Are you worried about how anger is affecting your relationship? Psychologist Dr. Leslie Becker-Phelps explains how anger can be used constructively in a relationship — and how to tell when it’s become destructive.
Q: Is anger in a relationship always bad?
A: In short, no. Anger, just like other emotions, is neither good nor bad. Anger does, however, signal that something is wrong. The real question is what you do with that information — you can use it either constructively or destructively.
Q: Is it better to get angry than to internalize those feelings?
A: Again, anger is a feeling, not an action. It is best to acknowledge your anger when you feel it. Then you can think about what is triggering the anger, gaining a better understanding of your thoughts and feelings. For instance, after some reflection, you might realize that your anger is really a response to initially feeling hurt; you might also realize that you think your partner is being dismissive of you. By looking at your experience in this manner, you can gain perspective about it and then decide how you want to proceed.
Q: How can you use anger constructively in a relationship?
A: It is often helpful to think about what you want to gain from expressing your anger. Do you just want to vent? Do you want an apology or change? Or, do you want to be understood? Once you know what you want, you can think about how you can best get it. So, for instance, yelling at your partner might be cathartic, but it is unlikely to result in a compassionate response.
You can express anger constructively by sharing your feelings with your partner, not venting them at him or her. State the behavior that upset you and how it affected you, both in feeling (i.e., hurt, anger) and thought (i.e., seeing the action as disrespectful). Then state what you would like your partner to do differently and how that new behavior will affect you. For instance, “If you tell me when you will be late, I will feel like you care about me and I will be more understanding.”
It is often helpful to take time to really think about an upsetting situation; you might come to understand your partner or the situation in a different, less angry way. For example, you might realize that you are really reacting to more vulnerable emotions (i.e., hurt, loneliness) that are more likely to pull for a sympathetic response — assuming your partner really cares about you and understands your pain.
Here’s a specific example: Let’s say you get angry when your husband leaves his dirty, rolled-up socks on the bedroom floor after you have repeatedly asked him not to do this. With some thought, you realize that his continuing to do this leaves you feeling like he doesn’t care about you and that this hurts. When you explain both what his action is saying to you and how you feel, he very well might respond sympathetically — explaining that he does care, but that it never seemed like that big a deal to him; he might even apologize for upsetting you. Perhaps he will change his ways, with a few reminder prompts from you. Or, perhaps you will feel less upset by those stinky socks because he has affirmed that he does care. At the very least, it is now a subject open to discussion, which means the lines of communication in your relationship are also open.
Finally, pay particular attention if you notice a pattern of trying to talk about issues and your partner not being responsive, either by showing no concern or by not trying to work with you to change things. This might be an important signal that the relationship is no longer serving your needs. Perhaps it is time to take more drastic measures, such as couples counseling, or even letting go and moving on.
Q: How can you tell when anger has crossed the line from constructive to destructive?
A: When you and your partner are acting more like opposing sides than like a team, then something needs to change. Also, if you find that you are often more concerned with protecting your “side” than improving your relationship, then your relationship is off track.
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