6 Tips for How to Manage Anger in Your Relationships
How to recognize and cope with anger, resentment, and indignation.
Posted Dec 29, 2020
Anger is prevalent in relationships, particularly romantic relationships, but also friendships and familial relationships. Despite its prevalence, we don't always understand the true nature of this forceful emotion or how it impacts our loved ones. Understanding how anger shows up in relationships can help gain insight into how to handle your own anger more effectively, or stand up to an angry partner, friend, or family member.
Anger comes in many varieties. Not all forms of this emotion have a target. For example, frustration with your laptop and free-floating anger associated with grief do not have a target. While targetless anger can cause trouble in relationships, conflicts arising from this type of anger are often easily diffused.
Unlike targetless anger, hostile anger can cause greater relationship problems, because it is tied to accountability and blame. In its more sinister form, hostile anger is also known as “rage” or “wrath.” The kind of hostile anger that quickly passes often takes the form of an anger fit or anger outburst.
How short-lived anger impacts a relationship depends on the frequency and intensity of anger outbursts. Frequent high-intensity outbursts are a form of verbal, emotional, or physical abuse. They include yelling, name-calling, belittling, threatening, punching a wall, slamming a door, throwing an object, and hitting, among other behaviors.
But not all anger is short-lived. Anger sometimes lingers because certain relationship issues have never been confronted and resolved. When anger lingers, it becomes resentment or indignation.
Resentment and indignation tend to last much longer than a brief fit of anger. They can linger for weeks or months on end, perhaps even years—staying mostly hidden under the flimsy veil of consciousness, but occasionally checking in with you.
In both resentment and indignation, we react to a perceived injustice. In resentment, we take the target of our resentment to have committed a personal injustice. Resentment commonly arises in relationships when we think the other person has done something wrong or unjust to us—something that wasn't a mere oversight. For example, if your close friend doesn't invite you to their wedding, despite inviting virtually all of their acquaintances, that could lead to long-lasting resentment toward your friend.
Indignation, or what we sometimes call “outrage,” is the vicarious analogue of resentment. When you are indignant, what concerns you is an injustice done to someone else—perhaps a social injustice. Even though indignation can occur for the sake of noble causes, this variety of anger can still jeopardize our relationships, if it is not expressed or managed correctly.
For example, you may feel indignation upon learning that your mother—who is an R&D director in a big corporation—just accepted a 50 percent raise, despite knowing that the company she works for recently let 200 of its workers go. The indignation you experience in this scenario could easily cause you to view your mother as a bad person, perhaps transforming your hostility into hatred or contempt down the line. Deep-seated hostility toward your mother could even be the beginning of the end of your hitherto close parental relationship.
Deep-rooted resentment and indignation can also give rise to emotional abuse, especially passive-aggressive behaviors, such as the silent treatment, speaking in codes, trying to gain sympathy, persistent forgetting, or sullen behavior, to name just a few.
How then do we manage and resolve anger issues in relationships? Here are a few tips.
1. Learn to Recognize Anger
Work on recognizing different forms of anger and the behaviors typically accompanying them both in yourself and the other person. Observe how anger affects you and the other person.
Signs of an impending anger outburst include a flushed face; clenched teeth or fists; eyebrows drawn together to form a “V,” causing wrinkles on the forehead; eyes narrowed to form an intense stare; or the nose wrinkled as a result of flaring nostrils.
Stomach aches, headaches, tightening of the chest or throat, heart palpitations, exhaustion, anxiety, and depression could signal lingering resentment or indignation.
2. Work on Controlling Your Anger
Don't ignore your anger. That will only make things worse. Start by controlling how to react when you are angry. Only then should you consider ways to work on the emotion itself. When you feel angry, ask yourself why you're angry. Try to gain a full understanding of the reasons behind your anger before addressing it to the other person.
3. Take Responsibility for Your Deplorable Behaviors
If you mess up and fly into a temper tantrum or anger outburst, take responsibility for your inappropriate and hurtful behaviors. Offer a sincere apology and ponder how best to avoid repeating the same mistake in the future. If you constantly find yourself slipping up, seek professional help.
4. Be Assertive
Learn how to communicate assertively. Raising your voice, yelling, belittling, or engaging in other emotionally abusive behaviors is not assertive communication. Assertive communication involves being in control of your emotions, standing up for yourself, and expressing both positive and negative feelings and thoughts firmly while being open to feedback.
Even if you are angry, this emotional state doesn't need to lead to an anger outburst; or verbal, emotional, or physical abuse. Expressing your anger through assertive communication is far more productive.
5. Agree to a Time-Out
When you are angry, you cannot think rationally. A distorted view of the situation can lead to misunderstandings, over-interpretations, hasty conclusions, and other irrational mindsets that can affect how you respond to what is happening.
Don't try to come to an agreement when your mind is clouded. Instead, agree in advance to take a time-out when you are unable to have a productive conversation and be an active listener.
6. Learn When to Say Stop
Do you agree or give in to avoid upsetting your partner? Do you feel you're walking on eggshells, scared to speak up for fear of the consequences? Have you tried talking to your partner using assertive communication to no avail?
If you answered yes to these questions, you are in an abusive relationship, and you need to take the necessary steps to cope or leave.
Brogaard, B. (2020). Hatred: Understanding Our Most Dangerous Emotion, Oxford University Press.