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Could Anger Be Good for Your Relationships?

Our relationships bring out a range of emotions, some positive and some negative. Clearly feeling and expressing positive emotions with others is likely to enhance our relationships. But what about negative emotions, like anger? In new research published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, Helena Karppinen and colleagues examined the role of three hostile emotions in friendships and romantic relationships: Anger, contempt, and disgust.

When a friend or romantic partner does something that annoys you or hurts you, you may experience hostile emotions. However, what specific type of hostile emotion you feel depends on how you evaluate the situation that caused it. People are most likely to experience anger if they believe someone has intentionally harmed them or treated them unfairly. Disgust arises from feelings of contamination or concerns about purity. Contempt occurs when we perceive someone as being incompetent or undeserving of our respect.

Hostile emotions play a particularly important role in our close relationships. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, anger can actually be helpful in long-term romantic relationships. Some researchers have speculated that this is because expressing anger toward a relationship partner is a way to get that partner to change their behavior and repair the relationship. For example, a woman might angrily reprimand her partner for forgetting an anniversary, hoping this will make him less likely to forget the date in the future. However, some hostile emotions are more likely to be harmful. Research on how married couples interact with one another during conflict has shown that people who express disgust and contempt toward their partners are particularly likely to experience poor marital satisfaction and divorce.

In the new research, Karppinen and her colleagues conducted two studies in which participants were asked to imagine that a relationship partner had engaged in wrongdoing that made them feel disgust, contempt, or anger. Participants rated how much they would feel each of these types of emotions. They also rated how likely they would be to engage in three specific types of behaviors in response to the wrongdoing: aggressive behavior (e.g., criticize the partner), avoidance behavior, or reparative behavior (e.g., try to make amends). The researchers also wanted to determine if the relationship context mattered, so in the first study participants were asked to imagine that the transgression occurred in a romantic relationship and in the second study they were asked to imagine that it occurred in a friendship.

The researchers found that different types of hostile emotions were related to different behavioral reactions. When participants imagined their romantic partner engaging in wrongdoing, the more hostile emotions (anger, disgust, and contempt) they experienced, they more they reported that they would behave aggressively toward the partner by criticizing them or confronting them with their negative emotions. However, when the wrongdoing was committed by a friend, only feelings of disgust were associated with more aggressive responses. This was somewhat surprising because while anger does typically lead to confrontation, disgust is most often associated with avoidance. As the researchers expected, disgust was also related to the tendency to avoid the transgressor in both the romantic relationship and the friendship context. Anger was also related to taking reparative action in both romantic relationships and friendships. So the angrier people felt, the more likely they were to say that they would try to make amends.

These studies show that hostile emotions can sometimes be good for relationships. In particular, feelings of anger can lead to positive action. In both the friendship and the romantic relationship context, the angrier people felt, the more likely they were to try to make up and repair the relationship. In addition, in the romantic context, anger was associated with criticizing the partner. While criticism is unpleasant, it's not necessarily all bad if it motivates the other person to make a positive change. Disgust, for the most part, was all bad; feelings of disgust created a desire to avoid the offending party. This is likely to create distance in a relationship and reduces opportunities for partners to make amends, forgive, or encourage more positive behaviors in the future.

Sussex Publishers. (n.d.). Could anger be good for your relationships?. Psychology Today.

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