Breaking the cycle of anger

Published

Jasmine Urquhart
Features Editor

Jasmine Urquhart studies her own experience in a toxic romance using the latest in relationship research

Anger is an extremely complex thing, and it can be very easy to get wrapped up in your partner’s issues, especially if you’re in love and genuinely want the best for them. But it is perhaps surprisingly common for those even in nice, normal relationships to descend into a world very far away from normalcy, potentially even being at risk of emotional abuse, if they get trapped in a cycle of anger. Thankfully, for those of us who have experienced this unfortunate scenario, a new study in the Journal of Research in Personality has unveiled a mechanism by which anger is perpetuated in romantic relationships. I’ve been free from this behavioural pattern for six months, but for the benefit of this article, I will delve into my past experiences to see whether it really illustrates all the complexities of anger in relationships, and if it’s of any use for us at all.

To form the basis of this study, participants were asked to keep a daily diary. If I had been organised enough to do that, it may have looked a little something like this:

Person A: Where shall we go to eat?
Person B: Ugh, I don’t know, let’s go to eat at “insert name of reasonably priced restaurant” since you liked it so much last time?
Person A: I want to go somewhere else this time.
Person B: But I had such a nice time last month in that restaurant [side note: probably because the relationship was in a better stage at that point]
Person A: I did too, but I thought you mentioned it was too expensive, and that you wanted to save money?
Person B: Can’t you care about my feelings enough to know what I want?!
Person B then bangs the door and proceeds to send Person A a series of demanding, hostile and aggressive text messages throughout the remainder of the day.
~ad nauseam~

The clever minds behind the study then produced a simple illustration which shows the mechanism behind these exchanges. It shows that anger is recycled in a closed loop, originating in either Person A or Person B, causing them to behave in a destructive way, described in psychological terms as “disrespectful, hostile, demanding, invalidating, rejecting, or blaming”. To put it in real terms, this might include: name-calling, guilt-tripping, banging doors, endless text messages, and blaming the other person for everything. Person A projects their emotions onto the other person, causing them to experience the same anger. Person B then does the exact same thing in retaliation, and the whole relationship becomes defined by these angry, destructive exchanges.

This isn’t entirely accurate for me. My natural instinct, at first, was to want to help as much as I could with my partner’s outbursts. Certainly, being in love with them helped with that, but after it became clear that it was a routine, it was difficult to see a light at the end of the tunnel and the cycle of anger then led to the relationship being filled with stagnant energy. The relationship then turned into a near-constant battle of emotions, wearing each other down gradually. The model from the study neatly shows this pattern of behaviour, and it seems to at least fit some relationships, but is it helpful at all?

The accompanying article in Psychology Today suggests that all it takes is for one person to break the cycle by “reappraising your partner’s behaviour more positively” and “activating friendly thoughts”. With the highest respect to all those with a psychology degree, this seems like useless information. In my experience, it is near impossible to do this when your angry partner refuses to hear anything constructive, and chooses to stay in the vortex.

Thankfully, the article does admit that for this solution to have any use for us at all, both partners have to be “mindful”. What this actually means is to be self-aware, not only of our behaviour, but of our thoughts and feelings. “When neither partner is mindful, the cycle of anger might be perpetuated, harming both romantic partners and their relationship – sometimes irreversibly.” In my case, my partner was one of the least mindful people on earth, and so there was no option but for me to break it off. Whilst that was the most practical and logical solution for me, everyone’s situation is different – you might be married, or financially codependent with children. If that’s the case, and you are determined to save your relationship, the option here would be to seek external solutions such as anger management therapy or couples counselling. After all, there is no point trying to be the relationship’s therapist when your partner’s anger is out of control. Certain people have degrees and are paid salaries to do that type of work, so they should be your first port of call. However, if both partners are willing to work through their problems, then anything is possible, and you might have a chance at the fairytale relationship of your dreams.

If this article resonates with you and you feel the need to talk to someone, please take advantage of the counselling services available in the University:

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