Avoiding Angry Downward Spirals in Your Romantic Relationships
Does getting angry help you solve your problems with other people? Many people seem to think so, and this belief can also be found in psychological theories about anger. According to this view, the anger that people feel when they are mistreated or frustrated is useful because it motivates them to take action to resolve their problem. For instance, anger might motivate a person to confront other people about their actions, which could get them to change their ways. This process may even happen through nonverbal channels, such as angry facial expressions or gestures. An angry scowl from a parent, spouse, or manager may be all that is needed to lead us to change our behavior.
But there may be a darker, less productive side to anger, and it boils down to the fact that, when people are angry, they aren’t very nice. Angry people often try to lead others to change their behavior by being antagonistic and expressing opposition or hostility. But when angry people treat others in hostile, negative ways, others are not likely to respond in a manner that will placate them. Instead, being targeted by angry people may make them feel that they have been mistreated, leading them to become angry themselves, which may motivate them to also become antagonistic.
Given this, an ironic effect of anger can emerge: angry people may behave in ways that make other people angry, and, as a result, those others may treat angry people in ways that heighten or prolong their anger. Instead of getting others to do what they want or making themselves feel better, their original angry behavior has spawned a spiral of escalating anger.
My colleagues – Jie Liu at the University of Copenhagen and Angela Neal at the University of South Carolina-Lancaster – and I recently tested these ideas in a study of 96 dating and married couples. We asked both partners in each couple to complete a questionnaire that assessed events in their relationship every evening for one week. This method allowed us to examine day-to-day fluctuations in anger for each partner. Each evening, we also asked them to answer questions about their own and their partner’s destructive behaviors such as criticizing and insulting the partner and behaving in a cold or selfish way, behaviors that decrease relationship quality.
Our results suggested that anger contributed to a vicious cycle. The results are illustrated below, using a hypothetical couple, John and Jane, as an example. On days when John was especially angry with Jane, he acted more destructively toward her, which made Jane feel mistreated and led her to become angry, too. Jane then responded to her own anger by acting more destructively toward John, which led John to feel mistreated and, as a result, made him angry.
Through these reactions, one partner’s anger may spread across partners and persist over time. In other words, angry people may treat their partner in negative ways that elicit anger and negative behaviors from their partner, which, quite naturally, may sustain or even increase the anger that started the process.
We explored whether this cycle of anger depended on the couple’s relationship commitment, the degree to which they desired to maintain their relationship with each other. Highly committed people want to maintain a satisfying relationship, so we thought they might be less likely to get angry when they perceive that they are mistreated and less likely to act destructively when they feel angry. However, we were surprised to discover that the anger cycle I just described happened regardless of feelings of commitment. Caring a lot about your relationship does not appear to be an antidote for destructive anger.
Of course, other relationship qualities that we did not examine might conceivably heighten or reduce this cycle. For example, angry people who care greatly about their partner’s welfare may be less likely to mistreat their partners, and some people are particularly good at controlling their anger. It’s also important to keep in mind that our findings tell us that anger is related to destructive behaviors and negative responses from romantic partners, but they do not confirm that anger caused these reactions.
We also explored whether the personality trait of agreeableness played a role in this spiral of anger. Given that agreeable people generally behave in ways that are kind, considerate, cooperative, and warm, we expected that agreeable people might not get as angry when they feel mistreated or might refrain from destructive behavior when they are angry with their partner. Although we found that agreeable people were less likely to become angry than less agreeable people, this difference was found only on days when they did not think they were mistreated by their partners. On days when they felt mistreated, highly agreeable people were just as angry as less agreeable people were.
Similarly, although agreeable people were less likely to act destructively than less agreeable people were, this difference was also found primarily on days when people weren’t angry. Put differently, angry agreeable people behaved in ways that were as destructive to their relationships as angry disagreeable people did. These results suggest that being a highly agreeable person did not lower the degree to which people felt angry when they were mistreated and did not prevent people from responding to their anger with destructive behaviors. Mistreatment and anger seemed to be such potent forces that even people who are typically very nice behaved in ways that weren’t so nice.
What’s the bottom line here? Our research suggests that getting mad often fails to solve interpersonal problems because angry people typically act in ways that make others feel devalued and angry. Treating others in these ways does not usually promote happy and satisfying relationships. Instead, angry people often unwittingly lead their partners to respond in ways that maintain their anger and make the situation worse.
Rather than acting on angry impulses, people are better served by using tactics that help them respond to anger more constructively. For example, one effective way of controlling anger is to think about unrelated things that can take one’s mind off of the negative situation. Another technique is to think about the event from a different perspective, such as the perspective of a neutral observer or the perspective of one’s romantic partner. In addition, thinking about what would be best for the relationship can help people express their anger in constructive ways and avoid destructive behaviors such as criticism and hostility. Relaxation techniques, such as deep-breathing exercises, can also reduce anger. These strategies may help you avoid downward spirals of anger in your relationships. As the philosopher Confucius wrote, “When anger rises, think of the consequences.”
For Further Reading: Liu, J., Lemay, E. P., Jr., & Neal, A. M. (2018). Mutual cyclical anger in romantic relationships: Moderation by agreeableness and commitment. Journal of Research in Personality, 77, 1-10.
Edward Lemay is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Maryland. He conducts research on interpersonal relationships.