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Anger

How to Deal With Anger in Relationships

Stop being angry and start getting what you want out of your relationships.

Key points

  • Getting mad and punishing people for not loving you enough or in the right way never gets you the love you want.
  • Many common strategies for reducing anger do not actually work.
  • Learning to engage in perspective-taking is the best way to reduce anger and aggression and communicate in a way that will work for you.

All he wanted from his wife was for her to desire him…to sometimes initiate sexual contact, to remind him that he was still young, virile, and sexy. But she still fell asleep each night in the kid’s room. She made light of his frustration and pointed out that there just never seemed to be the time or the place. So, he started to pout. He was short with her. He wasn’t interested in hearing about her day or giving her warm hugs or kisses good night. His festering resentment often got the best of him, and he did a good job of acting out the part of the callous, angry man…and he still did not get what he wanted.

All she wanted was to feel loved. She wanted him to care, ask about her day and listen to her, and give her hugs and kisses that were not a prelude to sex. She started expressing her frustration with statements like, “Why are you such a crappy listener.” She felt angry that she was married and had a family but was still so lonely. She became more demanding and gave him a hard time when he went out with friends. She chastised him for his seeming indifference. She made fun of him for his sexual frustrations and for disengaging. “Use your big-boy words,” she would say. As her feeling of loneliness grew, she found herself yelling and regularly succumbing to fits of rage. And do you think she got what she wanted by acting out the part of the neurotic “crazy woman”?

And how about the parents whose adult child moves away and spends more time at the holidays with his in-laws and doesn’t provide enough opportunities to see the grandkids? They complained and cajoled and shamed. “We never thought you’d do this to us.” “You’re so ungrateful and inconsiderate.” “You’d never do this to your partner’s family!” And, do you think they got invited over more for the holidays?

Given the right conditions, it is easy to imagine how most of us could fall into similar patterns. A perceived lack of care or love leads to hurt…and hurt leads to sorrow…and being stuck in a place of hurt and sorrow leads to frustration, a desire to retaliate, anger, and aggression. And on it goes…but it never gets you what you want. Even in the counseling room, couples often berate and yell at each other because they aren’t being loved enough or in the way they want.

People typically do not respond to angry/aggressive behavior by expressing love, affection, and kindness.

But if you really feel angry…that is a fact! And you need to do something with that anger other than aggressing on your partner or children.

Here are some strategies that many people use but that research shows do not really work:

  • Suppressing angry thoughts: trying to suppress and push your angry thoughts out of consciousness is likely to increase your anger over time and make it more difficult to control your emotions and behaviors.
  • Working out or running: Physical exertion increases your arousal level. Increased arousal, in turn, is often misattributed as anger if you have things to be angry about (called an “excitation transfer”). It also increases your focus on whatever is standing out most in your thoughts.
  • Ruminating: Thinking about the issue over and over is likely to lead to a “hostile attribution bias” where you will increase your belief that the other person is acting with negative intent. Feeling purposely wounded by someone then leads to a desire to retaliate.
  • Retaliation: Retaliation works in the short run, but it just transfers the anger and aggression to the other person and is likely to keep the cycle going and escalating.
  • Catharsis: Trying to release your anger by venting (yelling in your car, breaking things, etc.) doesn’t really solve any issues and just increases your arousal level (refer back to the first bullet point).

Here are some strategies that research shows do work:

  • Structured problem-solving: Listen to the content of the other person’s argument and your counter-argument. Try to put your emotions aside for a moment and identify strategies and ideas to solve the problem and get your needs met.
  • Developing your social skills: Often, just learning to speak more slowly and with less volume will decrease your level of physical activation and get some distance from your angry feelings. You will also get a better response from the person you are talking to.
  • Observing and imitating role models: Think of a person you know who handles conflict well and never gets their "feathers in a ruffle." Imagine how they might respond in your situation.
  • Changing your thoughts (cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques): Learn to identify and challenge your own thoughts. Are you making rational errors (like assuming negative intentions without evidence, reading the other person’s mind instead of responding to what they said, etc.)?
  • Mindfulness techniques and relaxation (acceptance and commitment therapy techniques): Learn to calmly watch your thoughts without giving them too much weight or getting attached to them while keeping your body in a relaxed state.
  • Perspective-taking: Social stress and conflict that activates you physically decreases your ability to take other people’s perspectives (Yip & Schweitzer, 2019; Kahkonen et al., 2021). Also, having poor perspective-taking leads to increased angry arousal in the first place (Mohr et al., 2007).

Being able to take other people’s perspectives increases social problem-solving and understanding, which, in turn, should lower physical arousal, anger, and aggression (Day et al., 2008). Understanding the other person’s viewpoint, emotions, and motives will help you think more clearly and respond in a gentler and kinder manner that will feel better to you (less anger) and to your relationship partners.

References

Kähkönen, J. E., Krämer, U. M., Buades-Rotger, M., & Beyer, F. (2021). Regulating interpersonal stress: the link between heart-rate variability, physical exercise and social perspective taking under stress. Stress (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 24(6), 753–762. https://doi.org/10.1080/10253890.2021.1907339

Yip, J. A., & Schweitzer, M. E. (2019). Losing your temper and your perspective: Anger reduces perspective-taking. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 150, 28–45. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.obhdp.2018.07.003

Mohr, P., Howells, K., Gerace, A., Day, A., & Wharton, M. (2007). The role of perspective taking in anger arousal. Personality and Individual Differences, 43(3), 507–517. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2006.12.019

Andrew Day, Kevin Howells, Philip Mohr, Ernest Schall, & Adam Gerace. (2008). The Development of CBT Programs for Anger: The Role of Interventions to Promote Perspective-Taking Skills. Behavioural & Cognitive Psychotherapy, 36(3), 299–312. https://doi.org/10.1017/S135246580800430X

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