Dealing with anger in relationships
Anger is one of the “big 6” basic emotions – along with disgust, surprise, sadness, fear and happiness.
Understanding anger can help you keep your relationships strong so that you can better discern when it’s best to express it, and when to let it go. Anger can be a force for good and provide energy to fight injustice, but it can also damage relationships if it’s expressed in harmful ways.
There are a few common myths about anger that you’ve probably heard before. Let’s explore what’s myth versus what’s reality when it comes to managing anger. Most of this is from the fantastic book Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion by psychologist Carol Tavris (highly recommended).
Myth 1: Anger is always harmful and to be avoided.
Actually, anger is just information, letting you know that you’re perceiving an injustice and it’s causing a physical reaction you’re interpreting as “angry.” Maybe your throat gets tight, your hands are shaking or your stomach hurts. It’s an energy that can be used for good or harm.
It’s worth investigating a few important questions before you decide whether to express your anger or let it go: What is the “perceived injustice” that’s bugging you? Does it make sense for you to interpret the situation this way? Could there be other interpretations?
Let’s say your partner lets you down by showing up to dinner two hours later. It’s normal that you’re angry. The “perceived injustice” may be that you feel they don’t value your time. You may need some repair, reassurance and to discuss the underlying problem- lateness and how it impacts you.
You could choose to let this go without discussing how you’re feeling, but then the pattern of lateness might continue because your partner won’t know how much it bothers you. On the other hand, you could lash out and tell your partner they’re an inconsiderate jerk. That probably won’t get you what you want, either.
There’s a middle way: telling your partner how you feel and asking for what you need. “I’m really upset when you’re late to dinner. It makes me feel unimportant to you. I need you to be on time.”
Many people don’t know how to express anger without criticism or contempt – but it’s a skill you can learn if you want to. Couples counseling can help if both of you are having trouble with this.
In summary: Anger is not always harmful. In fact, it’s just information. By paying attention to anger, you’ll learn something about yourself, the situation, or the other person. When you decide to share that you’re angry, remember to do so in a calm and descriptive way instead of attacking them.
Myth 2. It’s always good to express and vent your anger.
Do you want to live in a world where this is the case?
Letting things go, occasionally repressing anger, is called being polite. If you give yourself permission to let loose your anger every time it gets triggered, you’ll probably be taking a lot of your own stress out on other people.
Research also shows that venting your anger to friends and family actually makes you angrier and angrier. You’re basically rehearsing your grievances and feeling them more deeply with each telling.
So if your partner upset you, talk to your partner about it first. Maybe talk to one close friend or your therapist. But keep in mind that simply complaining about your partner, rather than exploring your own feelings, needs and perceptions, will not help you in the long run.
Instead, focus on how you can manage your own feelings, what your boundaries are, and what you need to ask for in the relationship that you aren’t getting. What caused your anger, and how do you want to deal with that underlying issue?
If you’re feeling angry often, consider what perceived injustices are triggering that for you. Are they fair? Or could you re-interpret what’s making you feel so angry, so that you actually feel less angry? Our thoughts impact our emotions, and if we’re telling ourselves a story about how we are the victim of a lot of injustices, we’re likely to be angry most of the time. And that may not be helpful.
In summary: Anger is a useful emotion to pay attention to, but “venting” or expressing it all the time isn’t a good strategy.
Myth 3. Men get angry more often than women, and are more direct with their anger.
Actually, men, women and people with other genders get angry the same amount of time. If there is a difference in how they express anger, it’s probably because of social and cultural norms, family backgrounds and life experiences, not innate traits. In other words, we have more in common than not.
If anger is a frequent emotion in your relationship, working with a couples counselor could help you to figure out why and learn healthier ways of talking about it with each other. Feel free to reach out for a free consultation.
*Most of the information in this post comes from the fantastic book Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion by Carol Tavris.