Christine Treski, LMFT

Getting angry is a normal part of life and, like it or not, it is also a normal occurrence in relationships. Anger can be caustic and harmful between two people if it is not handled well. It can exacerbate problems, prevent productive communication, and inhibit problem solving. Understanding your anger can help you to control or change how you respond to it.

What you FEEL from the EMOTION

Even though we use the words emotions and feelings interchangeably, they are actually two distinct, but closely related, things. Simply put, they are two sides of the same coin.

The EMOTION of anger is universal, occurring in all humans, regardless of culture or genetic make-up. The FEELING of anger is a byproduct of the emotion, where your brain has recognized the emotion and assigns meaning to it. Feelings are linked to beliefs, personal experiences, memories, and thoughts. How anger makes you feel is what creates problems or harmful responses in people.

Underneath the Anger

Anger is a basic emotion and can be thought of as the protective wall of more vulnerable feelings (I.E. beliefs and thoughts fueled by experiences and memories). For example: You get angry with a friend for assuming you will go to whatever restaurant they pick without asking your opinion. Your anger comes first (and maybe quickly), but the vulnerable feeling could be rejection, fueled by the belief your friend doesn’t value your opinion.

Anger in Relationships

To better understand anger within relationships, you can think of it as having three main functions. When you get angry with another person, one of the following is likely at play:

  • You are attempting to get something (your way, or a person’s attention)
  • You are asserting independence (from imbalance or control)
  • You are attempting to protect yourself emotionally

As you contemplate your own experience of feeling angry toward others, you will likely see these there functions are at play. Consider this example: A woman yells “shut up already!” in the midst of her spouse giving an explanation of why he is late getting home. The woman’s anger could be a function of trying to get her spouse’s attention because she wants her perspective to be heard. The vulnerable feeling underneath could be dismissed, fueled by a worry that her spouse is losing interest in her.

It is inevitable that you will get angry from time to time in any relationship, but it also possible to control how you respond to it. Take some time to contemplate these productive and non-harmful ways to respond to anger:

  • If you are trying to get something: Use “I” statements and make a request for what you want. “I don’t feel heard…can you listen to my side of this?”
  • If you are asserting independence: Identify whatever specific behavior triggered your belief of imbalance or being controlled. Check in about accuracy of your belief, and offer a different plan or solution. “When you leave your dirty dish next to the sink, it makes me think you expect me to always do the dishes. Is that true? I would like you to share that chore with me.”
  • If you are trying to protect yourself from feeling hurt: Use “I” statements to express the softer, vulnerable feelings underneath and make a request for support or caring. “I’m upset you came home late because it makes me worry you aren’t invested in our relationship. Can you understand how this makes me feel bad?”

When to Seek Help

If anger is common and problematic in your relationships, you should get assistance. Problematic reactions to anger are sometimes rooted in childhood experiences, are linked to past abuse, or are learned behaviors from caregivers or long-standing family patterns. It is possible to heal and change your reaction to this emotion. There are books, classes, seminars, groups, and one-on-one support available. If you believe you have anger management concerns, contact a therapist to discuss the best options for you.

It is important to note that if you are the perpetrator or the victim of physical abuse or psychological terrorism, you are dealing with complicated and dangerous expressions of anger that require outside support and assistance. Do not suffer alone. Call 911 or the National Domestic Violence helpline: 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224.