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Anger in Asian American Couples: Exploring its Role in the Relationship

Working through conflict effectively is essential to all long term relationships. When it comes to conflict resolution however, many couples, especially Asian American ones, can struggle with navigating their anger during heated fights. For Asian American couples with traumatic upbringings, anger expression is often a key roadblock to relational connection and intimacy. While usually not the root issue in relational dynamics, problematic anger issues can make solving relational problems more difficult and keep couples feeling stuck, alone, and disconnected. 

If you or your partner are often angry at one another, feeling helpless in recurring fights, or find yourself snapping easily, this article will explore some of the common ways anger can show up in relational conflicts, and teach you how to use your anger as a guide.

Anger tells you someone in the relationship is feeling scared, sad, or deeply frustrated

Anger is a natural, primary human emotion that serves a functional purpose. Children as young as one can experience and express anger. Anger is a protective emotion often masking more vulnerable feelings such as fear, pain, or frustration. We can get angry when we are scared, sad or worried about things. In relationships, when there is an unmet need, perceived wrong, loss of control, or threat, anger may be an emotion that is activated to deal with things if we have not learned to process our more primary emotions (happiness, sadness, fear, disgust, surprise, etc.).

For example, perhaps you felt hurt and sad that your partner cut you off when you were speaking and this left you feeling unheard or unseen. Anger is then activated as a way to help you feel more heard because it is trying to defend your more vulnerable feelings and needs. Anger makes you look tougher, louder, and scarier, even when you may not feel tougher. It is ironic that when you feel your most vulnerable, that anger manifests. Anger seeks to protect you and works to get your interests met. 

Internally, your anger says to you, “my deep need is not being met in this relationship”. How you choose to express your anger, either in appropriate or inappropriate ways, will communicate things in the relationship. For example, if you typically raise your voice, yell, or use acts of violence in anger, you are externally communicating to your partner, “my needs are the most important in this relationship and your needs don’t matter”. With mindfulness, you can learn to manage your anger reactivity and instead wield it as a compass pointing to where needs work in your relationship.

Trauma might make you more angry in your marriage

Anger has a strong relationship to trauma. Trauma often triggers angry emotions and anger expression in relationships. Trauma involves violations of personal boundaries and trust, leading to anger as a self protective response. Sometimes the body uses anger as a survival mechanism to protect against future similar threats. Childhood traumas for example, physical, emotional, sexual abuse, and neglect, can be disruptive to a child’s sense of safety or trust; and subsequently make regulating anger more difficult later on in life. Children often suppress their angry emotions from abusive caregivers out of fear but end up carrying this forward into adulthood. These difficult repressed emotions can be triggered often in intimate relationships such as marriages.

If you have had a traumatic upbringing, chances are you might be more easily irritated and angry because more things will trigger you. Children who have lived through relational trauma such as life with an abusive caregiver have brains that become and remain hypervigilant for danger. You may find it difficult to regulate your emotions because trauma also impacts the prefrontal cortex area of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, decision making and cognitive processing. In a relationship, this can look like getting angry and snappy a lot, over seemingly insignificant things, and finding yourself activated and annoyed frequently. If this resonates, you might benefit from individual therapy to better understand how trauma can show up in your relationship as anger.

You may be displacing anger onto your partner/spouse

Asian Americans learn to cope with and navigate various forms and degrees of discrimination, microaggressions, lack of representation, and belonging. These realities can leave us feeling alienated, alone, and angry. Intergenerational trauma such as migration, loss of culture and relationships can further add to and create these feelings of sadness that lead to anger. Sometimes what we experience in the public spheres of our lives are then projected onto the more private spheres—most commonly onto our spouses and children, who are the closest people to us. 

This is known as “anger displacement”, which is a common coping strategy in many Asian American families and relationships. It is when someone in the relationship feels angry about a source but feels powerless to address it directly, so instead, takes it out on a more vulnerable person in the family. For example, you were passed for a promotion at work but you don’t feel like you can address that directly, so instead you take it out on your spouse because it feels less threatening. Anger displacement is a sign of immature emotional regulation and coping that is unhealthy and damaging to relationships. If you are noticing this in your marriage, seek individual or couples therapy for help.

Do you or your partner have appropriate anger coping skills?

When you or your partner gets angry in a fight or intense argument, how you manage and express your anger (anger coping) is important for effective problem solving and conflict resolution. Anger coping skills are often passed down from previous generations through modeling. Your parents may or may not have learned how to effectively manage anger, or perhaps grew up in a different culture where anger was accepted as positive. For example, in many asian cultures, males were often expected to have anger outbursts as displays of authority in the family. Think about how you witnessed anger expressed in your own family. Was there yelling? Were things thrown around the house? Did someone often break things? Was there physical hitting and other forms of violence? Have you adopted similar ways of coping with anger now in your relationship? 

If you recognize that you or your spouse may have unhelpful anger coping styles, you can consider working with a couples therapist to build healthier skills together. With training and practice, you can work towards more appropriate methods such as taking a timeout, exercising, deep breathing, journaling, or even verbalizing your feelings directly. Remember that anger, like all emotions, come and go, they do not last forever. When you choose to act in a more conscious and thoughtful manner instead of reactively responding to your anger, you will become more effective in communication and problem solving in your marriage.

Anger is your opportunity to solve problems together

At its core, anger in a relationship lets you know that one or both of yours or your partner’s needs are not being met, and conflict resolution is necessary. While anger presents challenges, it also becomes your opportunity to grow. When you notice anger in your marriage, seek to manage and express it appropriately so that you can negotiate the tensions in your relationship towards greater intimacy and connection. If you are having trouble navigating these intense emotions in your marriage, sometimes working with a couples therapist can help.

Seek Couples Therapy at Yellow Chair Collective in Los Angeles or New York

If you are seeking therapy specifically tailored to your needs, consider reaching out to the culturally sensitive therapists at Yellow Chair Collective. We understand that different parts of our identities and histories can show up in different parts of our lives, and that it can make navigating relationships difficult. We also understand that there may be unique cultural and contextual factors that may influence your experiences.

At our Los Angeles, CA, and New York City, NY-based therapy practice, we have many skilled, trauma-informed therapists who can provide an empowering therapeutic experience. For your added convenience and simplicity, we offer online therapy for anyone in the state of California or New York. We know that guilt and shame are painful experiences, and that the path to finding meaning and figuring out how to be a good person can be challenging. We want to support you on your journey. Follow the steps below to begin.

Other Services at Yellow Chair Collective

There are many options for treatment using online therapy in California and New York, it just depends on what you’re needing. And while we certainly service Asian American folks, we also work with individuals from other cultures, too. So, whether you’re needing support in overcoming anxiety, burnout, trauma, or PTSD, we can help. Likewise, we serve teens and couples in need of support, too. So when you start online therapy with us, you can bring your whole self, including past struggles, cultural impacts, and more.

Begin Working With an Emotion Management Coaching Group in Los Angeles, CA, and New York, NY

Our team of therapists is happy to offer support groups and therapy across California and New York. Join the Emotion Management Coaching Group to  gain a deeper understanding of emotions and their functions, learn to build healthier relationships with emotions, and gain new tools for coping. You can join a support group with YCC by following these simple steps:

  1. Fill out our registration form here 
  2. Be notified when signups are open for the next cohort
  3. Start learning emotion management skills alongside a community