Anger Triggers and Resolutions

anger cartoon

In relationships, some lovers are quicker to feel anger than others. Yes, not having your expectations fulfilled or not getting your needs met can cause frustration. But some lovers seem to have shorter fuses when these situations occur. And some lovers allow anger to propel them into using strategies that hurt the loved one and the relationship.

Common Anger Triggers

Judgments and sensitivity to rejection are two of the main triggers of anger. Instead of simply seeing the situation as it is, you put your own spin on it. For example, your partner is scrolling through the messages on their phone while you are talking to them. You judge their actions as showing they do not really care about what you have to say. You might even go a step further in your mind to think, “My partner never really listens to me because they don’t think anything I have to say is worthwhile.” Now you have fueled your anger with that interpretation.

Or you may interpret your partner’s request to take out the trash as a demand that you do immediately, which causes you to feel controlled and angry. Your judgments can then lead to an angry outburst or even a turning inward with troublesome ruminations.

Sometimes it is the judgments you make about yourself that are behind your anger. For example, you might judge yourself as inadequate or defective. Then you base your self-esteem on your perception of the way others feel about you. Notice it is your perception of the other person’s words or actions, not what they actually said or did. If your feelings of being inadequate are aroused because you see the other person as being critical, your anger can get triggered. Of course, you might actually be in a relationship where your partner often complains about you. If you are also self-critical, this combination can lead not only to anger but also to depression.1

Sensitivity to Rejection                                                                                               

Some people are extremely sensitive to rejection. They have an anxious expectation of rejection. Even when there is little possibility of it, they still readily perceive social threats. This sensitivity motivates them to react with anger, hostility, or withdrawal.2 It is the mere anticipation of potential hurt that triggers their reactions. They are so vulnerable and insecure, they don’t even have to be actually hurt to feel wounded; the threat is enough.

Research has demonstrated that the brains of these people are different from the brains of people who are not so sensitive to rejection and do not act so defensively.5.33 People low in rejection sensitivity have a more active prefrontal cortex, which allows them to be less emotionally reactive and more self-regulating.3 Yet the good news for people high in rejection sensitivity is that emotional self-regulation can be taught, and a supportive romantic relationship itself can mitigate this sensitivity.

One concern about the defensive reactions used in the face of rejection sensitivity is that these reactions can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, where the reaction itself causes the feared rejection. One member of a couple in a conflict situation can seek support but not receive it, or be on guard for any cues that might indicate rejection. If that person begins to defensively start losing their temper, insulting their partner, or swearing, it can incite the partner to do the same. Then the negative interaction causes the conflict to become unresolved.

Strategies to Defuse Anger

Why do we say such hurtful things to our loved ones? Often it is because we are too fused with them. When we are fused, what our partner says or does often feels like it has something to do with us. And then we react accordingly. We lash out or raise defensive walls. Or even worse, we blame ourselves.

Your partner leaves the dirty dishes in the sink all day and night—again. You think, “If they really cared about my feelings, they would put the dishes in the dishwasher.” Or “I am probably expecting too much.”

With these thoughts, you end up saying, “Must take too much of your energy to put the dishes in the dishwasher. How lazy can you get?”

You know you’re not going to change your partner’s behavior with this criticism, but it slips out anyway.

Your partner’s behavior annoyed you, but it is the judgment you put on that behavior that caused you to lash out. More than likely your partner did not leave the dishes in the sink to purposely annoy you or as a lapse in caring for your feelings.

If you see your partner’s behavior as independent of your connection with them, you won’t be pressured to say something hurtful. Instead, you will find a way to let them know that you noticed without the negative reaction. You might even joke. “Maybe we could make the kitchen sink into a dishwasher.” Indeed, those partners who each have a sense of their own autonomy will be less defensive during a conflict and will be more satisfied with their relationship.4

The time between a trigger and your angry reaction is generally only two to three seconds. So try to cut the link between the trigger and your anger by taking a slow, deep breath the moment you notice a trigger. This will help you to cool off the hothead feeling, not bite the bait, and take a moment to think about a way to express your needs in a helpful way.

After the deep breath, you can respond rather than react, and then you will remain in control. You can respond with an “I” statement that lets your partner know what you need at that moment. For example, if your partner forgets to pick up the dry cleaning that has your work uniform in it, you could take a deep breath and then say, “I really needed my uniform for work tomorrow.” You are putting the issue on the table instead of blaming your partner. Then the two of you can work on finding a resolution to the issue.

Even if you are the recipient of your partner’s anger, you can still have some control over the angry reaction. When you see your partner starting to tense up, you can remind them to breathe. Or you can model the necessary action by taking a slow, deep breath yourself. Initiating the first step in calming the hot responses down will give both of you a chance to approach the situation in a more helpful manner. Instead of a fight, flight, or freeze reaction, you have used a calming strategy.

  1. Whiffen, V. E. and J. A. Aube. 1999. “Personality, interpersonal context and depression in couples. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 12 (3): 369–383.
  2. Romero‐Canyas, R., G. Downey, K. Berenson, O. Ayduk, and N. J. Kang. 2010. “Rejection sensitivity and the rejection–hostility link in romantic relationships.” Journal of Personality, 78 (1): 119–148. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6494.2009.00611.
  3. Kross, E., T. Egner, K. Ochsner, J. Hirsch, and G. Downey. 2007. “Neural dynamics of rejection sensitivity.” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19 (6): 945–956.
  4. Knee, C. R., C. Lonsbary, A. Canevello, and H. Patrick. 2005. “Self-determination and conflict in romantic relationships.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 89 (6): 997.

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