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Managing Strong Emotions in Relationships

By Mary DeGraffenried, Intern and Eva Timothy, Professional Practice Extension Assistant ProfessorTwo Woman Talking

It can be hard to develop and maintain healthy relationships in a world full of chaos and confusion. Whether those relationships be in the home, with family, with your significant other, or even with work relationships. And though many uncontrollable things will happen in our lives, one of the few things we can control is our emotions. Emotions are a normal part of everyday life. Emotions are needed to connect us and provide vibrancy in life. We would all experience the flat effect if we did not feel a broad array of emotions. In a world of flat affect, everything would feel numb and no one would care to gain relationships and friendships. It is our emotions and actions that make every one of us who we are today. Carrol E Lizard (2009), who was a well-known research psychologist and contributed to writing the theory of emotions, supports the flat affect theory in some of his written works. He wrote, “Emotion feelings are a phase of neurobiological activity and the key psychological and motivational aspect of emotion. They constitute the primary motivational systems for human behavior (Lizard, 2009).”

 hough emotions are extremely beneficial for connecting, it is also important to remember that emotions can have just as much of a negative effect as a positive effect in a relationship. Anger, jealousy, disdain, fear, and loathing are just a few emotions that tend to cause people to grow farther apart. If one dwells on these specific emotions they may experience difficulty with their friendships and relationships. For instance, the 3-C Family Services (2017) reports that divorces in the U.S. have considerably increased since 1950. Divorce rates have gone from 22% to 50%. It’s interesting that when asked, many say that the reason they divorced was because of constant fighting, anger, uncertainty, and lack of commitment (Admin). Each of the above emotions’ points to behaviors that, given the right tools, could be managed more appropriately. For instance, raising one’s voice can cause anger or defensiveness in the person we are communicating with. Thereby hampering the possibility of compromise. It is human nature to get mad and to want to win an argument, but when we resort to yelling and directing our anger at each other, we inadvertently damage our relationship, therefore, ultimately losing out on a healthy bond. 

Refraining from angry outbursts can be a challenge in relationships. Here are some of the things you can do when feeling frustrated about a situation or trying to refrain from anger in your communications:

  • See a therapist if you notice a pattern of behavior that interferes with your relationships
  • Use “I” statements to express how a situation causes you to feel
  • Meditation
  • Exercise
  • Engage in a hobby
  • Taking a few deep breaths before responding
  • Picking and implementing a safe word to signify a break is needed when emotions are high
  • Visualize a positive outcome before having an important heartfelt conversation 

These activities can be used to release stress and other emotions that might be festering. It's important to remember that negative emotions will always be there, but we can learn tools to improve the way we handle our frustrations. When we channel our negative feelings into something positive or change the story we tell ourselves, those negative emotions we are experiencing tend to diffuse. Then when we feel a need to discuss a matter with someone, we are not making negative, unkind assumptions or accusations. When put in difficult situations, it can be hard to have discussions that aren't based on anger and untrue assumptions. A helpful tip when experiencing the above feelings is to take time to breathe. Many people tend to overreact right after something happens. Still, if we take the time right after to breathe, this calms the brainstem and allows us to communicate from a higher functioning portion of the brain. It is also important when discussing a problem to have a calm tone. So, to help with that, use “I” messages. Instead of saying, “You just make me so angry,” you could start out by saying “I felt hurt when…..” By using this language, you are able to be more sympathetic and less offensive when confronting the problem. 


Lizard, C. E. (2009). Emotion theory and research: highlights, unanswered questions, and emerging issues. Annual review of psychology, 60, 1–25. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.60.110707.163539

Admin. (2017, November 10). Why is the divorce rate so high? - the 3-C blog.https://www.3cfamilyservices.com/2014/02/08/divorce-rate-high