Confession: Anger makes me uncomfortable. Seeing someone else express it makes me squirm a little — but honestly, experiencing it myself is so much worse. It feels like losing control. It feels unpredictable. It feels downright scary. For years, I’ve found myself wondering: Why can't I lose my temper? I’ve watched loved ones lose their tempers and ultimately, nothing catastrophic happened. But for some reason, I personally feel much safer avoiding that realm of emotion entirely. I have no problem feeling and expressing sadness, disappointment, or fear. But anger? I’d rather dodge that emotion like an ex sighted in a public place.
The problem with this, of course, is that unexpressed anger can creep up on you in ugly ways. Fighting is a healthy part of any relationship because it indicates that you aren’t brushing things under the rug — you’re tackling your differences head on and hopefully, finding ways to compromise or improve as a team. Keeping your anger at bay may seem like a stellar strategy in the short term for keeping conflicts to a minimum. However, if you don’t address your anger in the moment, it’s bound to bubble up at another time.
As it turns out, fighting isn’t just a normal part of any relationship, it could actually be advantageous for your health. One 2010 study conducted by psychologists at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan found that couples who sidestepped an argument instead of engaging in one actually experienced rising levels of the cortisol — the stress hormone. Not only that, but those who avoided arguments reported feeling sick and/or having more aches and pains the next day. Conversely, couples who engaged in a disagreement experienced steadily declining levels of cortisol throughout the day. Still, while it’s clear that expressing anger isn’t a thing to be feared — and in fact, can benefit the relationship — it still feels nearly impossible for some people.
Experts say that this struggle comes down to two issues: insecurity, or fear of judgment and rejection (or both). According to Amanda Ruiz, licensed professional counselor and founder of the Counseling Collective, many people who are scared to express their anger are insecure either in themselves or their relationships.
“If you have low self-esteem, you might think your partner doesn't care about how you feel. Or, if you are unsure about the status/dynamic of your relationship, it would be harder to express anger towards your significant other,” she explains. “You might hesitate to really share how you feel if you question how your partner would respond, or if they would retaliate or harm you. It's only possible to express yourself if you feel safe, both physically and emotionally.”
As Ruiz explains, you will only share your anger if you feel that your partner values your feelings, so if your partner has discredited your feelings in the past, that may be why you don’t feel safe losing your temper.
Dr. Sherrie Campbell, licensed counselor, psychologist, and marriage and family therapist, adds that it can be challenging for some to express their anger because they fear how their partners will react to it. “Most people are conflict-aversive because conflict leaves us vulnerable to rejection,” she says. “We have fears of the relationship ending, of being seen as not good enough, or that what we're trying to express is stupid. We also don't want to look bad, emotionally out of control or crazy.”
Both experts agree that it’s crucial to learn how to allow yourself to lose your temper once in a while.
“Anger is a natural emotion and anger can lead to assertiveness and the setting of healthy boundaries,” says Dr. Campbell. “Anger that gets repressed eventually turns to rage, and rage is not healthy or effective. Anger is necessary — it lets us know when we've been pushed too far, which allows us to firmly tell other people where they stop and we start.”
So, what should you do if you’re suppressing anger to avoid fights? First, Ruiz recommends taking some time to reflect on why you’re holding back on expressing this emotion, or why you tend to sidestep conflict. If you believe any of your partner’s behaviors have made it difficult for you to feel safe losing your temper, then it’s time to sit down and have an open conversation with them about how they can help you to share your anger.
“Talking to your partner can help them better understand you,” she says. “And in the future, they can encourage you to share your feelings and remind you that you are safe.”
Conversely, if you suspect that your tendency to suppress anger or avoid fights stems back to other issues (perhaps related to what you learned in your childhood), it can be helpful to consider seeking assistance from a therapist to work through these fears.
It’s time to ask yourself: How do you view anger? Do you perceive losing your temper as something to be feared? And more importantly, what are you so afraid will happen if you finally unleash it? Learning to accept anger as just another healthy emotion on the spectrum is key to feeling safe expressing it. While losing your temper may feel uncomfortable (or, TBH, straight up terrifying), it’s a positive sign that you feel emotionally safe enough to be honest with your partner. To boot, allowing yourself to lose it once in a while and engage in a fight offers up the opportunity for you and your partner to learn from each other and ultimately strengthen your bond, so avoiding those conflicts could potentially hold your relationship back from important growth.
Remember: There are a number of reasons why you might be hesitant to show your anger or engage in a fight, but once you get to the bottom of your fears, you can find new freedom in the ability to express any emotion you feel, no matter how scary it is. At the end of the day, communication is the hallmark of any healthy relationship — and that means communicating the unpleasant stuff, too. A supportive partner will want to know when something pushes you over the edge, because they'll be eager to do whatever they can to prevent that in the future.
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