Question: I'm curious about anger in relationships – what causes it and how can I understand it better?


Answer: Let's acknowledge first that anger is a complex emotion with many possible sources and that its expression can produce both good and bad results.

Anger signals something important about a person's relationship to the environment – often the social environment – our relationships with others. Angry feelings influence how we respond to a situation – and may be positively adaptive or counterproductive. Anger is designed to regulate (return to emotional balance) our interpersonal behaviours, which we learn from our interpersonal experiences with caregivers, peers, and the bigger society we live in. Cultures have what are called "display rules" which teach us when, to whom, and how to express anger in culturally acceptable ways.

When animals feel their own survival or the survival of their offspring is threatened, they become aggressive and will do whatever is necessary to restore safety – and connection to their environment, to their young. We humans share these instincts, but we also have powers of reason, moral judgment and empathy that can moderate reactivity if we allow them to. Several factors can influence how and whether we do or don't override instinctual aggression, or if we are able to regulate ourselves and reestablish collaboration in a relationship. How we perceive or appraise the verbal and nonverbal behaviour of another, our assumptions about others' motives and feelings about us, how we learned as children to express and calm angry feelings, and the baseline arousal level in our nervous system, which can be heightened by a trauma history for example, will play some part in what triggers anger in a relationship and how we manage it or contain it.

Children who are exposed to high levels of anger-based marital conflict develop an emotional organization in which anger predominates. When children are rated as angry or aggressive over months or years, they will show a long-term pattern (into adolescence and adulthood) of being adversarial in relationships. The more anger-based conflict between parents to which children are exposed, the more interpersonal relationships (child-peer, child-teacher, and child-parent) in which the children display high levels of aggression themselves. Both anger and contempt communicate something about the expressor being superior or dominant in an interaction. This also involves an element of belittling in which the 'smallness' of the other person is emphasized to provoke distress in that person.

We can see in many different ways the role of anger as a relationship-regulator in adult relationships. If one member of a couple threatens the relationship in a dramatic way, by having an affair for example, or in more subtle ways, by failing to be considerate or take into account the other's point of view, anger will often be provoked in the other partner as a 'protest' against the felt disruption of security. The angry partner may not be consciously aware, under the influence of the pressure and heat of anger, that it is this primal sense of connection that they are fighting for. It is crucial therefore, in order to establish or re-establish security in a relationship, that the partners have the capacity to see the other as having a psychological perspective and feelings of his or her own. This is called mindsight, the ability to perceive and make sense of our own internal experience and that of another in a way that reflects understanding and concern.

Someone who wants to be able to work positively and productively with their own or another’s anger would be learning how to listen with a genuine interest in what is fuelling the fire of the anger. This often means that a person in a relationship feels an injustice has been committed by the other, a betrayal, a hurt of some kind, a feeling of not being valued and respected. The important thing is learning compassion, how to be with - rather than against - oneself or another person, how to be flexible in our thinking and being open to different ways of looking at a situation we find ourselves in, or trying to imagine what the situation might be like for the other person, as difficult as that sometimes can be. We all want to feel secure and valued in a relationship. The most effective treatments for anger will encourage and help to establish internal security and esteem that is the foundation for healthy relationships.


Bea Donald, M.A., R.C.C., B.C.A.M.F.T., is a Program Manager and Clinical Supervisor of the Family Counselling / Employee Assistance Program at Family Services of the North Shore. Questions? Write This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or call 604-988-5281.