Sometimes anger is a good thing. Yes, most of your conflicts will be more constructive and pleasant if you can stay positive and focus on being a responsive listener. But sometimes being nice gets you nowhere. When your partner has a behavior you really need them to change and they just won’t listen, it may be time to get tough. Researchers have actually found that when people face major issues, such as when one partner wants the other to quit smoking but they are resistant, anger can be a productive emotion. Why? Because your anger helps you express your feelings to your partner and makes it clear that there are consequences if the behavior doesn’t change. Best of all, it motivates your partner to actually change their behavior. When the “it would be nice if you…” and the “I don’t like it when…” comments just aren’t cutting it anymore. When your partner has tuned you out and isn’t taking you seriously and you feel frustrated. When your partner really means to change but just isn’t motivated enough without clear consequences. These are the moments when anger can step in and help change happen.
In one study, couples came into the lab and partners took turns telling each other an aspect of their partner they wanted to change or improve. Right after, people reported the conversation was more successful when the person wanting change was understanding and responsive. But over time this strategy failed, with their partners not actually changing their behaviors. However, those people who were more explicit and direct, those people who made it clear that there would be consequences if the behavior continued—regardless of whether those people were nice or angry—they thought initially that the conversation wasn’t very successful. But then, over time their partners actually started to change their behavior. And down the road, the people who were angry and direct about the need for their partner to change their behavior were more satisfied, because their partner actually did change their behavior. This was particularly true if the behavior was a serious issue in the relationship. What this study and others like it tell us is that when you are facing serious problems, staying positive or making light of the problems in your relationship can actually backfire and problems can become worse over time. Instead, a little anger and direct communication may be what is needed to clarify the issues and encourage change.
Anger is not the same as hostility though. Being angry doesn’t give you license to be mean. You can still complain without criticizing or getting contemptuous (see this post on why criticism and contempt are so bad). You need to use your anger wisely. Recognize that your anger means that this issue is important to you. Then identify what it is exactly that is making you angry. Get to the bottom line. When you’ve figured it out, be very clear about what is bothering you and what will happen if the behavior does not change.