friendship / love and relationships / Relationships

When It’s Essential to Get Mad at Your Partner

By Amy Kay Cole, PhD and Anne Laptin, MS, LCSW

Our clients tend to be very nice. Sometimes excessively so. Most people were raised to be nice. Who doesn’t want to be considered a nice person? About ten years ago, people were driving around with bumper stickers that read “mean people suck”. No argument here. But being nice to your friends, colleagues, and loved ones at any cost is a setup for disaster.

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Our mothers told us that. Many of us were raised on that philosophy. That sentiment can’t be wrong, can it? Um, yeah, it’s wrong. Dead wrong. Of course you should be nice when you are feeling happy and connected. However, if you truly care about a person and want a long-term friendship or romantic relationship, you have to tell them when you’re angry with them. You have to tell them when they hurt your feelings. And you have to tell them sooner rather than later. Why? Because any other approach damages the relationship. Yes, getting angry can strengthen your relationships.

Brian and Becky were in their early 30’s when they came in for couple therapy. They weren’t on the verge of divorce, but they reported suffering a “two-year itch”. They were two years into their marriage and focused on their one-year-old daughter. The early months of parenthood with limited sleep and free time had cracked their composure and strained their interactions. They were accustomed to gentle, supportive interactions with limited friction. It turns out, they had ignored problem areas because the good so far outweighed the bad, they didn’t want to make a fuss about small issues. Huge mistake. Brian described a recent incident when he felt a wave of affection for Becky and kissed her on the nose as he had done a hundred times during their relationship. It was something he did when he felt particularly close to her. For the first time, Becky grimaced and said, “God, I hate when you do that.” Brian was stunned, hurt, and angry. Kissing her nose reflected a level of intimacy he had never shared with another person.

Being kind when you really feel hurt, angry, or frustrated is not doing those you care about any favors. Your kindness is not strengthening the relationship. Quite the opposite. We can’t tell you how many of our clients have bitten their tongues early in relationships for the sake of a strong relationship only to have it backfire. The truth will come out, and it will be apparent you have been dishonest. We’ve heard clients talk about this issue in relation to coworkers as well. Andrea, a 40-something office worker, complained that a coworker recently asked her to stop sharing cellphone photos of a new puppy because she wasn’t a fan of dogs. The coworkers statement wasn’t problematic, but the fact she said it after looking at dog photos for six months made Andrea feel embarrassed. We’re blaming the coworker. Come on, look at a photo once without comment, but if it becomes a pattern, stop your friend from becoming an annoyance. Andrea didn’t think her coworker had been kind for six months, she thought her coworker had been dishonest. It could have been avoided if her coworker had simply said, “Very cute, but I’m not a dog person” the first time she saw a photo.

John Gottman, a world-renowned relationship researcher, believes that when blunt anger is appropriately expressed, it protects marriages from deterioration. We love that. It means that getting angry at the right time, in the right way, will make your relationship stronger. The right time is ASAP (as long as you’re not fuming). As long as you’re not so angry you are yelling, speak your mind and express your frustration. There is great security in knowing that if you cross a line with your partner, you will be told. You may not want to hear it in the moment, but it will strengthen your relationship in the long run. People want to know if they crossed a line, particularly if they didn’t know there was a line. That honesty leaves people free to be their authentic selves. Friends and partners don’t have to be guarded. They will be told if they cross a line. They will be told immediately. That’s safety in a relationship.

Take Ruth and Steve. As a young couple, they socialize frequently. Steve is reserved and somewhat laid-back, but Ruth draws attention based on her warmth and easy nature. At a small gathering, one of their friends shared deep concerns about her son who was being held back in first grade. The friend was misty eyed and looked uncomfortable about having shared more than she had planned. Ruth immediately sought to ease her pain. Ruth touched her arm and said, “I know you’re worried, but boys are often delayed. Steve was held back in kindergarten and ended up graduating college with honors.” It was a comforting disclosure. Ruth was glad she could offer comfort and happy that Steve’s experience could lighten her friend’s pain. Unfortunately, she crossed a line she didn’t know was there. It soon became apparent that Steve’s experience was not her story to share. Once she and Steve got into the car for the ride home, he immediately expressed anger at her disclosure. Being held back in kindergarten was something that caused him deep shame throughout his childhood. He had painful memories of being told he would not go on to first grade with his friends. To hear Ruth casually share that painful event felt like betrayal. Although struck by the depth of his anger, Ruth recognized that she had violated his trust. If they were going to survive as a couple, she needed to understand how much pain her disclosure cost Steve. She had to find a way to appreciate that he shared his anger. Had he kept quiet about his hurt and anger, he would have weakened his relationship with Ruth. She would not have had any reason to keep that information private in the future. If Steve had remained silent, he would have denied Ruth an opportunity to understand him more deeply.

Let’s get to the nitty-gritty. Most people were not raised to express anger for productive purposes. What exactly should you say when someone hurts your feelings? What if it is a dating situation? What if you are on date number two and still on your best behavior? Wouldn’t it be a turnoff to point out something you don’t like that early? Isn’t there time to address the bigger issues later? NO! We repeat, NO! If you’re dating someone who can’t handle honest feedback about something that hurts your feelings, get out. Don’t walk, run. Healthy people can handle negative feedback. Do you want to date a healthy adult or do you want to date a rigid person who struggles to understand emotions? It’s simpler than you think. We don’t want you to yell. We don’t want you to cry. We want you to calmly state, “That hurt my feelings.” or “That made me feel uncomfortable.” or “I don’t like it when you kiss my nose, I prefer when you rub my palm.” Whatever. You don’t have to have a good reason other than you don’t like it. If you were doing something a friend or partner didn’t like, wouldn’t you want them to tell you? If you care about the person, truly care about that person, you’ll speak the truth. Especially if you want a long-term relationship.

But what if your partner says or does something that has bothered you for months, even years, and you haven’t said anything. Is it too late? Wouldn’t it be weird to bring up something that annoys you three years after your friend/partner started doing it? Nope. Awkward? Maybe, but not too late. You have to come clean. It is easier than you think to say, “I should have told you this earlier, but I don’t like it when you __________” or “Please stop calling me ‘baby’ in public.” or “I’m actually not a fan of foot rubs.” If you really care about a person and want an intimate, connected relationship, you’ll tell them when they do or say something that makes you angry.

 

Amy Kay Cole, PhD, is a tenured professor of psychology who owns a private practice in the Midwest.  She has published extensively in professional journals. 

Anne Laptin, MS, LCSW, was trained at Columbia University and is a sought after psychotherapist in Southern California.

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2 Comments

  1. Barbara McMurray says:

    Excellent article! I appreciate knowing that expressing one’s boundaries is not only ok but essential to a healthy relationship. The examples given are good, too. Glad to have read this. Good, solid information/advice!

  2. Barbara,

    Thanks for taking time to read the article… and to write a comment. I will pass your information on to our contributor.

    My best,

    Heidi

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