Nancy, 29, and Peter, 30, have been married seven years, but for a long time now, she says, she's sensed him drifting away. He's not as open, understanding or supportive as he used to be. "Things between us are bad--we're not talking, we're not making love--and they've been this way for a while. It almost feels like normal."
On the surface, these two function like any parents of two school-age daughters. But after the kids are tucked into bed, the silence looms between them. "I feel so alone," Nancy says, "and so angry. The same way I used to feel as a child, when I'd be battling with my overbearing mother and my dad would be there, hovering in a corner but never defending me."
Her fights with Peter have become intense. "I throw things--plates, glasses," she admits sheepishly. "I can't help myself." During one argument, Peter stormed out of the house; Nancy followed him and found him in the arms of another woman.
Peter says it's not what Nancy thinks. "I'm not having, and never did have, an affair with that woman," says Peter, a Robert Redford look-alike. "She is a port in a storm for me, someone who listens sympathetically, without criticizing, without demeaning me and without exploding."
Peter desperately needs that solace. Since he was little, he's been pulled in one direction or another by smothering, demanding women. "I realize now that my mother was verbally abusive," Peter continues. When Nancy attacks like a bulldozer, Peter feels the way he did as a child: He wants to crawl into a hole, shut down and tune out.
"You wouldn't believe the things Nancy says to me," he says. "She tells me she can't stand to look at me. She gives me the finger in my face instead of saying goodby in the morning. Why does she treat me this way if she wants to be close? Frankly, I've had all that I can stand."
"Nancy and Peter are caught in a no-win cycle of escalating anger, and neither understands what triggers it or how to break it," says Evelyn Moschetta, a marriage counselor in New York City and Huntington, N.Y. Both are also reacting in the same behavior patterns they learned as children.
Because Peter grew up in a household filled with tension and hostility, he avoided confrontation. Peace at any cost is his motto, and during an argument he backs off and shuts down.
To get through to him, Nancy shifts into high gear: Her voice gets louder, her attacks sharper. Browbeaten by such an onslaught, Peter retreats further, which provokes Nancy even more.
Many husbands and wives fall into the same well-worn ruts when they're angry. Yet, understanding the roots of our own as well as our spouse's anger is essential to easing the pain it causes. The following points helped Nancy and Peter deal more constructively with conflict.
Remember that anger itself is not bad; you are not a bad person if you feel angry. It's how you express it that can corrode a relationship.
Listen, and pay attention, to your body's warning signals that tell you when you're angry. Do you often feel a tightening in your temples? A churning in your stomach? Ignoring these little warning signs allows anger to mushroom out of control. But if you catch anger early, before you bury it or deny it, you can channel it more constructively instead of habitually exploding.
At a peaceful time, try to talk about what makes you angry with each other and why. Ask each other: When I'm angry with you, what are you thinking and feeling? Does my anger remind you of your father or your mother when they were mad? When you're furious, is it really me you're angry with, or could it be something or someone else?