shows that anger itself is not a dangerous emotion for marriages. Many highly successful couples regularly blow up at each other. Blow-ups are not necessarily destructive (within limits). Rather, partners getting stuck in their resentment for having been attacked is an equally serious  issue that brings down a marriage.

That is because when a person fails to stand up forcefully when feeling disregarded or criticized harshly, they almost always harbor resentment and in internal attitude of contempt (That is, they think of themselves as “better”  in some sense than their exploding partner.) And, as mentioned above, having contempt toward your partner is a very serious problem in terms of longevity of the relationship.

Caution: Only read the next paragraph if you have decided NOT to tank your relationship:

So, what is the healthy way to handle anger in a relationship? First, if you are the primary angry partner, learn to communicate better and deal with normal angry feelings more effectively without destroying your partner or the relationship in the process. There are many ways to handle anger so that you get a better result and you get more of what you truly want from your partner! These techniques (including something called a “softer startup”)  are what we teach in local anger management classes as well as in our online distance-learning program.

Second, you do not have to suffer in silence if you are in relationship with a person who handles their anger poorly.  The trick is to stand up for yourself and deal with the issue rather than “stuffing it” and building resentment through the years. (Of course, do not put yourself in a dangerous situation by standing up for yourself with a truly raging or violent partner).

Research strongly shows that partners of people who act badly in any way (including anger) have more influence than they think on future occurrences of that bad behavior by their spouse. You do not have to tolerate it and can even change it to some extent if you do the right things.

How To Tank Your Relationship – Lesson 1

tanking relationship

Miguel has just gotten off the telephone with his buddies with whom he made arrangements to play basketball Saturday morning. Unfortunately, he did not discuss this first with Maria who obviously is very upset over this. From her point of view, Miguel often makes plans independently, just as if he was still a single guy. She had other plans for them Saturday morning and now she has to re-plan her whole day. Worse, she wanted more time with Miguel and was looking forward to it this weekend. Miguel, on the other hand, doesn’t have a clue as to why Maria is so upset. To him what he did was “business as usual.” Besides, he felt that a man shouldn’t have to get “permission” from his wife to play basketball with his buddies.

With this blog, we begin a series of reports on how to tank your relationship.  Researchers now know which habits predict relationship success and which predict disaster, so we herein present a tutorial on what to do to increase the probability that  your relationship won’t succeed or that you will never get from your partner what you need.

On the other hand, if you learn how to respond differently to your partner (that is, use better relationship habits)  when you feel that he or she is not treating you well, you might just start seeing changes in both your partner and in your relationship.

In our example, it is obvious that Miguel  acted in a way that Maria saw as selfish and, from Maria’s perspective, he should have talked to her  before he made his plans. But, partners often act  in ways that the other sees as selfish, uncaring, misguided or just plain wrong. (Miguel  sees the situation very differently, as he has a different perspective). May marriage survive and even thrive with one or both partners having these negative traits. So, it is not the traits  themselves that tank a marriage.

According to marriage research, because of this difference in perspective,  what causes additional damage to the relationship is how Maria responds to Miguel’s behavior (and how Miguel responds to Maria’s upset).  So, let’s now look at different ways Maria could handle the situation:

HOW TO TANK THE RELATIONSHIP: Lesson 1–   If Maria wants to cause more relationship damage and decrease the chances that Miguel will change, she should repeatedly do the following:

  • Take the attitude that Miguel did what he did because he was selfish, uncaring, or immature.
  • Take the attitude that he did not care enough for her to think about it before he made his plans with his friends.
  • Assume that there is a clear “right” and “wrong” way to deal with same-gender friends and same-gender activities when in a marriage.
  • Seeing Miguel as the whole problem instead of seeing the issue as  their having different opinions, priorities or ways of navigating life.

Alternatively, Maria can respond differently and increase the probability that Miguel won’t do this again in the future, if she does the following. These are relationship “habits” that research has found are related to better success.

  • She should avoid jumping to conclusions and keep an open mind, asking Miguel calmly why he did what he did.
  • Hear Miguel out and refrain from disputing or debating what he was saying before he was able to explain fully.
  • Tell Miguel in a loving way that she feels hurt and unloved when he makes plans without including her and she would appreciate it if he did not do that in the future.
  • Rather than criticizing Miguel, ask him to work with her to find a solution that takes both  perspectives of the situation into account.

In our next blog, Lesson #2 on ways to tank your relationship and how to avoid that outcome, if you wish.

Why don’t some marital problems change?

Having been a marital therapist and psychologist for many years, I often wonder at the amazing ability some couples have to NOT change. These couples are often intelligent, reasonable people in other areas of their life, but nonetheless become gridlocked with each other around certain marital issues. Issues in this category are called “perpetual” issues by marital researchers; all couples have them, but not all couples fight or conflict over them.

Some couples find ways to either solve the problem or find ways to live with each other around it. What about the other couples? The ones that get stuck? Why don’t they  do what they know they should do to avoid conflict around the issues that get them into trouble? The simple answer is that they often times do not want to. Change requires both skills to change and sufficient motivation to do so. Stuck couples  are often locked into ways of thinking that prevents them from moving out of conflict into resolution.

self talk

Some common thought patterns that prevent change:

  • I don’t really want to get closer to my partner. I just want to complain about my partner and keep them at a distance.
  • I like the role of victim.
  • I enjoy feeling superior and looking down on my partner.
  • I like feeling angry and bitter.
  • Our problems are all your fault, so why should I have to change?
  • I’m right and you are wrong.
  • You’re such a stubborn, self-centered jerk that nothing could possibly work. Why should I bother to try?

Do any of these thought patterns look familiar to you? Can you identify with any of them? Seems to me that couples who really want to improve things will work at changing these and other beliefs that prevent the change from occurring.  Often a special kind of therapist called a “cognitive-behavior therapist” can help you identify and change these and other thought patterns.

For self-help, I would also recommend a book called “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.This book is full of practical, helpful suggestions to improve your life and your marriage.

In summary, it has been my experience that many couples could improve their marriage, if they really wanted to and they were willing to do the necessary work to do so. Looking more deeply at the roots of the resistance to change on either your part or your partner’s part can go a long way helping things along.

Anger and Intimacy: Part 2- Betrayal

marital betrayal

Few things shake the foundation of a marriage more than perceived betrayal of one partner by the other. It seems that lately, in my practice at least, the betrayal is more in the direction of husband not being able to accept what they see as betrayal by their wife, but it certainly works both ways!

Betrayal, of course, is a matter of definition and expectations to begin with. The range of behaviors that may be classified as “betrayal” may include

  • innocent things like talking with your parents about your marital issues
  • revealing marital frustrations to an opposite-sex  co-worker over frequent lunches or text messages,
  • kissing someone else at a party after 3 martinis, while basically ignoring your partner
  • actually having a physical affair with someone.

Do People who Betray See Themselves as Cheating?
Some people who engage in these and other similar activities feel like they are indeed betraying their partners while others do not feel that way at all until “caught” by their partner.  Regardless of their own perception of their behavior, their partners are often devastated when they find out, even though they my have been poor marriage partners to begin with.  This is often because many married people expect loyalty and faithfulness from their partners regardless of the lack of emotional connection between them, regardless of how badly one of both act in the marriage, or regardless of their own contributions to marital misery.

What Happens when Betrayal Is Discovered?

For the non-cheating partner, discovery of betrayal often leads to complete lack of trust, emotional hurt, anger and strong feelings of retribution or emotional punishment of the other. To preserve the relationship, forgiveness is a skill that is most often needed, but often beyond reach. In our anger management classes we teach the benefit of forgiveness as well as the skills to forgive, but many people cannot forgive or trust again after perceived betrayal. Statistically, only a small percentages of marriage survive physical betrayal of one partner by the other.

For the accused, discovery of betrayal often leads to intense feelings of guilt and/or shame. The accused also often becomes very defensive and justifies what they did by listing all the problems in the marriage or in their partner which lead them to the betrayal in the first place.

Should the Betraying Partner Be Forgiven?

Of course, every person has to answer that question for themselves. Some people are incapable of getting past it, while others could if they tried harder and had stronger commitment to do it. Here are some things that you can do that many couples find helpful:

  • Try putting it in a broader context. Ask yourself why your and your partner lost emotional connection with each other. You don’t have to see the betrayal as a character flaw in either yourself or your partner; if you wish, you can elect to see it as an indicator of a deeper problem in the relationship.
  • Ask yourself how strongly motivated you are to repair the marriage. There are many skills you can acquire to get to forgiveness and improve your marriage, , but none of them will work for you if you don’t want to forgive your partner or you don’t really want to improve your marriage. Ask yourself honestly if there are more advantages to NOT forgiving than to actually forgiving. On the other hand, if you see more benefit in forgiving and improving your marriage than in remaining angry, resentful and bitter, you will forgive and work on improving things.

What Can the Accused Partner Do?
The accused partner can also do many things to repair the marriage, but again, you have to want to and you have to  be willing to do some hard work to pull things back together. Following are just some examples of what it may take to recover from being seen as a betraying partner by your wounded spouse:

  • If you did betray your partner, start by asking for forgiveness and commit to not doing it again.
  • If in your eyes you did not betray your partner, discuss with your partner what your expectations are of each other and what each of you consider  appropriate behavior for a married person in different situations.  Try to agree on these expectations of each other. Many times a therapist is needed to help you sort-out these issues.
  • Start a program of trust-building behaviors so your partner can start trusting you again (e. g. let them know where you are at all times, take offending phone numbers off your cell phone, etc).
  • Find ways to improve your sexual  life with each other so that you both feel more secure and more bonded with each other in this important aspect of your marriage.

Anger and Sex: Part 1- Sexual Frustration

sexproblems

As a practicing psychologist and marriage therapist, I often encounter clients who are angry because they suffer sexual frustration in their marriage or relationship. As we teach in our anger classes, anger is sometimes a secondary emotion, meaning that there is something underneath it which triggers it. Often that “something” is sexual frustration.

The most common type of sexual frustration is what sex therapists call “low libido” which means that one partner just isn’t interested in sex often enough to satisfy the other partner. Persons with low libido enjoy sex once they get into it, but rarely want to get into it. Their partners often complain that they never initiate it, or show lack of enthusiasm about sex. To use a metaphor, persons with low sex desire are like a car that has an engine that runs fine, but the battery is often dead.

My experience has been that persons with low sex desire love their partners very much, and are still attracted to them, but feel guilty that they no longer desire sex as often, rarely think about sex, and usually don’t know what to do about it. Their partners often take it personally, feel rejected, and sometimes need to find an explanation for why their sex life has dwindled. Unfortunately, they often come to the wrong conclusion such as their partner is having an affair.

Sexual frustration in a relationship is the elephant in the room. Often, the couple stops talking about it because they have learned that it just leads to conflict. Yet, the problem invades almost all aspects of the relationship, even if nobody talks about it:  A couple may go to bed at different times to avoid having to deal with sex; watching your partner talk to other men or other women is interpreted differently; one partner may start withholding favors (like cooking a favorite meal) out of sexual resentment; partners stop touching each other at all to avoid sexual arousal or potential rejection; sleeping with a scared child in another room is seen by the other as a method to avoid intimacy.

There are many causes and reasons for low sexual desire. People just have different sexual desires, just as they have different appetites for many things. These sexual desires often change at different ages and different life circumstances. Having periods of low sex desire is normal, and often related to events such as recent childbirth, normal marital stresses and demands that cause fatigue, and work demands.

Contrary to popular opinion, low sexual desire is distributed about evenly among men and women. Many times the problem is not so much the level of sexual desire, but the discrepancy between your desire and your partner’s desire. This means that “low desire” is a relative term, depending on who you are with.

That said, sometimes  low sex desire is caused by relationship issues, especially anger or resentment. What this means is that sometimes  anger can be the cause of low sexual desire (especially in women), and anger can also be the result of sexual frustration (in both genders, but probably  more often in men). In my experience, many women lose sexual  desire for partners they resent or feel anger toward. Likewise, many men are constantly nasty and emotionally withholding toward their partners because they are sexually frustrated.

While sex therapy with a professional therapist is sometimes required to deal with sex problems, the tools that we teach in our local anger management programs as well as our distance learning anger program can help with your sex life in many ways. Tools learned in our programs include dealing better with stress, developing more empathy for your partner, communicating assertively with each other, adjusting marital and sexual expectations to a reasonable level, and learning to let go of past resentments and grievances.

The bottom line is that learning to deal with anger can improve your sex life. And, improving your sex life can help with your anger!

Can you change an insecure, jealous spouse?

young angry woman pointing finger

Thirty-eight year old Lisa (a stay at home mom) was absolutely convinced that Jose, her husband of five years, was cheating on her. She secretly checked his cell phone messages daily, timed how long it took him to return her numerous calls during the day when he was out of town on business, and constantly monitored his facebook and myspace entries.  If he left the house to shop, she yelled at him on his return that “that was just an excuse to meet a girl in the park.”  If he even glanced in the direction of a female when they were out together she accused him of “wanting” her.  When they made love, and it ended too quickly for her, she yelled at Jose for “wanting to get it over with so you can be with your girlfriend.”

In therapy, Jose pleaded innocence and stated with absolute conviction that had never been unfaithful to Lisa. When pressed for concrete evidence, even Lisa had to admit that she had none, despite  her obsession with finding such evidence.

Mood Setter In House
Jose was tortured

Jose was a tortured man. He felt he could no longer put up with the daily unfounded accusations of his wife, yet he loved his three children and did not want to cause them to grew up in a broken home, as he had as a boy. So, he tried to cope as best he could, but everything he tried seemed to make the situation worse.

What can both Jose and Lisa do to help the situation? While there are no easy answers to complex problems  like this, the following guidelines may be helpful, which we teach both in individual and marriage therapy, as  well as in our anger management classes.

Guidlines for Jose:

  • Assuming his innocence, it is not up to Jose to “fix” Lisa. Most of the time, this is not even possible. Lisa has to fix Lisa, probably with outside professional help.
  • Jose may have to decide if he feels he can cope with his wife, or if she is too “toxic” for him to continue the relationship. Sometimes “anger management” requires protecting ourselves from toxic people in our lives before common arguments turn into domestic violence.
  • Jose should focus not so much on defending himself from his wife’s verbal assaults, as on re-assuring her that he loves her.
  • Jose should find ways to make her feel more secure in the relationship.
  • Joe should find ways to increase trust with Lisa by being open constantly about his whereabouts, his activities, and his associations.

Guidelines for Lisa:

  • Lisa has deep feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem. She probably will need therapy to overcome these issues. She should not be defensive or feel shameful about needing therapy. Her problem stems from childhood experiences which will require a competent professional to help her sort out.
  • Lisa should increase  self-confidence by finding things in life to help her feel better about herself such as getting more education, acquiring job skills, and developing healthy friendships with other women and couples to serve as positive role-models in her life.

Couples Reduce Anger By Sharing Tasks

Together but apart

Married for 10 years, Mary and Joe rarely argued, yet were slowly drifting apart from each other, each feeling emotionally distanced from the other. Underneath their emotional distance was anger, but it was “hidden” and lived as resentment, passive-aggression toward the other, and emotional detachment. In therapy, it was learned that a fairly common patterns of estrangement had developed between Mary and  Joe who at one time were deeply in love with each other.

The pattern started with Mary not doing what Joe considered to be her share of the household chores. She worked only part-time while Joe rose at 4AM every day, worked until 2PM and then came home and did all the housework, the yardwork, and then often started dinner. She spent much of her time with her family of origin and her friends. Joe slowly developed resentment toward Mary for having to “do it all.” He complained to her, but she didn’t see what the problem was. Her attitude toward household chores and standards of cleanliness were much more relaxed than his:

“So will the world stop turning if we do the laundry this weekend instead of today?” was a common Mary retort while looking at mountains of dirty clothes. Joe,  meanwhile,  was smoldering inside because of what he saw as her “laziness” and irresponsibility.

After awhile, he stopped complaining and simply stuffed his negative feelings toward Mary, while continuing to do almost all of the household chores.   But, he found himself losing sexual interest in her, which greatly wounded Mary who placed a high value on being sexually attractive to her husband. Of course, sexual deprivation led to further emotional distance and estrangement between them.

The Solution?

Agreement on Division of Labor
Agreement on Division of Labor

Often the problem is the other way around: many married woman justifiably complain that they too work yet are expected to do their “second job” once they get home at night.

Either way, a major breakthrough can be achieved by a  couple sitting down with a pencil and paper, listing all the household chores, drawing a vertical line down the center of the paper, and deciding who is going to do what and when it will be done.And then doing it!!

Sound like a simple solution? As we teach in our local anger management classes, our online anger program, and our local clinical clients (in marriage therapy with us), many times simple practical changes in how a couple does things often snowballs into other, more substantial changes in the relationship. Of course, there were more problems than just division of labor between Mary and Joe, but once Mary started doing more of the home tasks, Joe’s resentment lessened and his sexual interest in Mary picked up. This, of course, motivated Mary to try even harder to do more of her share of household chores.

Do they now have a perfect marriage? Of course not, but they are happier, have less conflict, and are feeling closer to each other.

Alcohol, Marriage Conflict, and Anger

Drinking Couple
Drinking Couple

Having taught hundreds of anger management classes and seminars since 2004, I have been impressed with the high number of people who confess that much conflict and rage often follows discussing marital issues while one or both partners is drinking. Not that drinking in itself is necessarily bad. And trying to resolve conflicts is a good thing. It is the combination that often become explosive. Let’s see why that is.

Human Brain

To overly simplify, your brain has a protective mechanism called the “blood brain barrier” which selects which molecules can enter the brain from the bloodstream. Guess what? Alcohol molecules can easily get through this barrier. This means that the brain is the first organ to be affected by alcohol intake. As you probably have noticed, alcohol immediately changes your mood, your thought processes, your impulse control, and your judgment. That little voice in your head that normally says “don’t do it,” now says “Do it..it’s OK.”

Or, it says say something like: “I’m going to say it because he or she deserves it.” Or, ” I don’ t care how they feel, I’m going to get this off my chest.”

This attitude often leads to escalating arguing and anger which can quickly get out of hand, especially if one or both of you is particularly stressed that day.  Perhaps you even feel justified in getting so angry at the “outrageous” behavior of your partner, feeling like a victim instead of the aggressor.

Alcohol-induced Righteous Indignation seems so right at the time. It often isn’t until the next day that you say to yourself: “self: what was  I thinking?”

By then, the damage often is done and is difficult to undue. How do you “unring” a bell? Sometimes there are even legal consequences involving law enforcement. More often, the damage is emotional as the couple struggles to restore communication, heal hurt feelings, and re-build trust.

The advice I always give my local clients as well as my anger management students is to make a firm agreement not to drink while discussing serious or important marital issues, if this has been problematic in the past for you.

Often reducing marital conflict involves “doing something different” from what you normally do. So, for example, if you notice that you’ve gotten into a conflict the last 5 times you discussed parenting issues over Gin and Tonics, separate those two events and see if it helps!

But, what do you do if you see the sense of this, but your partner refuses to cooperate in such an agreement? Well, that depends on the circumstances, but you can still stick to your end of the bargain, avoid as much conflict as possible, and when he or she is sober and rational, firmly and assertively communicate how that made you feel, what you will expect in the future, and what the consequences may be  if it continues to happen.