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What function does anger serve in your relationship?

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

Anger is a feeling state that can range from mild irritation to intense rage. The emotion of anger often results from a sense of injustice. There is usually a goal that is being blocked in some way. Our anger can tell us a lot about what is going on underneath the anger - what's the goal and what is blocking it? In a similar sense anger is often described as being at the top of an 'anger iceberg' with other more vulnerable and raw emotions lurking beneath the surface. Sometimes its embarrassment, loneliness, sadness or fear or a combination of several emotions.

One of the hormones the brain secretes during anger is norepinephrine, which acts like an analgesic to numb us. It also secretes the amphetamine-like hormone epinephrine, which enables us to experience a surge of energy throughout our body - the adrenaline rush which can give us the illusion of feeling strong and empowered. In validating our own position we are often then invalidating the other person. And when we feel vulnerable in some way anger can serve to keep the other person at a distance giving us the illusion that we are safe and strong.

Broadly speaking it can be seen as OK for men to express anger, but often less OK for women to do so. Of course all emotions are valid and its important that we put words to it to express how we feel. Expressing how you feel does not mean its OK be aggressive or to yell and scream - this is harmful to others and does not contribute to respectful relationships or an atmosphere of openness - in fact partners often express fear and walking on eggshells around an explosively angry partner - holding back because they are not sure what will set the other off. It also does not mean its OK to talk to your partner critically or with contempt. But it is completely OK to say that you are feeling angry. If either of you are starting to get physiologically flooded its a good idea to take at least a 30 minute break, and come back to the conversation when you are calmer. If you are prone to getting angry quickly or often - its worth pondering what else is going on for you: What is your anger trying to tell you? When is this happening or more prone to happening (e.g., a particular time of day when you are tired or feeling overwhelmed)? What goal that you are wanting to achieve is getting blocked that is making you feel frustrated? What injustice do you feel is happening to you that doesn't feel fair or right, or in what way do you feel wronged? When you sit with it a bit what other emotions are you noticing?

As a Listener it is very helpful to attune to the Speaker's negative emotions. The central idea behind every negative emotion is that there is a longing that needs to be expressed. This can be difficult especially when you are feeling defensive in response to a personal attack. So its important to not take it personally. What makes this kind of listening hard is that you have to suspend your agenda and enter the Speaker's mind - see their pain and see the world from their perspective with compassion and empathy. Then look for the positive need that is beneath the Speaker's anger. Its helpful to remain curious - 'This person is angry - why is that?'. It is almost always unhelpful to tell your partner to calm down or that they are overreacting. This can communicate that the Speaker's feelings are not valid. Rather it is helpful to communicate that you understand and accept their feelings which can often help the anger subside and make them feel heard. Focus on what is the obstacle that is hindering them from reaching their goal - their longing - and how that can be met

Further reading - Here is an interesting article by Dr Leon Seltzer about anger in intimate relationships.

Disclaimer: This post is for informational and educational purposes only. It should not be taken as counselling/therapy advice or used as a substitute for such. You should always speak to your own counsellor.



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