Relationship Anger

relationship anger

I don’t know about you, but I’ve always had a low opinion of anger. We all know that if mismanaged, anger can lead to hostility, aggression, rage and violence. When that happens, everyone loses. So I find myself surprised to be writing in defense of anger – specifically what I call relationship anger.


I got interested after reading an article (Why We’re All So Angry from The Atlantic) for my Sun Sounds volunteer work. The article recalls a survey conducted by University of Massachusetts psychology professor James Averill. In 1977 he contacted residents of the quiet little town of Greenfield MA. His objective was to learn about anger. Here are some of the questions he posed: try to recall the number of times you became annoyed or angry during the past week; did you wish to get back at or gain revenge; did you feel triumphant or dominant; and did the other person’s anger come as a surprise to you. What he found surprised him. Everyone was angry! Anger can not be ignored.

Anger as Problem Solver

Here’s my favorite response from the survey. A wife said that she became enraged after discovering that her husband showed his new car to his mistress before showing it to her. She confronted her husband and told him that he could keep his mistress do long as she stayed out of sight and so long as she (the wife) took priority. That arrangement pleased everyone (including the mistress I assume).

Anger, when used in this way, is powerful: it presents more honest information in a short amount of time; it focuses attention; improves listening; and forces us to confront problems. Rather than a catalyst for resentment, afterwards both parties can feel a sense of relief and  more optimism about the future. People who express anger are perceived as competent, powerful and willing to undertake difficult tasks. People “in the wrong” come to acknowledge their faults and change their ways. The result is that relationships are improved.

Dos and Don’ts

Everyone should understand their anger triggers as well as those of loved ones – the events and situations that make us (them) mad. We should rehearse (mentally or through role playing) how to respond to engage more effectively and constructively.

For those who initiate anger-infused communications, the key is to express displeasure, frustration or disappointments in a firm and controlled manner. If you have a tendency to anger quickly, don’t engage until you’re calmer (leaving the room for awhile is a good idea). Both parties should listen attentively, keep an open mind, take turns speaking, speak in a firm manner (yelling doesn’t help), not talk over the other person and paraphrase back their understanding of what the other person is saying. The conversation should ultimately conclude with acknowledgement of the cause(s) or misunderstandings, a plan to make changes and an agreement to revisit how well the changes are working.

Seeing Anger in a New Light

What I’ve learned is that handling relationship anger is like handling dynamite. If you don’t mishandle it, or light the fuse, it can be put to good work. When expressed thoughtfully and respectfully, it can make a bad situation better. The initiating party gets to air their grievance and find catharsis through venting their anger. The receiving party learns what they are doing (or not doing) that upsets the other party. (Note that just because someone initiates, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are in the right.) Together we can find ways to change for the benefit of all.

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