The Problem with Anger

How can we use anger to strengthen communication and enhance our relationships?

Posted Nov 14, 2017

I continue to be struck by the ways in which unchanneled anger plays a role in the ongoing difficulties experienced by people in a relationship. Reports from individual patients about their experiences with anger, as well as observations of couples in treatment, make clear that the issue is often prominent, and worrisome.

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I have written about this before, and a few of the essays are included in my book, Help Me! A Psychotherapist's Tried-and-True Techniques for a Happier Relationship with Yourself and the People You Love. Some feel that if they are provoked and become angry, the only option available to them is to "strike back," "counterattack," or "punish" the offending party with their own angry reaction. Too often, the offended party feels justified in expressing and behaving angrily, believing that is the other person's responsibility alone to ensure that they never act in a provocative way. "If she provokes me, she better look out!" or "If he starts a fight, there is no way for me not to become enraged and let him have it!" is simply ready for combat language that predictably escalates conflict and bypasses any possibility of conflict resolution.

It is often very difficult to help an angry person take the focus off the other and accept responsibility for handling their anger productively. Some take comfort in the belief that if they had not been offended there would not have been an anger problem, e.g. "If she did not blame me for my son's anger, then I would not have exploded at her." This suggests that he does not recognize that his way of expressing his anger had a role in their difficulties. Even when someone can acknowledge that their readiness to anger and its severity is a problem, there still may be too great of an emphasis on the other person's provocation and less or none of what one has to do to prevent "reactive warfare."

One of the problems here is that often people have been storing grievances with their partner throughout their relationship and this suggests that little, if anything, has gotten worked out in a positive and productive way. Many people are loathe to revisit a conflict issue when they and their partners have calmed down, however, it is precisely at this time that revisiting an issue may be more productively explored. Although for others, revisiting a hot-button issue under calmer circumstances may reactivate the fight they had days earlier and can feel like a harmful setback. This suggests that they may never have developed or acquired the tools necessary to resolve differences in a calm and reasonable fashion. 

Another major problem with explosive anger and the arguments that can result is that neither partner does much, if anything, to avoid them. Perhaps motivated by the need to prevail or be "right" about the conflict-arousing issue, one or the other person in the couple "takes the bait" and gets hooked into an argument that could have been avoided if one of them had seen to it that the conversation—however emotionally charged—had remained conversational or been postponed until calm was restored. This is not always easy, but certainly possible assuming enough motivation can be brought to bear to achieve this.

Some people are simply unable to tolerate differences of belief, opinion, or approach to an issue and therefore feel betrayed, disregarded, or somehow diminished when differences of any kind come to the surface. Some people see devotion and loyalty as requiring agreement or conformity, even submission, and when this is not readily offered by their partner, they become angry and less likely to engage in a rational effort to reconcile differences where this is necessary and appropriate.

The common expression "win the battle, but lose the war" applies here. Certain individuals, perhaps those with strong competitive tendencies, seem more concerned with victory in an argument than with how the relationship fared in the course of the dispute. Relationships accrue damage over time when too many arguments end with a winner and a loser or when a person feels overwhelmed by the contentious force of their partner. This often leads to resentment that might be stored and provide material for the next conflict.

Problems become compounded when one or both partners are so angry at each other and have so much difficulty containing and channeling their anger that reasonable, rational, and loving—yes, loving—conversation is disenabled. Often, when anger shows up in an important, emotionally-charged conversation, the conversation abruptly shifts and becomes all about the anger.

The message is this:

  • In your relationship with your partner (with anyone, for that matter), make sure that when you become angry, you use the anger to strengthen the communication and accomplish something that benefits the relationship.
  • Think of conflict as a way to solve a problem, and that anger can be a signal to you that something important needs to be communicated.
  • Try to put yourself in your partner's shoes—how would you like him or her to talk to you about something that was upsetting.
  • Avoid causing damage, possibly irreparable, to a relationship by losing control of yourself and using your anger as a "weapon of mass destruction."
  • Remember that things said in anger cannot necessarily be taken back even when you are no longer feeling them.
  • Try to recognize what "pushed your button" and use self-reflection to help you communicate your feeling to your partner.
  • Remember, too, especially in the case of relating to your romantic partner, that you are communicating with someone you love and who loves you. Hopefully, that realization alone will help you to avoid saying something harmful and regrettable and enable you to work productively together toward a much-improved partnership.