Why Does Anger Hurt Our Relationships?
Anger: The emotion corrosive to trust.
Posted June 30, 2020
When conflict emerges within intimate relationships, it can be difficult to keep in mind that at the basis of all intimate relationship is trust: It’s an essential characteristic for any healthy relationship to function, and for other elements conducive to a happy and healthy partnership, like care, reliability, and mutuality, among others I've described here, to grow.
Within a relationship, we define trust as the extent to which you believe your partner will act in a way that’s fair and beneficial to you, and, at the very least, in a way that won’t purposely harm you. That said, the central question we should be asking when we experience conflict with our partner is, "Is the way I'm feeling, thinking, or behaving promoting trust in this relationship, or taking away from it?" If the relationship we have is valued and one we want to continue, it's important that we take steps towards promoting that trust, even in the most frantic situations.
When in conflict with our partner, what happens when we feel and express anger is that we can violate that trust that's essential to relationships, primarily because when we feel anger, it's an emotional response telling us that we have been wronged. Within the meaning of that feeling, we therefore believe the trust we’ve put into our partner has been violated in some way or there has been some sort of injustice done whenever we feel angry.
The problem with that is not only could we be misinterpreting our feelings from past traumas (like I've described here), or previous hurts or damaging childhood experiences, but when we express the visceral anger we feel, depending on how it's expressed, our partner’s trust in us is similarly violated, because there isn’t much guarantee that we aren’t out to "harm" them, whether it'd be physically, emotionally, or psychologically, creating a vicious cycle of hurts, fear, and, ultimately, distrust. Without the trust component, there's no guarantee of safety within our relationship, and without safety, we are prone to either attack or shut down; there's no space for the softness that comes with vulnerability or care.
For example, let's say our partner has come home from the grocers with a flavor of chips we dislike. There are a few options we have to express our disappointment; regret, disappointment, annoyance, or, anger. When we express any emotion, we have a specific feeling coupled with a cognitive response, as well as a behavioral response; so, while externally we might express our anger by exhibiting a behavior like yelling, we might cognitively run an internal script that says, “he knows I like vinegar flavored chips, but he selfishly chose something I dislike, therefore he’s purposely done something to punish and therefore harm me." There are a lot of loaded assumptions that can be made in our internal scripts, without even necessarily consciously realizing that our beliefs about being "harmed" is why we’re angry over something as banal as a bag of chips in the first place.
Because anger is an "approach" emotion, meaning we are motivated to approach others like the source of our anger, or, in extension, attack our opponent, anger automatically sets the scene for a response that is less than soft — our trust has been violated, and by acting out in a way that’s provoking, we’ve dampened our partner’s ability to believe that we mean them no harm, as well. As such, trust is diminished from both ends.
From an evolutionary and physiological perspective, we are wired to “fight or flee” when stressful situations arise. So, when our partner is expressing anger and provoking an enraged response, our cortisol levels similarly shoot up because we are now psychologically facing an opponent and readying ourselves for a fight, thus often responding to anger in kind. Over time, however, we may become worn down and stonewall, when we completely disengage from a conversation, which is one of four main components found to lead to divorce.
With a complex cognitive, behavioral, and physiological response, it's not surprising that anger overwhelms our ability to connect and maintain vulnerability, which leads to trust: Put simply, it’s difficult to let our guard down when we feel as though our back is up against the wall.
To express soft and vulnerable emotions, we need to feel safe with our partners, and for that, we need trust.
Gottman, J. M., Coan, J., Carrere, S., & Swanson, C. (1998). Predicting marital happiness and stability from newlywed interactions. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 5-22.