Anger: What Lies Underneath?

Anger is one of the most common secondary emotions that shows up in interactions between two partners. In other words, anger is almost always a reaction to another feeling – a primary emotion. That means, if you dig deeper to understand what is fueling your anger, you will discover something more vulnerable:

  • Anxiety
  • Exhaustion
  • Fear
  • Guilt
  • Hurt
  • Inadequacy
  • Loneliness
  • Loss of control
  • Mistrust
  • Overwhelm
  • Sadness
  • Stress

…and the list can go on. Typically, these primary feelings get masked by anger because it is an easier emotion to express than sharing the pain underneath. However, it usually isn’t the effective emotion to express since it hardly ever achieves the desired outcome. Anger tends to spark a defensive reaction from your partner. Instead of being able to understand your feelings or your needs (which your anger is masking), your partner will feel under attack by the display of anger and respond either by shutting down, walking away, or fighting back.

Next time you feel angry at your partner, try to become aware of what is fueling the anger. Once you’re able to identify what’s underneath, try to understand it. Once you can identify and understand, evaluate what your needs are. Ask yourself, “What need of mine is not being fulfilled at this time?” From that place of clarity, rationality, and vulnerability, communicate with your partner. When your partner doesn’t feel attacked by your anger, they will be much more likely to listen to you, understand your needs, and hopefully, respond in a helpful manner.

If you’re the person usually on the receiving end of anger, and you want to help your partner articulate their needs to you, first take a moment to step back from the anger as it may be triggering for you. Stepping back can be a kind request for a time out while you gather yourself with the explicit intention of returning to the conversation. Or you can choose to remain physically present but ask for a quiet moment to check in with yourself and self-soothe. The point is to regulate your nervous system if you are feeling triggered – which is different from withdrawing or shutting down – before re-engaging in the conversation. Whatever tool you decide to use to establish or maintain emotional regulation, make sure you respectfully communicate your intention to your partner so they don’t perceive you as ignoring or dismissing them.

Second, once you feel more regulated, remind yourself that underneath all that anger, your partner is hurting in some way as well. Finally, respond from that place of compassion, making sure to ask questions respectfully and listen with the intent of understanding what they might be trying to tell you. If not at that moment, then later, you can say to them, “I could see you were really angry, and I want to help. It sounds like you were saying ______. Did I understand that correctly? What can I do to help?”

You are probably thinking, this is easier said than done!

I agree. It is not this easy or simple. It takes both people involved to have some level of patience, awareness, and understanding for it to be a meaningful conversation. As you embark on your journey together to grow and become better partners to one another, I encourage both of you to start practicing and developing self-awareness. Learn to recognize your emotional wounds that show up when you are triggered, and become attuned to your needs. Practice emotional regulation, compassion, patience, and understanding to help you attune to your partner’s needs as well, even if your partner finds it difficult to communicate their feelings to you in a helpful way. And learn to talk about these vulnerabilities with each other in a manner that brings the two of you closer together instead of drifting apart.

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