As a little girl, I witnessed and experienced the pain caused by uncontrolled anger, and I adopted a strategy of compliance to protect myself from others' intense reactions. I knew that whenever feelings got too heated, someone was likely to get hurt, and it might be me. So I tried to ignore differences and avoid conflict whenever possible. Whenever I found myself feeling angry, I immediately stuffed it and pretended that everything was fine. I relied on this tactic well into my marriage until I eventually came to recognize its hidden costs.
Although Charlie and I didn't fight very much, I spent years grumbling with resentment, feeling like a victim whenever we argued and feeling sorry for myself over how unfair our relationship seemed to be. It was I, not Charlie, who wouldn't accept the angry feelings. When we did fight, it was often over the issue of my failure to honestly express myself. Charlie would get angry when he uncovered feelings of anger that I had been trying to conceal. Eventually, all my withholding created a tension within me that became unbearable, and I could no longer keep up the pretense that everything was fine.
With Charlie's encouragement, I began to express (rather than repress) my anger when it came up. He encouraged me to express my feelings, even when they came out full of judgment and rage. I learned that when you're recovering from a pattern of withholding, you're probably going to have to go through a period of unskillful venting before the pendulum can swing back to a middle ground of respectful honesty. After practicing what felt like radical honesty, I discovered that my worst fears did not materialize. Charlie wasn't shattered by my emotional outbursts nor did he retaliate and counterattack.
What I had feared would destroy our relationship, in the long run, has greatly deepened and strengthened it. And the pendulum has definitely swung to a middle ground. I've learned not to fear our differences but to appreciate them and see them as an essential ingredient in the passion and intimacy that we share so much of in our relationship these days.
My experience has taught me that differences themselves are not inherently damaging to relationships but the way we deal with them may be. They can be used as evidence that one of us is right and the other is wrong, thus justifying a negative view of the other person. Or they can be used as a means of creating greater awareness, appreciation and understanding of each other's unique perspectives. It is, after all, our differences more than our similarities that attracted us to each other in the first place.
Becoming less afraid of the conflict that can arise from these differences is one of the bonuses that I have experienced in confronting anger more directly. Now I don't cringe when I anticipate a flap occurring between us, but instead feel a sense of curiosity and interest, perhaps even a touch of excitement. I never believed that I could lose my fear of conflict, but I have. To call this a miracle may seem a bit dramatic, but that's what if feels like to me!