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Relationship Audit: Consult Your Hostile Emotions

Spot your hostile relationship emotions before it is too late.

Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels
Source: Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

Hostile emotions and close or intimate relationships seem like polar opposites. When we are in a close or intimate relationship, such as a romantic relationship, good friendship, or close familial relationship, we have a desire to promote the other's interests or share our lives with them.

When we are hostile toward someone, by contrast, we don't typically desire to promote their interests. We might even want to impede the other's interests and go to great lengths to avoid sharing our lives with them.

Even so, hostile emotions creep up in our close and intimate relationships every so often. That's completely normal. But when present in abundance, hostile emotions can be destructive. Their presence, however, need not be bad news, as they can be used to gauge the health of your relationship, whether it's a romantic relationship, a good friendship, or a close familial relationship.

If there is an abundance of hostile emotions in your relationship, all is not lost. The first step toward improvement is to dig deeper and attempt to pinpoint some of the causes. If your relationship is indeed deeply unhealthy, it may be a good idea to take some time apart or in the worst-case-scenario say goodbye.

But maybe the main cause doesn't lie with the relationship as such, but with you or your spouse, partner, friend, or family member.

If, after some reflection, you are convinced the hostility stems from the other person in your relationship, then it's time for a long talk—and perhaps even an ultimatum.

If, however, you are the one to bring hostility to the table, then a period of introspection may be in order. Should the origin of your hostility lie elsewhere—far removed from your relationship—and you cannot overcome those inner conflicts on your own, the best way to heal may be to talk to a mental health professional.

But how do we recognize hostile emotions in ourselves and our loved ones? Three key features set hostile emotions apart from other emotions (with one exception). One is that they are reactions to the target’s perceived offensive behavior or practices. For example, if you despise your long-term girlfriend for her pretentious health advice, you regard her advice as offensive, and your hostile emotional state is a reaction to that.

A second hallmark of hostile emotions is that, with the exception of disgust, they present their target as blameworthy, where blameworthiness requires accountability and the absence of a legitimate excuse. As we will see, if we find a person’s behavior or appearance appalling, this need not involve an attribution of blame. In fact, it need not even involve an attribution of accountability.

The third hallmark of hostile emotions is that they all have disrespect as a component, which is tied to their inherently socially comparative nature. Contempt and hate stand out from anger and resentment by involving disrespect for the target for their character traits and not just their actions.

Say you disrespect your friend for expecting overly costly birthday gifts for one of her birthdays, then the focus of your disrespect is her expectation. If, on the other hand, you disrespect her for expecting overly costly birthday gifts for all her birthdays, then the focus of your disrespect may be her character rather than just her isolated expectations.

There are several hostile emotions to watch out for. But seemingly hostile emotions sometimes show up in a non-hostile form. For example, there are plenty of non-hostile forms of anger.

While anger is perhaps the best example of a hostile emotion, this emotion need not be hostile. For example, you may feel angry about how things have turned out for you, yet not hold anyone responsible for your misfortune.

Imagine you are incredibly busy at work when your child’s teacher calls you to request that you pick up your son who has come down with a fever. As you get off the call, you seethe with anger, yet you are not angry at the teacher. Nor are you angry at your son. You just feel angry. This is an example of targetless anger, or what we call “frustration.” It’s this kind of anger that causes children to throw temper tantrums in grocery stores and adults to kick vending machines that won’t deliver. (“Venting machine” may be a more fitting term.)

We also sometimes experience targetless anger when grieving a traumatic loss. For example, you may feel angry about the traumatic loss of your spouse without being angry at him or at anyone else. In the envisaged case, your anger is a kind of protest against the unfair turn of events. This is also typically a non-hostile form of anger.

In the next post, we will have a closer look at some of the hostile emotions—as well as what they mean and how to deal with them.


Brogaard, B. (2020). Hatred: Understanding Our Most Dangerous Emotion, Oxford University Press.