Does Anger Help or Hurt Relationships?

Sometimes letting the steam out of the pot can be helpful in avoiding future resentment, provided both of you learn to be non-reactive, to not take it personally, and to not say hurtful things when angry or irritated.
09/25/2013 12:41 pm ET Updated Nov 25, 2013

Most of us assume that anger always hurts relationships, but is this true?

I grew up next door to my parents' best friends. They were like second parents to me, and I spent much time sharing my feelings, hopes and dreams with Betty. Unlike my own mother, she was a great listener.

Since I was there a lot, I also heard the bickering that often went on. Was this a positive or negative in their relationship?

Betty and Morrie are now 98 and 100 years old, still married, still bickering, still taking their daily walks and still extremely alert. Whatever they are doing, it has worked for them.

In the 45 years of working with my clients, I've learned some important things about anger and relationships that I'd like to share with you.

  • Rage is always hurtful to a relationship. Dumping your rage on your partner is a form of control that creates fear in your partner. Fear and love do not co-exist, so the more fear, the less love. Raging at your partner indicates that you are not taking loving care of yourself and instead you are trying to make your partner do what you want him or her to do. Rage generally indicates that you have not accepted your helplessness over others and you are using intimidation to control them. While they might comply for the moment, the negative consequences on a relationship are generally major.
  • The kind of in-the-moment bickering that Morrie and Betty do can be helpful, provided that neither person takes it personally. The bickering is like letting the steam out of a pot of boiling water -- it can take the edge off the daily challenges, but only if both people are able to not be reactive to it -- to let it go by them rather than to take seriously anything that partners say when irritated.

Most of us get irritated at times, and it is often healthier to express it than to repress it, but it's vitally important that you not hit below the belt by saying hurtful things to your partner.

Irritation and bickering indicate that there are ways you are not taking loving care of yourself, so use your irritation to learn about how you might be abandoning yourself. While getting irritated here and there is fine, don't let it stop there. Do your inner work to discover what the underlying issue is for you so that you can take loving action in your own behalf.

  • Practice not taking your partner's anger or irritation personally. Others' behavior is about them, not about you. When you learn to not take it personally, then you can let it go and not harbor your own anger and irritation in response to theirs. What can be harmful in relationships is the negative circle that partners can get into when they fight and blame each other, without doing their inner work to explore their own irritations.
  • Learn to be non-reactive to your partner's anger or irritation. Imagine the energy of their anger flying over you and past you rather than going into your heart. While you might want to argue with them and point out where they are wrong, or try to resolve an issue, you need to accept that he or she can't hear you when they are angry. Trying to resolve something when one or both are angry is a waste of time and energy.

The time to resolve an issue is when both of you are open to learning about yourselves and each other, and both of you are caring about yourselves and each other. This means doing your own inner work before trying to resolve anything with your partner. Issues are often easy to resolve when both people are open and caring, but impossible when one or both are closed and angry.

The conclusion I've drawn is that sometimes letting the steam out of the pot can be helpful in avoiding future resentment, provided both of you learn to be non-reactive, to not take it personally, and to not say hurtful things when angry or irritated.

Margaret Paul, Ph.D. is a relationship expert, best-selling author, and co-creator of the powerful Inner Bondingᅡᆴ self-healing process, recommended by actress Lindsay Wagner and singer Alanis Morissette, and featured on Oprah. To begin learning how to love and connect with yourself so that you can connect with others, take advantage of our free Inner Bonding eCourse, receive Free Help, and take our 12-Week eCourse, "The Intimate Relationship Toolbox" - the first two weeks are free! Discover SelfQuestᅡᆴ, a transformational self-healing/conflict resolution computer program. Phone or Skype sessions with Dr. Margaret Paul.

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