Lashing out in anger is almost always destructive in a relationship. With an angry outburst, we hurt a person we care about. We often suffer too, with feelings of guilt and remorse, and from our partner’s reactions to being hurt by us.
Usually, we lash out in only in moments of emotional overwhelm. The anger seems to takes us over, almost like it’s not in our control.
Managing or Suppressing Anger Harms Your Relationship Too
Unhappily, the various ways we might try to control our anger to avoid lashing out can also harm our relationship. Commonly, we might work to suppress our anger by withdrawing, emotionally or physically. But this can create more distance, leaving both of us feeling more alone and less satisfied in our relationship. It may also set us up to lash out later when our guard is down, or when levels of suppressed emotion become too high.
Another strategy is to deflect our anger. For example, we might express frustration at objects or tasks. However, this is likely to leave those who care about us feeling distressed, confused, and helpless. Lastly, we might try to control our environment so that the things that make us angry don’t happen in the first place. But if we take care of things that make us angry, we’re likely to become resentful toward our partner. If we try to control our partner so they don’t do the things that make us angry, that’s not likely to work out well, either.
The good news is that by getting to know the anger, you can use it to benefit your relationship. Here’s how.
Use your anger to identify how your well-being is threatened.
Anger is a signal that you something important you need, have, or want is being denied or threatened. Thus, you can use anger to better understand yourself. To do this, recall a recent moment you felt mad in your relationship. Freeze the worst part of that moment in your mind. Trust your anger is there for a good reason. Consider that the reason for your anger goes much deeper than whatever is happening on the surface. Keep that moment frozen in your mind for the next step, where you’ll consider whether some possible deeper meanings fit for you.
The most common threats we experience in a relationship are listed below. Sit with these, one at a time, listening inward, to see if one or more of them resonates with the anger you experience in the frozen moment. If not, see if a similar word or phrases resonates better. Find the word or phrase the resonates most, and write that down.
- Uncared for
- Not good enough
- I don’t matter to you
When you name the threat your body is experiencing, you can use that to validate yourself. Tell yourself you are right to feel angry. That you deserve to have your needs met in your relationship. For example, tell yourself you are right to be angry to feel not good enough for your partner; you deserve to be accepted for who you are.
You can also use this awareness to communicate more clearly and directly to your partner. For example, you can say “I get angry when you come home late because I’m feeling threatened. I’m feeling I’m not important to you.” This clearer, more direct communication will help your partner understand where you are coming from in a constructive way.
Use your anger in your relationship to know what you want.
Anger always has a positive intention. If you can find and name yours, you can use that for more self-awareness and greater clarity in your communication. Recall a recent moment when you were angry. It can be the same incident, or a different one. With that moment in mind, sit with these common, positive intentions, one at a time, to see which one best fits your experience.
- Get through to your partner that your feelings urgently need their attention
- Be loud or big enough that your partner will listen
- Work hard enough to convince your partner you have a good reason to feel as you do
- Get your partner to stop doing something threatening to you or the relationship
- Work hard to convince your partner some negative accusation (e.g., I’m not good enough, I don’t care) isn’t true
Once you find a positive intention that resonates with your experience, first use it to validate yourself. For example, tell yourself you are right to try so hard to get your partner to see how unimportant you feel, to light a fire under them to protect you and the relationship. Then try using your positive intention to communicate more clearly with your partner. For example, “When I’m angry, I’m desperately trying to get you to see how unimportant I feel to you. I’m hoping to get you to react by showing me you do care.” This clearer communication can be the start of a constructive conversation to improve your relationship.
Use your relationship anger to invite closeness
Once you use your anger to validate the threat you are experiencing in your relationship, along with your positive intention, find a moment of anger again. Then, locate and turn your attention to where you feel the anger in your body. Next, try sending positive messages of validation to the angry energy. Notice how your anger responds to these messages. You may notice a positive shift. It can be small, and it can be profound.
Now be curious to see if notice another, more vulnerable emotion in your body underneath the anger, such as anxiety, sadness, or fear. See if you can turn your attention to and sit with the more vulnerable emotion for several minutes. Stay with that part of you, with an open, curious attitude. Listen to whatever thoughts, images, and emotions come up. Send gratitude for any new awareness you receive about your inner world.
If you feel safe, try sharing this more vulnerable feeling with your partner. Start by cuing your partner by saying something like, “I’m going to try to share with you something deeper and more vulnerable about me. Something I feel inside when I get angry.” After you’ve shared your new, more vulnerable experience, ask your partner if it is helpful to them for you to share in this way. Ask them if there is anything they’d like to share in return. Ideally, this will be a moment of more positive connection that creates more closeness and understanding between you, and opens the door to deeper sharing.
In conclusion, while anger is often destructive in relationships, it doesn’t have to be. In fact, anger is an important emotion to appreciate, turn toward, listen to, and leverage to have the relationship you deserve and need.
Remember a time you considered your anger to be destructive to one of your relationships. In hindsight, can you identify how your anger may have been trying to help you? Can you imagine a redo, where you use your anger constructively?