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Managing Anger in Relationships

This is part of a series of blogs looking at communication and conflict in relationships. This blog looks at managing anger in relationships in ways that prevent communication from breaking down.  Research by John Gottman and his team (see link below) pinpoints destructive anger as being one of the biggest predictors of relationship distress and divorce.


Strong feelings are sometimes referred to as “flooded reactions” – we feel overwhelmed and out of our depth. Deeply felt emotions may be triggered, especially when we are with someone we care deeply about – but this is simply our nervous system, wired to anticipate danger.  Once we understand this, we can start to find ways of managing and calming our nervous systems. 

Some helpful strategies for managing anger

  • Take a break…

When you notice that one or both of you seem to be flooded and overwhelmed, then it is important to agree to take a break from the conversation. This works best if both partners agree to a signal that it’s time to take a break from the conversation. It really works as a preventative strategy, before things escalate. One research study identified a 20-minute break on average for the parasympathetic anti-stress hormones to put the brakes on our runaway emotions.

Once you both agree on how to signal a break, plan on doing anything that helps you to avoid “distress rehearsing thoughts,” playing over in your mind what just happened. Thinking about your partner and the conversation keeps the physiology going. Instead, read, take a walk, meditate, listen to the radio or podcast. Do anything that takes your mind off the incident.

  • …But talk about it later

    “Repair is the life jacket for relationships.” Dr. John Gottman

Taking time out is not the same as ignoring a difficult situation or interaction. After you are both calm enough to have a conversation, make sure you approach each other to try again. At some point, it can be very helpful to discuss what triggers might have been pushed.

For example: “I think my strong reaction to you talking about money might have something to do with the stress I’m under at work at the moment. My boss was really awful today – I’m thinking I’m going to have to look for another job.”  It’s not an excuse – it’s not saying the angry words were OK, but this is the time for the partner to show compassion, not judgment. Your partner has made themselves vulnerable and is trying to make amends. A great response would be to validate your partner’s vulnerability – “I can see why my talking in an anxious way about our finances could trigger you after a day like that.” Recognising that triggers are often unconscious and involuntary helps to get another perspective on understanding what happened.

  • Helpful anger (or emotional attunement)

Relationship research informs us that feeling heard and respected, especially when sharing difficult emotions related to the partner and/or to the relationship leads to what Gottman calls “emotional attunement”. Emotional attunement is the best and fastest way to build trust in a relationship. His research has shown that the following skills can, with practice, help us to successfully navigate our way through challenging situations and strong feelings including anger:

  • Non-defensive listening – having an open mind, ready to look at all sides of what is happening
  • Empathy – the capacity to put ourselves in our partner’s shoes and see things from their point of view
  • Validation – saying things like “I totally get why you would feel like that…”
  • Curiousity – I wonder what’s really going on here? I wonder what would help us to get past this stuck place?
  • Describing oneself not one’s partner – A good “I” statement takes responsibility for one’s own feelings, while tactfully describing a problem.
  • Offering repair, compromise, solutions, olive branch, apologies if needed
  • De-escalating – staying calm, listening, showing respect, empathy
  • Avoiding blame
  • Asking for what you NEED 
  • Express appreciation to partner for sharing and for listening

Here are links to two excellent blogs on John Gottman’s website which continue the above themes: 

Favourite resources

These are some of my favourite writers and speakers about communication:

  1. Say What You Mean – A Mindful Approach to Non-Violent Communication –  book by Oren Jay Sofer 
  2. Rick Hanson – a series of excellent podcasts he has made with his son Forest about all kinds of human relationships . Rick is a highly respected psychologist and author.   
  3. Dr John Gottman – world-renowned for his work on marital stability and divorce prediction, John Gottman has conducted 50 years of breakthrough research with thousands of couples. He predicted divorce with 90% accuracy based on the first three minutes of a conversation. What he noticed was that couples who started their conflict conversation with criticism and elicited defensiveness in their partner ended up divorcing whereas couples who used “gentle start ups” or began their conversation expressing their feelings and needs stayed together.His excellent website contains numerous videos and blogs about his work and findings.
  4. Esther Perel “Where should we begin?” Psychotherapist Esther Perel is the New York Times bestselling author of The State of Affairs and Mating in Captivity. Her TED talks have generated more than 20 million views and she is also the host    of the popular podcast Where Should We Begin?    3 TEDtalks. See also: 


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Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541

See also: Communication StylesCommunication StylesCriticism and contemptDefensiveness and Stonewalling