Where Does the Anger in Your Relationship Come From?

To understand your conflicts, try first to understand yourself.

Posted Feb 23, 2015

wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Romantic relationships are full of emotion. Often these emotions are uplifting and joyful, filling your life with meaning and contentment. But it’s not always sunshine and roses.

For instance, when was the last time you were angry with someone close to you? Why were you angry? Often we place the responsibility for our own anger on our partners. Maybe she didn’t feed the cat. Maybe he didn’t call when he said he would. Maybe she forgot your birthday.

Despite its potential positive role (it might motivate, protect, or help people stand up for themselves), anger is often perceived as a toxic reaction to a relational problem, annoyance, or unsatisfying dynamic. Indeed, in romantic relationships, people who feel rejected, betrayed, or hurt in any manner often react with anger (Buss, 1989).

But how much is anger really based on the situation?

Recent research suggests that anger is potentially grounded as much in who you are as it is rooted in the event that sparked your reaction. In their investigation, Nisenbaum and Lopez (2015) took a look at how individuals’ attachment styles were linked to their own anger and their partners’ anger.

To understand their work, we must consider attachment styles, which tell us how individuals typically view and experience relationships. Beginning in early childhood, social interactions help us establish patterns of expectations and beliefs about relational trust and security. Some people—those with secure attachment styles—learn to easily trust others, have a secure sense of their own self-worth, and feel safe in their relationships. Others are better categorized as insecure in their relationships. They may feel anxious in close relationships, doubting their own self-worth and fearing abandonment. Or they may take an avoidant approach to relationships, in response to a deep mistrust of others and an evolved preference for independence.

If you’ve ever wondered why you (or your partner) react with anger in the way you do, your attachment style might be revealing. Nisenbaum and Lopez (2015) showed that:

  • Individuals with more anxiety tend to be more expressive of their anger (e.g., raise their voice).
  • Women are more likely to seek support from friends when their partners anger them than men are.
  • Anxious men are more apt to talk to friends and seek support than less anxious men when their partners anger them.
  • Avoidant individuals are more likely to suppress displays of anger.
  • Compared to secure men, avoidant men respond with less accommodation to their partner’s anger.

So what does this mean? Anger is a complex emotional response and in romantic relationships, it’s not based only on a partner’s behavior. In other words, the same behavior (e.g., being embarrassing in public) will yield different reactions by a partner depending on the individual's attachment orientation. Whether you react with a cold shoulder or an aggressive response may be a function of your own attachment style, not purely a function of the offense.

References

Buss, D. M. (1989). Conflict between the sexes: strategic interference and the evocation of anger and upset. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56, 735-747.

Nisenbaum, M. G., & Lopez, F. G. (2015). Adult attachment orientations and anger expression in romantic relationships: A dyadic analysis. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 62, 63-72.

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