I live in a perpetually angry city: Washington, D.C.
Twice in the last week, I’ve witnessed angry shouting confrontations between strangers in the middle of the street. Both times, one of the parties did something really wrong and dangerous: a turning driver failed to look and nearly ran over a jogger crossing the street, and a pedestrian strode out in front of an oncoming van. Both times, the other party became angry and shouted at the person acting carelessly. And in both cases, instead of humbly admitting the error and apologizing, the party at fault shouted back, escalating the situation and turning the moment into an ugly showdown.
I drive away shaking my head and wondering how someone who just did something so wrong can become so harsh and indignant when confronted on their error.
All of a sudden, I remember the times my husband has tried to bring an issue to my attention–simple things, like could I make sure to fully shut the front door when I entered the house, and would I mind not leaving a trail of water around the sink when I wash dishes.
Simple, reasonable requests. I was clearly in the wrong. How could I do anything but apologize and say I’ll try to do better?
But some part of me hates to be corrected so much that it instinctively fires back. I’ll retort that I had my arms full of groceries and couldn’t get the door, or that the door is hard to close, and why haven’t you fixed it by now. If I can’t make excuses or reassign the blame, I’ll take a different tactic: counter-accusation. Well, when are you going to get your pile of laundry off the couch in the foyer, I’ll ask. Or, I wish you would get around to cutting the grass sometime soon.
Success! Now we’re both on the defensive and what started as a simple request has become a fight. Why do I do that? Is it so hard to just admit I was wrong?
When I do respond with humility instead of indignation, it builds trust. It cuts off any anger at the source. All of a sudden, my husband and I are on the same team again, working through the challenges of daily life together. All I have to do is accept that little unpleasant moment of being faced with my flaw, and move past it.
A year or so ago, I was in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a notoriously congested highway. Distracted for a moment, I failed to brake soon enough and hit the car in front of me, just hard enough so the driver felt it.
She pulled off and stormed out of the car, prepared to scream at me.
“I’m so sorry, it’s my fault,” I said. “Did I hurt your car?”
The driver stopped in her tracks. She walked over and peered at her back bumper.
“I don’t think so,” she said. “I guess it’s okay.”
We went on our way, the problem resolved. It’s amazing what humility and gentleness can do to anger.
I am committed to working harder to apply the same approach to my marriage.
We may live in an angry city, but that cycle of frustration and discontent can end with us.