I am, by nature, a conflict-avoider. Some people might call me a chicken, but I prefer to think of myself as a diplomat—a lover, not a fighter. I like to smooth things over, change the subject, crack a joke. Turning the other cheek comes naturally to me, at least up to a point. When the tension escalates beyond my comfort level, my habit is to cut and run. Only when my back is against the wall am I inclined to stand and fight.
My wife, on the other hand, is not afraid of conflict in the least. If there is an issue, Allie wants to deal with it. Now. She isn’t mean, but she is direct. She says what she means, and she means what she says. When she asks questions, she wants answers. So, of course, my tendency to bob and weave can drive her absolutely crazy.
Avoiding Conflict Hides Anger
Allie’s greatest source of discomfort during our first 20 years of marriage was my refusal to engage in conflict. I would not argue or fight. I refused, in fact, to admit that I was ever angry with Allie about anything. When she was angry with me, I would try to bluff my way out of it. If that didn’t work, I would give her a saintly smile, apologize, and move in for a hug. Allie’s sometimes prickly response to these tactics, I thought, was proof of her spiritual and emotional immaturity. I regarded myself as the grownup in our relationship.
Despite my inability to admit being angry, the truth was that I was a very angry man. I kept my anger so carefully concealed behind a nice-guy persona that most people never suspected it was there, but Allie knew. She was the one who felt the knife-edge of my passive aggression. Sarcastic comments, always delivered with a smile. Half-concealed insults. Sudden silence, stubborn slowness, and cold emotional absence.
Despite my inability to admit being angry, the truth was that I was a very angry man.
Many years later, after I had entered addiction recovery and had started dealing with my wounds and weaknesses, Allie told me that she had always been afraid I would hit her. I was stunned. Hit her? What could possibly have given her that idea? Heck, I could count on one hand the number of times I had even raised my voice in 20 years of marriage, and I had never raised a hand to strike her or anyone. Allie said that she had watched the pressure building and had seen the anger pulsing just beneath my skin. For years she had been bracing for the day when I would finally explode.
Anger Itself Is Not A Sin
Eventually, I came to understand the roles that conflict avoidance and unacknowledged anger have played in my addiction. I came to see that anger is a gift from God, one that can be misused but cannot be refused. It is an involuntary response to a blocked goal, an automatic surge of adrenaline that gives us the fuel to face and overcome an obstacle— if we will use it properly.
I came to see that anger is a gift from God, one that can be misused but cannot be refused
Anger itself is not a sin. The nature of anger is determined by the nature of the goal that triggers it. If my goal is sinful or unrealistic, then the anger I feel when that goal is blocked will be unrighteous anger. On the other hand, if I can walk past injustice without feeling at least a twinge of anger, something is wrong. Righteous anger is a rare but real thing. Hence the biblical command to “be angry, and sin not.” (Eph. 4:26)
Learning How To Face Conflict
During my years of active addiction, I had plenty of unrighteous and unrealistic goals. For example, I wanted to be right all of the time and be universally admired and applauded. I wanted life to be easy. I wanted all of my orders to be obeyed, and I did not want to take orders from anyone. I wanted to be a saint, and I operated under the mistaken assumption that saints are never angry.
Because most of my goals were wrong, I was constantly frustrated.
Because I was constantly frustrated, I was perpetually angry.
Because I would not examine or even admit my anger, I acted like an ass.
I owe my life today to Allie’s willingness to intervene in my insanity. When she became aware of my infidelity, Allie used her anger properly. She confronted me. She wasn’t hateful, but she was firm. She expressed herself in clear and certain terms, letting me know that she would not continue living under the conditions I had created. Something had to change. It was only then, at that point of crisis, faced with the very real prospect of losing my closest friend, that I finally became willing to go for help.
Miraculously, help was available. I was introduced to a community of fellow strugglers, men like me who had found a road to freedom. When I joined them, my only hope was that they would teach me how to say no to my destructive impulses, but they knew I had deeper work to do. Until I learned to admit and examine my own emotions, they told me, unacknowledged anger would continue to drive my compulsive behavior.
I am still no ninja when it comes to handling conflict, but I can say that I have largely lost my fear of anger. Thanks to the help I have received from my brothers, Allie and I are able to address our differences directly these days, arguing constructively toward a resolution. And strange as it may sound, my growing willingness to engage in conflict has actually improved my stress response and reduced the level of conflict in our home.