The Role of Anger in Intimate Relationships

“Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree,and at the right time, and for the right purpose, andin the right way, that is not within everybody’spower, that is not easy.”  Aristotle 

In recent weeks the list serve of Imago Relationship Therapists has been home to a fascinating discussion on the nature of anger, it’s role in healthy relationships and whether it’s expression in a therapy session is useful, destructive or possibly both.  The discussion has been very rich and I post for you consideration some of the more intriguing ideas.

Dorsey Cartwright writes:   There are times in my life where I have experienced what to me was an empowering and grounding anger. Some of those times have related to injustices related to situations outside of me or setting a boundary for myself are two examples that come to mind.  While I know that anger can be a secondary reaction to underlying feelings, it also seems to me that it can stand by itself as an empowering and life enhancing emotion in and of itself. I understand that it shows up less that way in our work with couples yet I don’t want the nobility of that emotion when expressed consciously to be lost.  Doug Hickok writes:  I thought it might be interesting to share with you what my wonderful  psychodrama instructor, Dorothy Satten of the Westwood Institute, says  about anger and rage.  It is noteworthy, by the way, that “Anger and rage” are often said as  a phrase, both words together, which implies that they are the same  thing. Not according to Dorothy.  She says anger is local and focused, and it’s a natural, healthy  feeling reaction to a perceived injustice. When a person is angry, s/ he can tell you immediately exactly what that anger is about. The  person who is angry usually has a red face, may or may not use a  raised voice, and can focus clearly on the cause of the anger.Rage is global. It is unfocused, and the person who is full of rage  will often cite multiple causes, or may not be able to speak it at  all. The raging person usually has a white face, balled up fists and a  rigid body. The quiet rager will go on and on, getting more and more  worked up, but not necessarily in a noisy way.

Dorothy teaches that the appropriate approaches to anger and rage by 

the therapist are very different. …

I suspect that the mixed results many therapists get with clients when 

they do vent may be because of some confusion about this difference 

between rage and anger, and about the different approaches needed for 


Evelyn Benoit writes:  My offering is that I remember Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross saying that anger is a natural mechanism that takes fifteen seconds to say ‘no thank you’ which, if honored when the child is very young, is a wonderful tool in service of the child’s uniqueness/truth.  Unfortunately, for most, the quick ‘no thank you’ was ignored, ridiculed, punished, etc., and it is an accumulation of the response or reaction to those (usually unintended) assaults on the child’s innocence and uniqueness that grows into rage.   Judith Minter writes:   For most of us anger has been/can be frightening, either by the implied rejection of us by loved powerful ones or by violence that can accompany out-of-control anger. It can also be grounding as we look underneath at the tender underbelly of anger and find pain. But I think a lot of people confuse the energy of anger with inappropriate acting out of anger.  We don’t have to be destructive.  That is a choice.  Anger is not an excuse.  As we Imagoans know, looking at it and voicing it in a constructive way can lead us deeper into ourselves (and our partners) to learn about our needs, hurts, longings, that transforms it to a sense of relief and validation. 

Sharon Fisher writes:  Just to add another perspective on anger,  there is a book called Destructive Emotions edited by  Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence author) that is a review of a week long conversation between the Dalai Lama and 7 scientists to explore how to define and manage destructive emotions.  In the book it becomes evident that the Western viewpoint is that all emotions are not good or bad, but it depends on what you do with them, while the Buddhist perspective is that there are in fact destructive emotions, including anger, that result in  preventing a person from accessing more positive emotions such as compassion while he/she is in a state of anger, and that state of being is destructive to self and others.  There are a couple of interesting chapters on programs both in the West and the East that focus on teaching children how to develop emotion regulation skills while enhancing their ability to access positive emotions such as empathy and compassion, along with strong evidence that mindfulness meditation strengthens one’s ability to access positive emotions and regulate one’s affect.

Thomas Wagner writes: When Winnicott writes about destruction he is referring not to a pure affect of anger/rage but to a merging of anger and certain cognitions in the form of fantasies.  Such is the stuff of war, cruelty, tyranny and most of the horrors of human history.  And yet, destructive fantasies are a part of being human–from infancy to old age.  One can live with destructive fantasies and still be a loving, compassionate person.  What is needed is awareness, not discharge.  It is helpful to vent anger only if awareness is brought to bear–awareness of the feelings and the narrative meanings attached to the anger (which can be infinitely varied).  This leads to understanding and integration.  (Thus, Winnecott’s genius in working with chidren.)  This is why bombing the hell out of Poland did not reduce Hitler’s rage. Serial killers are not satiated by their first murder.  Couples do not become mellower as a result of their all-out screaming battles.  In each case, discharge is positive reinforcement, which leads to escalation. Rage is part of a protective affective-cognitive complex.  What is protected is pain, which may also be out of awareness.  I think this is central to Imago.  Rage by itself is neither a toxin nor an elixir.

 It is important not to think of anger as a thing–like a toxic chemical–that needs to be discharged.  Anger is a physiologically-based affect that is attached to certain thought patterns.  Most personality theories recognize that anger is invoked as a protection against feelings of vulnerability.  Parents who scream at their children experience momentary relief–which is reinforcing.  It gives them the momentary sensation of conquering their vulnerability.  Spouse abusers experience this too, which is why, in spite of all the remorse, the violence escalates.  They become addicted to their anger.  In the ’70s there were a number of cathartic therapies–scream therapy, primal therapy, bioenergetics–premised on the idea that if we just got that stuff out of our system… Well, not so much in vogue anymore.  However, there is an important place for anger expression in therapy–if it is accompanied by mindfulness of the underlying hurt, or as Jeffrey Young might put it, the Angry Child uncovers the Vulnerable Child.
This is not an argument against anger-containment exercises, but a caution against thinking that pleasurable relief resulting from anger expression (endorphin rush) is a sign of new relational patterns being established. 
He further shares:  Both injustice and hopelessness pervade anger at all levels from irritation to rage–along with  many other attitudes.  Expression and containment both play a role, but the goal as I see it is integration and revising the neural pathways.  Containment and expression do not by themselves unravel the incredibly complex tangle of pain, fear, anger, longing, projection, armor, memories etc. that make people so richly fascinating (and miserable) it is important to look closely at the subtle workings of affects–especially anger–since it plays such a huge role in the difficulties of couples communicating.  I believe it is important to neither demonize anger as something to avoid at all costs or to idealize it as some sort of elixer of the soul.  Most of our discussion of anger is based on subjective experience, which can be distorted in the service of an ideal self.  Clients I work with tend to view their own anger as a transmitter of truth and justice, whereas the anger of the spouse is viewed as a sure sign of lunacy.  So it goes.
     Anger is spoken of in varying ways: irritation, annoyance, contempt, resentment, arrogance, rage and so on.  These are not unique, self-contained affects but rather the way anger interacts with other affects and thought processes.  The intensity of anger varies according to the degree of real threat, but also the intensity of early life trauma that is being contained.  Anger and rage are not discrete entities.  I think of rage as anger at the extreme end of a contiuum. …     Anger maybe a catalyst to experiencing insights, feelings, interactions that are quite exhilerating…or it may lead to something quite ugly.  But those positive and negative experiences do not reside in anger itself.
My own belief is that while anger seems to be a universal human emotion, what we do with it determines whether is is the catalyst towards life changing insight, growth and healing, or whether we use it as an excuse to hurt ourselves and others, creating a cycle of pain and disconnection.  Ultimately it is each individual’s responsibility to understand the source of their pain and to take the necessary steps to heal the pain.  In the end, self love and forgiveness leads to compassion, understanding and connection.

Posted by Laura

Laura Marshall, LCSW, is the founder and director of the Sagebrush Center for Relationship Therapy. Her experience spans thirty years of supporting couples and individuals to create healthy and meaningful lives and relationships. She is also adjunct faculty for the New Mexico Highlands School of Social Work. She lives with her husband Steve and five sons in Farmington, New Mexico.

Comments are closed.