When Anger Is Helpful in a Relationship…And When It’s Not

Count to ten before you speak, we’re often told, especially when fighting with a partner. Take a deep breath and remember you’re talking to someone you love, the advice goes. Being angry means you’ve lost control, the theory goes. But is there ever a time when you shouldn’t count to ten — when a little anger might actually be helpful? We say there is. It all depends on the context and the content of the argument. And, as it turns out, new research on business negotiations, to be published in an an upcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, backs us up

According to a report in the Times, researchers tested the effectiveness of expressing anger in three types of negotiations: (1) cooperative negotiations (e.g. starting a business with a partner); (2) competitive negotiations (e.g. dissolving a shared business); and (3) negotiations that are a balance between cooperation and competition (e.g. selling a business to a buyer). And what the researchers found was that negotiators made greater concessions to people who expressed anger — but only when the negotiation was a balanced situation. If the negotiation was cooperative, the anger was interpreted as hostile and inappropriate, and if the negotiation was competitive, the anger just caused everyone’s tempers to rise.

Sure, marriage isn’t a business transaction — but effective communication lies at the heart of both. So what we can learn about using anger in relationships from this research? Below are three situations when anger could be helpful to resolve an argument, i.e. when the negotiation in question is a balanced one. And below that are three situations when anger could actually make things worse, i.e. when the negotiation in question is either a cooperative or competitive one.

3 Situations When Expressing Anger May Help Resolve an Argument

1. You Don’t Know Where You Stand in the Relationship
Yeah, we’re talking commitment issues. Maybe you’ve been dating for months and your partner won’t give you a firm answer on whether or not you’re exclusive. Or you’ve been dating for years and your partner still doesn’t want to talk about marriage. Or you’re in your late thirties and your partner doesn’t want to discuss kids just yet. Getting angry can help communicate to your partner the degree to which this bothers you, and how you need a little more certainty in order to go forward. Without anger, this situation can sometimes drag on indefinitely, and your partner may not realize quite how necessary the clarification is for you. Warning: Insisting on defining the terms of the relationship may not bring the answer you want… but it will definitely provide the answer you need.

2. Your Partner Is Not Meeting Your Emotional Needs
Let’s say you’ve been married for decades and your partner still doesn’t have your back during extended family gatherings at the holidays. Or perhaps your partner is stonewalling you whenever you try to discuss something, refusing to engage with you on certain topics of his or her choosing. A little controlled anger can make it clear that things cannot go on like this, and you need a change. Note: According to the researchers, anger is most effective when it’s directed at a situation rather than at the person responsible for the situation.

3. You’re in Therapy Together
According to the same piece in the Times, anger is most likely to help when it is “low in intensity; expressed verbally rather than physically; and takes place in an organization that considers it appropriate.” And what better, more appropriate place than a therapist’s office? A therapist can help channel your anger in a helpful, rather than destructive, direction. In fact, if you never get angry during couples’ counseling, then we’d say you’re not getting your money’s worth!

… And 3 Situations When Anger May Make an Argument Worse

1. Your Partner Is Not Meeting Your Sexual Needs
Anger in this situation is more likely to make your partner defensive and insecure than helping them to consider your point of view. This is a much better area to approach as a team, i.e. How can we improve our sex life together? Remember, people are weird about sex. No one wants to think they’re not good in bed. So if you want to tell someone how to do sex better, you need to tread carefully and sensitively.

2. You Think the Division of Household Labor Is Unfair
The more emotional and passionate and heated you get when discussing something like who spends more time cleaning the house or driving the kids to school or shopping for groceries, the further away you’ll end up from being able to figure out, rationally and together, how best to split up this sort of thing. If you use anger, you will most likely cause your partner to angrily list all the things he or she does around the house that you never notice.

3. You’re Upset About Money
Sure, maybe you feel like your partner isn’t nearly as worried about money as you think he or she should be. Perhaps your partner is cheap. Or maybe you feel like your partner spends frivolously, or doesn’t care about long-term savings and retirement, or is too controlling over how you spend money. However money is stressing you out, anger will probably be much less effective than trying instead to express your disappointment or fear or concern instead. Angry fights about money have a tendency to turn real ugly, real fast.

Want more advice on making your relationship work?
10 Things to Say to Your Partner Instead of “I Love You”


  1. very interesting. i’m just curious what makes the first 3 balanced scenarios, and the others either cooperative or competitive…..? (love that picture btw)

    1. MFL, we thought of the sexual needs as a cooperative thing because you both have the same goal (orgasms/pleasure/good sex), and, ideally at least, more pleasure for one equals more pleasure for the other. It’s not like it’s zero sum game, and “compromise” in this sense is entirely done as a team. When it comes to household chores, that seemed pretty clearly cooperative to us, because neither one of you wants to do it, but it has to be done, and it should be figured out equally, too. We thought of money as a competitive issue because there is a limited amount of money and you need to negotiate how much of that money to spend on X, Y, Z. So if you differ with your partner in terms of where the money to go, that’s a competitive issue.

      Knowing where you stand feels like a balance because partly it’s about negotiating what YOU want out of the relationship — but also, at the end of the day, it’s a relationship, which will require the two of you to agree on the future direction. Meeting emotional needs is similar to sexual needs, in a cooperative sense, but there’s also an element of competition, because you share your partner’s emotional energy with any number of people in his or her life. (So, yes, we suppose this means that if you’re in an open relationship, then sex might instead be classified as as a balanced issue, too!) Therapy also seemed to us to include elements of both cooperation and competition — cooperation, because you’ve both agreed to show up, and competition, because there’s obviously some issue you can’t settle/compromise on alone, and that’s why you’re there in the first place.

      We know that some of this might seem like splitting hairs! Overall, our goal for this article was just to get you thinking carefully about the role anger can play in resolving arguments, and when it might actually be a useful tool — if used in moderation, of course.

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