When Anger Becomes Emotional Abuse

The way couples deal with anger can often make or break a relationship. Don’t settle for screaming matches and slamming doors. Here, a therapist offers tips to help you effectively communicate anger in your relationship.

Anger is a natural and normal human emotion that tends to make its presence known in any relationship, even if it is not addressed at the person to whom it is being expressed. Unfortunately, anger often rears its head in our interactions with those we love the most, including our romantic partners. But passion in a relationship shouldn’t mean that emotions like anger are expressed in uncontrollable ways. Managing anger and managing your response to an angry partner is a useful skill that can promote intimacy and maturity in any romantic relationship.

As a therapist, I often challenge my clients to think about how their reactivity in a relationship gets in the way of who they want to be as a partner. So often we shut down, complain to friends, or try and control our partner as a response to our anger. While these strategies may feel relieve us in the moment, they are rarely effective in the long-term. Let’s take a look at four simple strategies for managing anger and growing maturity in your relationship.

Avoid the Impulse to Cut Off

When a person is fighting with their significant others, sometimes they may feel the urge to slam a door and give them the silent treatment. Going silent can calm you down temporarily, but it is likely to increase your partner’s anxiety or anger. This doesn’t mean you have to sit down and solve a problem in the heat of the moment. Instead of quickly zooming out of the driveway or walking away, consider telling your partner that you need some time to calm down so you can organize your thinking. Let them know that it’s important to you to work out difference and consider what’s an appropriate amount of time for you to think and come back to them.

If your partner tends to give you the silent treatment when you’ve forgotten an anniversary or skipped dinner with their parents, you’ve probably experienced some anxiety not knowing what’s going to happen. You can’t make them talk to you, but you can share that you’re ready to share your thinking and work together when they’re ready. Trying to coerce or threaten them into a quick reconciliation is likely to backfire and cause them to cutoff even more.

Focus on Managing Yourself (And Not Your Partner)

When someone we love is angry with us, often we feel compelled to appease and soothe them as quickly as possible. But we ultimately can’t control anyone’s thoughts, behaviors, or emotions—we’re only tasked with managing our own. Being calm is much more effective than trying to calm someone else, and people who can stay focused on managing their own anxiety and reactions give the other person the space to do the same. So instead of saying, “Please calm down!”, try taking a few deep breaths and slowing your own heart rate.

Similarly, if you’re angry with your partner and want them to change a behavior, your attempt at controlling them is likely to produce a negative reaction. The goal is to share your thinking with the hope that you’ll be heard, not to shame the other person. Remember, it’s unlikely that you will be heard if your words and behaviors are lighting up the fear-response in your partner’s brain. Immaturity begets immaturity so often in relationships. It might feel critical to send a rude text to your partner while they’re at work or wake them up in the middle of the night with your grievances, but these strategies rarely accomplish more than escalating a conflict.

Be Aware of Triangles

When you’re furious or peeved at a partner, it can feel cathartic to complain to a friend, your child, or even your therapist. When we use a third person to manage our stress about another, this is often called an emotional triangle. Wanting to vent is completely human and it is not wrong. But sometimes this “triangling” keeps us from working out the problem in the original relationship and it can leave your partner feeling isolated or even make them more defensive. So the next time you’re upset with your spouse, and you’re tempted to pick up the phone, ask yourself, “Am I asking for help or just looking for someone to agree with me?” If it’s the latter, maybe try calming yourself down before asking for someone else to do so. And while there’s nothing wrong with sharing relationship conflict with your therapist, be aware that it’s their job to be neutral and help you do your best thinking—not to agree with you that your partner is the villain of the story.

Look Past the Issues

As individuals, there are certain topics which are likely to ignite an angry reaction or an anxious reaction that can lead to conflict. Often these are topics like money, politics, religion, sex, parenting, or family drama. It’s easy to assume that having different opinions can produce anger and conflict, but more often it’s our immature reactions to these topics rather than our actual opinions. So rather than getting hung up on resolving conflict as quickly as possible, shift your focus back to responding as maturely as you possibly can. This doesn’t mean you need to put up with abuse or volatility from a partner, or even than you have to stay in a relationship. Maturity simply looks like being willing to not let your emotions totally run the show. It looks like asking, “What is the best version of myself doing in this situation?” And you’re unlikely to see your best self slamming doors or screaming at people you love.

If you feel overwhelmed by the amount of anger in your romantic relationship, remind yourself that you are 50% of the equation. If you’re calmer and more mature, then your relationship will be calmer and more mature. Perhaps your partner will rise to the same level of maturity, or perhaps you’ll realize that the relationship isn’t right for you. Either way, you’re choosing not to let anger run the show. When one person can make that choice for themselves, they’re likely to find a partner who can do the same.

Kathleen Smith, PhD

In my private psychotherapy practice, I specializing in sex addiction therapy. I work with adults in both individual therapy and couples work. I work with a number of sexually addicted/compulsive men and women (gay, bi and straight), and am very familiar with many sexual scenes and behaviors. I work with a non-pathological approach towards sexual behavior. I find it useful to assist people in understanding the forces within that cause them to use sex as a way of coping with difficult emotions, increased stress, and fears or insecurities about their abilities to be emotionally and sexually intimate with others. I have over 16 years of clinical experience. My background and advanced training as a Clinical Psychologist allows me to quickly identify conflicts and set about working deeply with layers of complexity we all face as human beings in sexual bodies in relationship with others and with the world.