Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Can Screaming or Yelling Be Bad for Your Relationship?

Raising your voice is a natural mode of self-defense, but it can be misused.

The short answer is that anything in excess is usually a bad thing; this appears to be true in the case of relationships that involve a heavy dosage of screaming or yelling. By “screaming” or “yelling,” what I mean is raising one’s voice.

Many people think that they can’t help but raise their voices. They think it is “normal” and is largely out of their control. But is it really? And why do people scream or yell in the first place?

It is useful to notice that human beings are not the only animals to exhibit similar behavior. When an animal, such as a dog, is presented with an external stimulus he interprets to be threatening, he may growl or bark loudly. This verbal behavior appears to be based on the evolutionary drive for survival that is prewired.

Similarly, yelling or screaming, or other self-defensive change in intonation or behavior in humans, appears to be based on our survival instinct. Such behavioral responses are largely mediated by the brain’s limbic system, which engages a part of the brain called the amygdala. This emotional center of the brain can determine that an external event is threatening, and can activate the hypothalamus, which engages the “fight or flight” system (AKA the sympathetic nervous system).

It is notable that, in response to a threatening situation, the cerebral cortex may be engaged only after the limbic system is engaged. Say, for example, that you are taking a stroll and you see a large black Labrador retriever sitting on a lawn gazing intently at you. If you were once attacked by a Labrador, then you may immediately become agitated and enter “fight or flight” mode. Adrenalin is pumped to your muscles; your heart rate increases; your respiration increases. You can feel these changes going on inside you—for example, you feel your heart pounding.

Then, you notice that the dog is chained up and couldn't reach you if he tried. You begin to reason that you are probably not really in immediate danger, after all. As such, you react first and think second in such situations perceived as threatening. The role of our higher thought centers in the brain (the ones involved in reasoning and evaluation) is then to adjust the response.

Whether, to what extent, and how your automatic defensive response is sustained depends upon what you tell yourself about the situation. If you conclude that the dog is not really a threat, you can begin to restore your bodily response to homeostasis. If you conclude that it is still a threat (“How do I know that dog won’t break loose and come charging at me?”), then you can sustain your agitation, and may be poised to scream loudly at the dog, “Get the hell away from me!”

This does not mean that prior thought cannot engage your limbic system. Indeed, it can and often does. We human beings also have a level of secondary emotions that are not prewired responses but arise as a result of prior reasoning and evaluation. These emotions include anger in response to external events. Such secondary emotions can also lead to bodily agitation and the tendency toward self-protective responses, including yelling or screaming.

This is often the case when it comes to interpersonal relationships. Suppose, for example, that your partner is late coming home from work on your anniversary. There you are, sitting and waiting, ready to get the celebration started—but still no sign of him. You may begin to think, “How could he have done this to me on our anniversary? He must not really love me, that no good, rotten bastard!”

You then feel the anger swelling up in your body. Your heart starts pounding, you feel a lump in your throat, and you feel jittery. You are fully poised to give the “bastard” a piece of your mind as soon as he comes walking through the door, which includes raising your voice (yelling or screaming) or other verbally defensive behavioral responses.

Of course, you may tell yourself that you cannot let him know just how you are really feeling, so you could feign a nonchalant demeanor while you are raging inside. On the other hand, you could tell yourself that what he did was so awful that it must be dealt with immediately. Then, you would be giving yourself permission to hit him with both barrels, which, quite often, includes raising your voice loudly.

A major problem with such verbally aggressive responses is that they, in turn, tend to be met with similar defensive responses from the target, who may self-defensively perceive your response as being personally offensive. “It wasn’t my fault. I had to get an assignment done. You really have no right to talk to me like that!" This, in turn, can lead to further retaliation ("You didn't have the brains to call me; I hope you rot in hell!”), which can set off an escalating cycle of self-defensive responses.

Often, because one usually does some serious thinking afterwards, the result is regret. In the case of an ongoing relationship, unless there is some constructive change made, the same vicious cycle of self-protective responses is likely to be repeated again and again in the course of the relationship. The result is then further alienation and regret.

In some cases, the defensive response may be for one party to the relationship to adapt to the aggressive treatment (being scolded, for example), which leads to passive acceptance. In this form of dysfunctional relationship, the resentment continues to fester beneath the surface of the veneer of acceptability. In other cases, where there is “fighting back,” there can be constant conflict until the relationship ends. Unfortunately, some couples spend a lifetime engaging in such a self-defeating state of conflict, until one of the parties dies.

This is not to say that conflict is necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, relationships in which there is rarely or never any form of verbally expressed discontent with one’s partner may be just a façade. However, there is a difference between “heart to heart” talks about perceived problems in a relationship, and yelling or sparring matches. While the former can lead to constructive change, the latter tends to be self-destructive.

So, if you are in such a destructive combative relationship, can there be constructive change?

The first thing to realize is that, as a member of homo sapiens, your verbal outbursts, unlike the dog’s growling or loud barking, can be regulated—sustained, quashed, or avoided—by a highly developed cerebral cortex. In other words, you have the power to think rationally or irrationally about external events. Your self-protective mechanism is thus a double-edged sword. You can use it to your advantage—or you can use it to undermine your own happiness and that of your partner.

Since you can cognitively control self-defensive verbal outbursts, such as screaming and yelling, you can work toward constructive change by changing your thinking. In my clinical experience, a primary cognitive driver of self-defeating, self-defensive responses is that of demanding that others conform to one’s desires, expectations, or wishes. Thus, because you want something, you think that it must come to pass. So when your partner is late coming home on the eve of your anniversary, you reason that he must never treat you like this, and that he is therefore a "bastard." It is such a demand—that of clinging to the idea that the world must conform to your preferences—which often triggers the self-defensive response of screaming or yelling in interpersonal conflicts.

Imagine that your partner or significant other is saying or doing something that you truly don’t like. Yes, imagine this now! Are you imagining it? Let yourself feel agitated, the way you ordinarily feel when this is really happening. Are you there yet? Now, stop demanding that your partner be as you want. After all, there is no law of nature that says that he must. What goes up must come down is a function of the law of gravitation. But nowhere is there a law that says your partner must do what you want. You are free to prefer it, but the world does not have to conform to your preferences. Does such self-talk help to calm you down? It does for many, as those who have benefitted from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) would attest.

The upshot is that we have considerable control over verbal outbursts of screaming and yelling. Sure enough, it is easier to go with the flow. If you are fuming inside and you let loose a tirade of screaming and yelling—truly, some people are hard to take—remember that we all have been there; and we are also sometimes justified in raising our voices.

However, screaming or yelling can be a useful behavioral response only when it is employed according to its evolutionary purpose, which is to ward off danger. We make a grandiose mistake when we allow this mechanism to be misused in the context of interpersonal relationships. The demand for perfection—that things must be the way you want them to be—is a mode of cognition that often defeats our self-protective purpose. If we realize this, then we can begin to work on the self-destructive tendency to sound off.

More from Elliot D. Cohen Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Elliot D. Cohen Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today