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Do You Show or Discuss Your Anger Toward Your Partner?

Showing anger fosters distance, while discussing it can foster intimacy.

Key points

  • With regard to anger, it is how we make a partner feel—rather than just what we say or do—that will determine the nature of the relationship.
  • When both partners feel threatened, they lack the capacity to effectively brainstorm and problem-solve for healthy conflict resolution.
  • Cultivating skills in emotional regulation fosters the capacity to discuss rather than show anger.
123rf Stock Photo / Alexis 84
Source: 123rf Stock Photo / Alexis 84

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” –Maya Angelou

While one of Maya Angelou’s most well-known quotes applies to general discourse, it is especially critical to remember when anger arises in an intimate relationship. Especially with regard to anger, it is how we make a partner feel, rather than just what we say or do, that will determine the nature of the relationship.

Effective communication in an intimate relationship can at times be intensely challenging, especially when we are prone to show our anger rather than discuss it. Yelling at, cursing, demeaning a partner, being physically aggressive, or breaking things can reflect different ways of showing it.

Each of these behaviors is experienced as threatening and, as such, undermines the likelihood of genuinely improving emotional intimacy. This is especially the case for a partner whose physiology leaves him or her highly sensitive to experiencing threat. This baseline is strongly influenced by past experiences, both as a child and as an adult.

The impact of showing anger

Anger stems from some perceived threat, moving us toward a “fight, flight, or freeze” response. This mind/body state leads to constriction in our thinking and the potential to be more reactive than reflective in our interactions. We experience this same reaction when threatened by a show of anger. In such moments, both partners experience reduced cognitive flexibility that undermines their capacity to brainstorm and problem-solve—key components for healthy conflict resolution.

Showing anger may work in the short term, if by “work” we mean getting someone to do what we want. It might also work to avoid feeling the vulnerability of acknowledging the suffering behind our anger—feeling hurt, disappointed, diminished, anxious, fearful, or even ashamed. And it may also create distance, if that is part of our unacknowledged goal.

However, the target of such behavior may take flight by a refusal to continue talking, changing the topic, or leaving the room or house. Freezing might be reflected by shutting down, like the proverbial deer in the headlight. Fighting might be reflected when a partner responds in kind, showing their anger. Fighting may also be reflected by redirecting anger inward, being intensely self-critical and even blaming oneself for being treated in such a way.

A partner may subsequently change their behavior due to their own fears of conflict and lack of confidence. In doing so, he or she ignores how they are feeling impacted following such interactions. However, in the long term, this is a formula for isolation and a fractured relationship.

Defusing the threat

By contrast, statements about feeling irritated, annoyed, or angry, and the feelings that prompt such anger, are least threatening when expressed in a calmer tone. Defusing the tone may also be achieved by first sharing those more vulnerable feelings that prompt our anger. Some individuals may be so reactive to threat that focusing initially on anger may feel threatening—even if stated in a lowered voice. Initiating the conversation by sharing the anger, even in a quiet voice, may be experienced as more threatening than first sharing the real hurt behind anger.

Clearly, transforming destructive anger entails first engaging in self-reflection in order to recognize the feelings behind our anger. Doing so builds a relationship with ourselves and with our partner. It is a preemptive strategy that can reduce the likelihood of our anger generating anger that in turn escalates conflict. More authentic expression of the vulnerable feelings behind anger promotes increased mutual understanding. It emphasizes a yearning for closeness and a greater connection in the relationship.

Coming physically closer to each other and engaging in good eye contact is another way to defuse the tone. Closeness and eye contact reflect presence with each other. This stands in contrast to talking from across the room. Certainly, this calls for being respectful of a partner’s comfort with such closeness.

The need for skills in emotional regulation

Cultivating skills in emotional regulation allows us to recognize and sit with the full range of our emotions, including anger. It includes learning strategies to constructively manage how we respond to these feelings. This calls for learning strategies to reign in anger arousal in our body in order to create calmness for self-reflection. This can be especially challenging if you are prone to showing your anger.

We can’t simply override our emotional brain if it has dominated our reactivity for many years. This is not a sign of weakness. Rather, it reflects the neuroscience regarding learning and habits. The more we repeat certain thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, the more we train our brain to make it more likely we have those thoughts feelings, and behaviors. Learning new skills to discuss rather than show our anger, requires time, commitment, and practice. But doing so can have a powerful influence on the well-being of our relationships.

Fortunately, developing greater emotional regulation can be achieved through the practice of skills rooted in key theories of behavior and emotion. These include cognitive behavioral theory, acceptance and commitment theory, self-compassion and compassion training, and assertiveness skills.

Defusing the tone with assertive communication

Assertive communication is founded on emphasizing how we are impacted, the feelings behind our anger, and the key desires or needs that feel threatened. Below is a template for assertive communication, especially as it relates to anger.

  1. I really love you and care about our relationship.
  2. And, when you ____ (a specific behavior), I feel __________ (identify the feelings behind your anger).
  3. When I feel ______ (those feelings behind your anger) I sometimes feel _____ (irritated, annoyed, angry).
  4. Next time, I hope you would _______ instead.

It’s important to remember that this takes time to get right. Also, it emphasizes the importance of stating your desire for how you wish your partner will behave the next time. However, it’s important to remember that it is a negotiating moment. There may or may not be an initial agreement. The capacity to be assertive calls for being connected with oneself to recognize not only feelings that lead to anger, but also key desires or needs that feel threatened.

Such candid discussion can foster an improved commitment in a relationship. Sadly, it may also lead to an acknowledgment of irreconcilable differences. And unfortunately, as I’ve observed in my practice, for some individuals showing anger was a distraction from the sadness of recognizing and admitting such differences.

Being open to learning these skills is based on recognizing that how you manage your anger is a habit. And, as when learning any new habit, it might feel awkward, silly, or even uncomfortable when you practice new ones. However, doing so is essential if you wish to gain sufficient composure to discuss rather than show your anger. It is vital if you want your partner to attend to your message, rather than the threat triggered by how you express it. And, it is crucial for a healthier, more intimate, and fulfilling relationship.

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