Learning to control anger in a relationship minimises the escalation of conflicts.

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  • 14 October 2021

Tags: anger, relationship, emotions

Failing to control one’s anger in a relationship can be detrimental in the long term. Naturally, we tend to shy away from projecting our anger on our partners. Likewise, we often feel at a loss or defensive when we become the recipients of an angry outburst. 

Nonetheless, occasional clashes are inevitable in intimate relationships. In fact, conflicts can promote a healthy relationship if they are handled well (Gathpazian, 2021). 

During conflicts, anger can be the dominant emotion that is felt between parties involved. What effect does anger have on our relationships with our partners? How can we control our anger in a relationship, and prevent minor frustrations from escalating into full-blown rage?

Is it Normal to Feel Angry in a Relationship?

Anger has a bad reputation in relationships. It has often been associated with being immoral and having violent tendencies (Tarabay & Warburton, 2017). It is important to remember that we all experience anger in our day-to-day lives. Feeling angry at our partner is definitely not a sign that the relationship is doomed. In fact, it is normal, from time-to-time, to feel angry in a relationship.

The short-term discomfort of communicating our anger can lead to honest conversations that benefit the relationship in the long-run (Society for Personality and Social Psychology, 2012). When anger is managed appropriately, it can lead to the deepening of intimacy in our relationships (Navarra, 2021). 

On the flipside, when anger is suppressed, we can feel deeply dissatisfied in our relationships (Uehara, Tamura & Nakagawa, 2018). Therefore, it is important for us to be forthright in expressing our anger to our partner.

The main function that anger serves is bringing our awareness to situations where we have been treated unfairly (Kassinove, 2012). This motivates us to right the perceived wrong that has been done to us. One way in which we seek to rectify the discomfort of injustice is through expressing our anger.

Some benefits of expressing our anger in relationships are that it:

Builds Understanding Between Partners

When we communicate our anger, we inform our partners what behaviours are considered transgressive to us. Our agitated tone and body language alerts them to pay extra attention. They understand better how we prefer to be treated and the boundaries in the relationship.

Allows the Angry Party to Feel Heard

When our anger is met with understanding, we feel heard in our relationships. Our expression of anger also presents our partners with the opportunity to discuss what’s not working well, and figure out how to arrive at a compromise.

Acknowledging your partner's anger allows them to feel heard and validated.

Evokes Feelings of Satisfaction

When we express our anger instead of bottling it up, we feel relieved. Our feelings of agitation and physical tension are given an outlet. Furthermore, when we come to a consensus with our partner through a fruitful discussion afterwards, we can feel accomplished.

How Anger Damages Relationships

We now know that anger does not inherently have a negative influence on our relationships. It can be beneficial and presents us with opportunities to deepen the bond with our partner.

However, it is equally important to bear in mind that anger can become destructive if it is not handled well. Our inability to control or express anger in a relationship may give rise to the following adverse outcomes. 

Aggression Towards Our Partner

When we are hurt by our partner, we may in turn feel the inclination to inflict hurt back on them. This results in aggressive behaviour. Aggression is one way in which anger manifests in our relationships. The four different forms of aggression are:

  • Verbal aggression can mean name-calling, making threats and intimidation.
  • Physical aggression is a more well-known form of aggression and can be expressed through physically hurting our partner or damaging property.
  • Relational aggression can involve sabotaging our partner’s other relationships (eg family and friends).
  • Passive aggression is a more subtle form of aggression that can be exhibited through behaviour such as guilt-tripping and responding to our partner’s requests bitterly.

Aggressive behaviour heightens the tension between partners and creates a hostile environment. This can be very damaging to our relationships.

Repression of Anger

Our desire to maintain peace in a relationship often leads to a repression of anger. While we are able to control anger in a relationship temporarily, this lack of communication between partners results in unmet needs or expectations. 

Over a prolonged period of time, a build-up of resentment may occur. The relationship can become less satisfying, and more crucially, its longevity can be threatened (Uehara, Tamura & Nakagawa, 2018).

When Anger Becomes Emotional Abuse

While mutually aggressive behaviours can surface during disagreements, it is important to distinguish aggression from abuse. This helps us identify the kind of help we would need for our relationship. 

Abusive behaviour involves an imbalanced dynamic, such as one partner imposing coercive control over another (Geffner, 2016). Intimidation is a common tactic used by abusers, where they will threaten their partner to maintain their hold over them.

If you recognise that the unhealthy dynamic between you and your partner has progressed to abuse, it is vital to seek help. Please speak to a trusted loved one about your experiences or seek out support groups. 

Therapy is another option you can consider as a safe environment for you to process your experiences. Your experiences are valid and you deserve the support required to free yourself from a difficult and harmful relationship.

Dealing with Your Anger

While communicating our feelings is crucial in a healthy relationship we cannot simply react based on our emotions all the time. It is important to manage our anger first before engaging in a meaningful discussion with our partners.

If you are unsure of how to control your anger in a relationship, or find your current coping methods ineffective, here are some strategies for managing your own feelings of anger (Kashdan & Biswas-Diener, 2014; Kassinove, 2012; Savarese, 2013):

Acknowledge Your Anger

Remind yourself that anger is a normal emotion that surfaces from time-to-time in our interactions with others. Even when you feel anger towards your partner, know that it is a valid experience and that you do not need to avoid your emotion.

Allow Yourself Space to Process Your Anger

When we feel angry, it may not be productive to communicate our anger immediately as our world view tends to become a black and white binary. As a result, we make snap judgements or overgeneralisations about someone else’s behaviour, such as “you always overlook my feelings” or “you never take responsibility”. 

Yet, situations are generally more complex and grey. We may need time to compose ourselves and recognise alternative scenarios and explanations.

During this period of composing ourselves, it is important to focus on caring for ourselves too. This means allowing yourself time away from your partner. If you find it difficult to calm yourself down, some useful techniques you can employ are:

  • Mindful breathing: Focus your attention on each breath, allowing for a longer exhalation period than inhalation period.
  •  Exercising: This can range from a brisk walk to engaging in sports.
  • Safe outlets for anger expression: This can include tearing paper or yelling into a pillow.
  • Distractions: Any activity that takes your mind off the situation, such as playing an instrument or video game.

Give yourself time and space to compose yourself. Solitude will help you process your emotions and brainstorm how to best communicate your needs. 

As anger is a secondary emotion, you may wish to consider whether there are underlying emotions such as fear or sadness. Thereafter, share them with your partner to give them insights into how you are feeling.

Remind yourself to look at the situation from the perspective of working on the relationship. This prevents you from focusing excessively on your partner’s wrongdoing. Don’t forget to pay attention to your partner’s opinions as they are entitled to their view as well, which may differ from yours. 

Express Anger Assertively

After thinking through the situation, you may wish to share your thoughts with your partner. To express your anger assertively, communicate your feelings directly – in a respectful but firm tone. 

This does not need to involve demeaning or criticising your partner in any way. For instance, you may state “When you forgot to inform me about the family dinner, I felt angry. I would like to discuss how we can improve our communication.”. As opposed to “You are always so forgetful, I don’t know how to deal with you.”

Ideally, your partner would be eager to resolve the issue with you. Don’t shy away from asking for what you need from your partner to feel better. This can be in the form of an apology, or a commitment to change their behaviour.

Dealing with Your Partner’s Anger

When our partners communicate their anger, we must recognise that they are attempting to be vulnerable with us. This presents us with an opportunity to acknowledge their feelings and improve our relationship. 

It is natural to feel frustrated when our partners express their anger. However, we must remember that reacting in anger will only promote a cycle of angry responses. In order to facilitate consensus and compromise with our partner, we must first understand them (Savarese, 2013). We can do so in the following ways:

Acknowledge Your Partner’s Anger and Listen Actively

When your partner lets you in on their feelings, they are being vulnerable with you. It is important for you to acknowledge and respect their emotions. 

Listen to them attentively without interrupting. You can show them that you are paying attention by asking them questions. If you have any doubts, you can use this time to clarify your understanding with them.

Remember that Your Partner’s Perspective is Valid

The perspective that your partner has on the situation is their own and is valid. It is natural to feel defensive when we are confronted. But remember that both of you are against the problem, not each other. This can be a good way to remind yourself not to take their words as a personal attack and to stay calm.

It is important for you to hold space and allow your partner to share their thoughts and feelings. At this time, they need empathy from you. Bring in your perspective only when your partner is ready to listen. Then discuss how future situations can be better handled to avoid triggering similar emotions for your partner. Finally, be ready to apologise if your partner needs it to feel comforted.

How to Control Anger Outbursts when Interacting with My Partner?

It is not always easy to control anger in a relationship, especially during arguments. In the heat of the moment, you may lash out at your partner, and regret your actions after. This shows that more conscious effort may need to be put into creating a calm and non-confrontational environment. Here are some strategies you may find useful (Novaco & DiGiuseppe, 2011):

Recognise Your Triggers

Reflect on the situations that have provoked your feelings of anger. After identifying these scenarios, look for solutions to avoid these situations. For instance, you may find yourself consistently arguing with your partner about the choice of food they purchase. 

Rather than berate them, you may wish to provide them with a list of food you both enjoy. This allows your partner to better understand your preferences and make adjustments gradually.

Forgive and Not Dwell

It can be tempting to remind yourself of past incidents that have piqued your anger. However, this often builds up resentment towards your partner. It is good to let bygones be bygones, especially if the incident has already been addressed and resolved. 

You can place your focus instead on aspects of your partner that you appreciate. Practicing gratitude is more beneficial and productive for the future of your relationship.

Stay Aware of Your Emotions

Being able to spot physiological signs when you are getting angry is important. This allows you to remove yourself from the situation or distract yourself before your anger transforms into full-blown rage. By being self-aware, you spare your partner from becoming the target of your angry outbursts.

After removing yourself from the situation, you can attempt to regulate your emotions by giving yourself an outlet to vent and process them. This can be through writing, drawing or even confiding in a trusted friend outside of the relationship.

However, if you find it difficult to identify your triggers or process your emotions, therapy can be a viable option moving forward. Therapists can facilitate a better understanding of your triggers and guide you in formulating solutions to better manage your anger.

Always remember that with consistent communication and effort, it is definitely possible to control anger in a relationship, and forge a healthier bond with your partner. 

References

Kashdan, T. & Biswar-Diener, R. (2014). The Right Way to Get Angry. Greater Good Magazine: Science-based Insights for a Meaningful Life. Retrived from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_right_way_to_get_angry

Kassinove, H. (2012). How to recognize and deal with anger. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/anger/recognize.

Gathpazian, A. (2021). Healthy Relationships: Definition, Characteristics, and Tips. Berkeley Well-Being Institute. Retrieved from https://www.berkeleywellbeing.com/healthy-relationships.html.

Geffner, R. (2016). Partner Aggression Versus Partner Abuse Terminology: Moving the Field Forward and Resolving Controversies. Journal of Family Violence, 31, 923-25. Retrieved from

https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10896-016-9898-8.

Navarra, R. (2021). The Positive Side of Anger in Relationships: A Door to Increasing Intimacy. Retrieved from

https://drrobertnavarra.com/the-positive-side-of-anger-in-relationships-a-door-to-increasing-intimacy/.

Novaco, R. W. & DiGiuseppe, R. (2011). Strategies for controlling your anger: Keeping anger in check. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from Strategies for controlling your anger: Keeping anger in check (apa.org)

Savarese, I. H. (2013). Anger in Relationships: Owning Yours, Softening Your Partner’s. GoodTherapy. Retrieved from

https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/anger-in-relationships-owning-yours-softening-your-partners-0919134.

Society for Personality and Social Psychology. (2012). Sometimes expressing anger can help a relationship in the long-term. ScienceDaily. Retrieved from

www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/08/120802133649.htm.

Tarabay, C & Warburton, W. (2017). Anger, aggression and violence: it matters that we know the difference. The Conversation. Retrieved from

 https://theconversation.com/anger-aggression-and-violence-it-matters-that-we-know-the-difference-82918.

Uehara, S., Tamura, T & Nakagawa, T. (2018). The Positivity of Anger: Non-Expression of Anger Causes Deterioration in Relationships. Psychology, 9, 1444-1452. doi: 10.4236/psych.2018.96088. https://www.scirp.org/journal/paperinformation.aspx?paperid=85730

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