Anger in Romantic Relationships–Navigating Emotional Expression With Your Partner (Part I)

The way couples handle their disagreements, disappointments, and anger have a significant impact on the satisfaction of the relationship.

Have you ever found yourself in an argument with your partner that started over something silly or small, like the toothpaste cap being left off or not bringing your significant other a latte after you made a personal stop at the coffee shop on the way home? Maybe you and your partner were in a car headed some place new and the co-pilot informed the driver that you guys have just missed a turn, which irritated the driver and he/she made a passive-aggressive comment about the co-pilot’s navigation skills. The co-pilot became defensive and yelled at the driver and you two were off to the races! Resonate at all?

Couples will tend to find themselves in the same conflict cycles despite different triggers being the instigating factors. Inability to share more vulnerable feelings (humiliation, fear, inadequacy, etc.) contributes to couples becoming stuck in unhelpful attack-defend cycles as a protective mechanism, which creates distance and a disconnection between partners. If you reflect on and pinpoint what it is you are truly angry about in an argument, you will often find a larger or different issue behind what seems to present. When we struggle to communicate our needs or feelings with our partners, an emotion that feels most comfortable to express is often anger. However, anger is often a cover-up for deeper, more vulnerable feelings, such as: fear, hurt/reject, anxiety, shame, loneliness, disappointment, guilt, worry, embarrassment, or being overwhelmed.

The way couples handle their disagreements, disappointments, and anger have a significant impact on the satisfaction of the relationship. We begin to learn styles and forms of communication at a very early age through our observations and interactions with our families and the world around us and we bring these accumulated experiences and techniques into our romantic relationships. While sometimes couples’ communication styles complement each other well and are almost effortless, for the majority of the coupled world – it may take a little more work to jell. If you find yourself in the latter category, the good news is that the unhelpful conflict pattern can be changed. Even better news: change can occur with only one individual in the relationship responding differently. Below are some suggestions to help you soften the conversation and/or diffuse the emotionally reactive intensity when you feel a storm brewing.

Being mindful of your reactivity and role in the cycle is the groundwork to changing your conflict dynamics. Become aware of your thoughts and emotions throughout an argument and notice how what you are feeling influences what you say and do. This interpersonal exchange is what contributes to the current cycle.

Respect and value your partner, even when you are angry with him/her. Give him/her the benefit of the doubt – your partner is probably not intentionally trying to send you over the edge. Pause to reflect on what it is that gave you a knee-jerk reaction to anger, and ask yourself, “Why? Why does this matter so much to me?” Be honest with yourself.

Validate your partner’s anger – do not match the anger. Resisting or denying that his/her anger is justified only perpetuates it because he/she will not feel heard or understood. When individuals within a partnership feel invalidated, it only adds fuel to the fire and increases feelings of disconnect.

Avoid blame-talk and using the words “always” and “never”. When trying to make a point, we often turn to generalizations when our argument lacks a solid foundation. For example, “You are always late!” or “You never help me with laundry!” This type of talk takes subjective perceptions and paints them as undeniable truths that attacks the person’s personal qualities and integrities. With these words present in your communications, it is likely that the blamed partner will begin to feel defensive and less likely to want to work collaboratively to resolve the conflict.

In the same vein, use I-statements instead of You-statements. When communicating with your partner, use the sentence structure “I feel _______ when X, Y, and Z happen.” For example: “I feel unimportant and lonely when we’re out to dinner together and I see you on your phone.” Each person’s emotions are valid and who better than ourselves can communicate how we feel at any moment? Rather than trying to mind-map or assume what your partner is thinking, feeling, or intending (which is a slippery slope into an attack-defend exchange), share your experience by expressing how you are feeling to open the dialogue with a sensitive start up.

These few tools can help you to develop honest and respectful communications by expressing sensitive or difficult feelings with your partner which can significantly impact your relationship and life satisfaction. Stay tuned for a later segment on how to repair and reconnect after an argument to help build a more fulfilling connection.

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