Understanding Relationships – Anger – That Pesky Secondary Emotion 


By Gary Moore 

Note from the author: Much of the information for this issue’s column is taken from Dr. H. Norman Wright. 

Anger. It’s one of those things that we feel. But can you define it? What does it mean to you? Simply put, anger is a strong feeling of displeasure and irritation. But if not dealt with, it can slide into other emotional responses such as rage, fury or even wrath. Rage is an intense, uncontained, explosive response. Wrath is fervid anger looking for vengeance. 

When anger erupts into conflict and goes unresolved, rage and resentment may begin to emerge. Richard Walters, in his book, Anger: Yours and Mine and What to Do About It, says, “Rage blows up the bridges people need to reach each other, and resentment sends people scurrying behind barriers to hide from each other and to hurt each other indirectly.” 

Anger becomes a problem when it takes the form of two extremes: overreaction or underreaction. When we underreact, we repress or suppress our anger, often without realizing what we’re doing. When we choose to block it out, we are not being honest with ourselves or those around us. 

When we overreact, our anger is out of control. It comes out in rage and fury, which can lead to physical violence. But Dr. Wright says that that pain is minor compared to the inner emotional pain. 

Let’s explore some of what Dr. Wright calls “truths about anger”: 

  • Anger is not the problem or the main emotion; it is a symptom.
  • Expressing your anger to your partner does not lessen your anger; it usually increases it.
  • How you use your anger is a learned response. This means that you can learn a new response and get your anger under control.
  • Your partner is not responsible for making you angry – you are!

How do you feel after reading these statements? Angry? Confused? Upset? Amazed? 

Anger is what psychologists call a secondary emotion. It is literally a message system that tells you something else is happening inside you. According to Dr. Wright, anger is caused by fear, hurt or frustration. 

Fear – You may be afraid that your partner is going to override you, control you, yell at you, be unreasonable, not give you what you want, verbally attack you, withdraw, ignore you, and so on. To protect yourself from your fear, you attack with anger. 

Whenever you begin to experience anger, ask yourself, “Am I afraid of something right now?” What am I feeling? You may discover the cause right at that moment. Try telling your partner, “I feel somewhat fearful right now. Could we talk about it? I would rather do that than become angry.” 

Hurt – Hurt comes from many causes – a sharp word, cooking a fine meal and its being passed over, painting the house and not receiving an appreciative comment, being slapped, discovering an affair, and so on. To relieve our hurt, we become angry. We want the other person to pay. We want to even the score. But hurting people don’t keep score in the same way. When we’ve been hurt, we don’t always want to admit the extent of the hurt, so we cover it over with anger. 

When you are angry, ask yourself, “Am I feeling hurt? Where is this hurt coming from?” In place of your anger, try telling your partner, “Right now I’m really feeling hurt. I wanted to let you know and talk about it and not have it develop into anger.” 

Frustration – Frustration is at the heart of much of our anger. The word “frustration” comes from the Latin “frustra”, which means “in vain.” We are frustrated when we confront a problem but can’t find a solution for it. Frustration is the experience of walking into dead-end streets and blind alleys and getting nowhere. 

A common myth is that frustration always must upset us. It doesn’t! If your partner is talking or acting in a way that bothers you, you may feel frustrated, but you can control your response both inwardly and outwardly. Many of your spouse’s behaviors and reactions will not be what you would want. From time to time, we all tend to magnify what the other person has done and create a mountain out of a molehill. 

There are hundreds of little annoyances that can activate the frustration button, but these annoyances are part and parcel of married life. Accepting them and giving them permission to be there can relieve some of the pressure. Give your partner permission to talk the way he or she does, to do things differently from you, to be late, to be silent. Your frustration will lessen because you have brought yourself back under control. We frequently become frustrated when we feel out of control. 

Resist the temptation to act aggressively when you get frustrated. Practice and work on your Mutual Understanding exercises. It’s a normal tendency to act out, but you can choose not to be “normal”. 

Remember, it isn’t your partner who makes you angry. It’s your inner response to the person that creates the anger. You and you alone are responsible for your emotions and reactions. 


Gary Moore served as associate pastor at Cloverdale Church of God for 15 years. He does couples’ coaching and leads couples’ workshops and retreats called MUM’s the Word. He has a weekly radio program – Life Point Plus – on KBXL 94.1FM at 8:45 a.m. on Fridays. His website at www.mutualunderstanding.net has video teachings and other resources for couples. He may be contacted at [email protected]. 

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