How to Use Conflict and Anger to Create Healthy Relationships

Experiencing conflict and feeling angry are inevitable in relationships. Yet without knowledge and skills to manage these they become a major area of difficulty. 

Aristotle acknowledged that it is easy for anyone to get angry, but not easy to get angry “with the right person, to the right degree, at the right time, for the right purpose, and in the right way” (The Nicomachean Ethics). This indeed requires a high level of awareness, understanding, application and emotional education. 

In my work as a relationship counsellor, I see how common the challenge of conflict and expression of anger are in creating and maintaining healthy relationships. So in this article I set out the problems with conflict and anger and how to use them to create healthy relationships. 

The fear of conflict

It is often the case that the upsets of the day at work, for instance, get taken out on the family or partner that evening. And who hasn’t fumed after a confrontation during which you felt paralysed and unable to stand up for yourself, only thinking afterwards of the things you should have said?

Some people find it hard to speak up in conversations with the boss yet complain incessantly and ineffectually to friends and family instead. Others may find it hard to express anger at all, even though they feel it. When such suppression happens often enough to become a way of life, a person can stop being aware even of feeling angry, thereby losing connection with an important emotion that can keep you safe by alerting you that others are overstepping the mark. Anger can also be a powerful motivator for change and for justice, whether for yourself or others. 

Sometimes, if you have come to believe or experienced anger as destructive, particularly during childhood,  it can cause you to become so averse to any sort of conflict that you swallow your anger or become unaware of it to the extent that you will put up with virtually anything rather than “cause a fuss”, risk not being liked, or risk upsetting or annoying someone else by expressing your own anger. It can be one of the unwritten rules in a family for some or all members not to express feelings such as anger or dissatisfaction. Dorothy Rowe talks about problems created by a belief that to be a good person you must please others, not say no and not get angry. She outlines how this can contribute, for instance, to depression (The Successful Self).

One of my clients was so fearful of potential conflict that when his young daughter received a margherita pizza in a restaurant, by mistake minus the cheese, he tried to persuade his mystified child that the cheese wasn’t missing, rather than face having to “cause a scene” by returning the pizza! What was meant to be an enjoyable evening out turned sour. My client puzzled over his behaviour until he recalled that his mother was so loath to cause any upset to others that she would have sooner choked to death, and once nearly did, rather than attract attention when she swallowed the wrong way at a dinner party. 

Suppressing anger to avoid conflict creates conflict

The trouble is, suppression of anger and not speaking up for yourself often create a volatile pressure cooker effect inside you, with resentments and unrecognized anger then leaking out when least wanted or expected. This was what happened with another client who would avoid conflict at all costs and hold in his feelings around anyone outside his family, often without awareness, but then explode with seething resentments at home and rage at his wife or children. In this way suppression can lead to aggression. Individuals who suppress anger will not be able to hold it in indefinitely and may end up spewing out vitriol at the wrong people at the wrong time, with anger seeping out harmfully and indiscriminately in overreactions or unfairly having a go at someone who doesn’t deserve it. Alternatively the anger may get turned against oneself (see The Successful Self); not expressing anger can also be toxic for the body, as outlined by Gabor Mate (When the Body says No).

Acting out anger creates conflict

The predominant behaviour that people usually associate with anger  involves the destructive “acting out” of the feeling in overt aggression or violence – for instance, slamming doors, hitting, punching, pushing and shoving, breaking objects, throwing things, shouting, raging. However anger is also acted out (instead of expressed appropriately) by behaviour such as sulking, withholding (love or affection or communication), shunning, glaring, swearing, scowling, dismissing, blaming, criticising, humiliating or belittling.

If any of these are the ways you have experienced and/or expressed anger yourself, then the way described by the quote from Aristotle might need to be learned and practised – that is, to express anger appropriately, respectfully of self and others, in a timely and effective way that might be heard – and even responded to – by the relevant person/people.

In my work as a psychotherapist and facilitator, I have often been asked to clarify the difference between healthy expression of anger and the harmful practice of acting it out. One simple illustration is to consider how children act out anger (and other feelings) until or unless they learn, as they grow up, to express their feelings more appropriately and verbally. Stephen Grosz describes in The Examined Life his attempt to talk with an angry boy about what the child was feeling. The boy responded by destroying the pens, paper and dolls used to help children express what they at first might not be able to put into words. We no doubt have all seen young children have tantrums, scream, stamp their feet, hit, break things and so on. Unless they learn to verbalise what they are angry about in the way described by Aristotle, anger may continue to be acted out in similarly inappropriate ways throughout adulthood – often ever more destructively.

A client I will call Jill was someone who in her young life had not learned to express anger in a healthy way. She at first suppressed anger but later became a rager who hurt herself and others emotionally by acting out her anger in innumerable inappropriate ways. To her surprise, when she began to express anger appropriately, she not only started feeling better about herself and spared others from being dumped on, but she began to see how she was allowing significant others in her life to act out their anger on her! When she herself stopped acting out anger and understood how to express it in a healthy way, she realised that it was not okay for other people to dump their feelings of anger on her either! 

Sometimes there is a perception that, while acting out anger in overt aggression is a problem, somehow the sulking, stonewalling and other kinds of passive aggressive ways of demonstrating anger are okay. Of course no one would deny the life-threatening danger and abuse posed by physical violence, but passive forms of acting out anger are nevertheless damaging and leave no scope for managing or resolving conflict. 

One case I recall revealed clearly how both overt eruptions of anger and sulky, manipulative forms of anger are destructive. The couple in question, whom I will call Sue and Michael, came to see me on account of her angry outbursts of shouting, which they said were causing problems in their marriage. We worked on Sue’s harmful acting out of anger, but it soon became apparent that Michael had anger difficulties too and that Sue’s eruptions were reactions to his emotionally controlling behaviour. While she raged, whenever he was angry he would act out anger by sulking, shunning and ignoring her as if she were invisible, sometimes for weeks.

As we worked on the issue of respectful communication and behaviour, with a moratorium on verbal abuse or any other acting out of anger, Michael’s unacceptable behaviour became much more apparent to both of them, without the smokescreen of Sue’s reactions diverting them from the issues they both had to work on to save their marriage. Learning to negotiate conflict by expressing anger appropriately – instead of explosively or through control and manipulation – helped this couple find a way to live together peacefully and respectfully. In fact learning to navigate conflict is a key pointer towards a troubled couple being able to restore their relationship.  

Healthy expression of anger is the key skill for managing conflict

Clients often find that as they begin to monitor and change their  own behaviour and the way they express anger, they begin to expect and get better, healthier treatment from others and start enjoying more harmonious, respectful relationships – in fact attract them!  And when you commit yourself to healthy anger, even if you don’t get appropriate behaviour from others, you can set boundaries to remove yourself from situations of repeated disrespect. 

Knowing how to express anger appropriately and to set boundaries makes it possible to resolve conflicts or at least agree to disagree, whereas aggression or excessive compliance do nothing to solve the problems people clash over.

Use your healthy expression of anger to hold people accountable

What you can learn from emotional education is how to hold people accountable when you feel aggrieved and angry – that is, by acknowledging your feelings and theirs, by stating your case and saying why you’re angry, by making requests that would resolve the issue for you and setting a boundary and consequences you will apply if your feelings are ignored.  Of course none of us always gets what we want and sometimes requests are ignored but then you can apply what you said you would do as a consequence (such as, not lend a book again if the last one wasn’t returned). 

If a resolution is not forthcoming, at least you can get to say why you’re angry, to the relevant person, in a way which leaves your self-respect and theirs intact. And when you do not express anger in a way which denigrates the other person, he or she is much more likely to consider obliging your requests. When you make requests for what you want, without judgment or manipulation, you have at least a 50 per cent chance of being obliged. Before I learned and came to understand these things, the old me would not have dared to ask, to express my feelings, or set the necessary boundaries. If nothing else, expressing anger in an appropriate, healthy way allows me to acknowledge and express my feeling and may afford opportunity to discuss a source of conflict instead of ending up in a screaming match that leaves me worse off – or holding anger in – both of which can be toxic for my body and relationships.

Setting healthy boundaries is the key activity for managing conflict

It is well-established that healthy expression of anger necessitates setting healthy boundaries and consequences, but there’s often misunderstanding also about what healthy boundaries are. They are in fact the limit of what you will tolerate, and the consequence is what you will do to protect yourself if your limit is transgressed – that is, if your feelings are disrespected or ignored. Healthy boundaries also represent the limit you set on your own behaviour. They are not about punishment or control of someone else. Healthy boundaries build bridges, not walls, affording vulnerability as well as protection (See Boundaries and Relationships by Charles Whitfield). It is essential to have healthy boundaries to prevent others treating you badly, whether intentionally or not – and vice versa; it is not too far-reaching to think of boundaries as the building blocks of relationships. 

Pia Mellody describes boundary systems as “invisible force fields” that stop people from invading our physical and/or emotional space and that keep us from invading the physical and/or emotional space of others (Facing Codependence). She says that boundaries are also crucial in giving each of us “a way to embody our sense of who we are”.

Anger often springs from the breaching of some boundary, or the expected breach of a boundary, or reminder of a boundary breached in the past. Healthy anger therefore goes hand in hand with healthy boundaries, so our courses teach you all you need to know about both. As Daniel Siegel explains in his book Mindsight, what we pay attention to can reshape our thoughts and alter our feelings, perceptions and responses; we can learn new ways of being. 

A peaceful yet assertive life can be yours too. 

For more information on how to start dealing with anger, see Jean’s article, ‘how self-awareness is the key to dealing with anger

And you can download Jean’s book, Behind the Masks: Discovering Your True Self, which has lots of information and resources for addressing the issues we discuss in this article.

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