How to manage anger in relationships

Many people argue that anger is a normative and often healthy emotion, that it motives us to stick up for our rights, values, boundaries, and helps us in dangerous situations.  This is all true!  But there is a very corrosive aspect to anger in close relationships that often overshadows any possible benefits.  For the purpose of this blog, anger does not mean annoyance, frustration, or dislike.  It can be healthy and constructive to express those emotions to your partner because expressing them can reasonably be heard and understood.   And they can also lead to positive change and increase intimacy.

Feeling angry in this blog means having increased negative emotional arousal which produces judgments.  Judgment increases arousal which produces more judgment and leads to inaccurate and ineffective expression of emotions and desires.   This cycle results in misunderstandings and conflict and rarely leads to effective change.  As a result, angry feelings and expressions in intimate relationships almost always create distance, the enemy of closeness and intimacy.

Using description is the best way to defuse this destructive cycle of judgment, negative arousal, misunderstanding, and conflict (Marsha Linehan, 1993).  If we can describe the situation or reaction (sensations, emotions, and wants) and notice how our reactions make sense, most often our emotions will be soothed, we will return to a more balanced perspective, and act effectively (Nhat Hanh, 1975).

One benefit of the strength of anger is that it is easy to notice which can become a signal that we are going down a destructive path.  We can learn to notice this alarm and respond by reorienting our attention to look for judgment then letting the judgment go and not giving it any power. Then you can turn your attention to description instead.  After our anger has dissipated, we can then act more effectively which at that point will be much more authentic and effective.



Karen (Kyle) McMahan, MFT is a Couples Therapist and Marriage Counselor @The San Francisco Marriage and Couples Center