Dealing with Anger in a Relationship
Anger is an ugly animal. Or so we are taught.
So we lock our anger away … ashamed that something so primal, so nasty, might lurk within us. But when our physical or psychological well-being is threatened, we often revert to this primitive coping mechanism.
Most days, we can conceal our anger from people at work or at school. But this “beast within” is practically impossible to hide from our significant other. Some of us respond to this vulnerability by lashing out at our partner. Others retreat and coil tight emotionally. Neither of these reactions, however, leads to a healthy relationship. The appropriate response is more human … and requires more courage.
Situational anger is tied to specific words or actions. It also has a specific solution: working through the problem with the offending party. Chronic anger often stems from childhood trauma—neglect, abandonment or abuse. Even the slightest provocation can awaken these sleeping giants. A therapist can help you resolve any issues from your childhood that may be affecting your relationship.
Managing Anger in Your Relationship
Conflict seems scary. But habitually avoidance of conflict can be more damaging to your relationship. For those of us who have never seen conflict modeled well, here’s a primer:
Tackle one issue at a time. Don’t take cheap shots. Communicate respectfully.
Know your history
Revenge doesn’t work—it never has. Repaying a wrong for a wrong results in a cycle of retaliation.
Know who’s on your team
Scoring “points” against your partner won’t win you anything. Your significant other is your teammate, not your opponent. If you’re not sure about that point, your relationship might be an unhealthy one.
Stay (mostly) calm
Keeping a cool head can result in a more productive conversation. Just don’t sound too cool. Nothing is more frustrating when you are upset than someone who minimizes your feelings. Showing a little empathy may help calm your partner down.
Conflict is less threatening in contexts where we feel emotionally safe. Affirm your partner’s significance in your life and regularly express appreciation for him or her.
Some fights are unwinnable … and that’s okay
Research indicates that even happy couples have about ten areas of "incompatibility" or disagreement they will never resolve. Happy couples learn to work around these differences and don’t let them undermine the positive aspects of the relationship.
Set ground rules
As a couple, define appropriate ways to communicate anger. If you or your partner oversteps these bounds at any point, take time to cool off before continuing the conversation.
When Anger Goes too Far
While anger is a universal emotion, uncontrolled anger can be dangerous, even deadly. If your partner exhibits any of the behaviors below, he/she may need professional help.
Breaking or hitting things
Most of us have punched a pillow or two. But punching walls, slamming doors or breaking objects can escalate.
Name-calling, putdowns or intimidation
You should never have to demean another person to make your point. Attempting to belittle, control, degrade or intimidate another person through words can indicate verbal abuse.
If your partner exhibits violence or even threatens violence, remove yourself from the situation immediately. Call 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) for anonymous, confidential help 24/7.
Unintended Consequences of Anger
We feel alive when we are angry. For some, the rush that comes from anger can be exhilarating, even addictive. Anger can also be strangely soothing. While anger itself isn’t calming, the sense of validation it brings can be. According to psychologist Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. “anger potently serves to invalidate whoever or whatever led us to feel invalidated.”
But while being angry can make us feel good (at least for a little while), it rarely has the same charm on our significant other. In fact, few emotions are less endearing than anger. Anger feeds off a “me against the world” mentality. This self-protective stance can unwittingly alienate your closest ally: your significant other.
Our anger can negatively affect our partner, even when it is not directed toward our partner. Anger is a hard thing to quarantine: your partner may experience “secondhand” effects such as increased blood pressure. As you process through your anger, remember how it can impact your partner.
While uncontrolled anger can damage a relationship, “ordinary” anger serves some important functions:
The "Upside" of Anger
Anger acts as a signal fire, alerting us that something is wrong in a situation. It keeps us on guard until an emotional danger has been averted, escaped or confronted. Some expressions of anger—such as cursing when you bang your shin—may even help us cope with physical pain. Research Britain’s Keele University, suggests this form of swearing may have a “pain-lessening effect.” And rightly-channeled anger can be a powerful force for good.
Anger can also embolden us to articulate our deepest needs and frustrations, an essential skill for one of life’s most rewarding challenges: relationships.