The Dark Side of Anger: What Every Couple Needs to Know

Noemi J. Mullins

It can happen in a split second. It can happen in a split second. It is amazing how efficient our brains can mobilize a fight/flight response. This leads to withdrawal, full-on engagement or feeling frozen (as in Deer in the Headlights).

We believe there is something wrong in our partner’s brain. But not with our brains. That thought is worth pondering. This version is our incredulous response. It features themes and variations such as “How can that be?” and “What’s the problem with me?”. The withdrawal version is a silent version of the same inner thoughts. As a numbed response, the frozen version is turned off.

Healthy couples can be angry and express negative emotions, but some anger is destructive while others are constructive. In another article, we will discuss the positive aspects of anger.

Anger does not have to be a secondary emotion. In some cases, anger can be a valid and necessary response. Anger can be used to motivate action and change by expressing anger in response to injustices or advocating for fairness or equality.

Anger that is not triggered by everyday frustrations and irritability (which is normal) does not refer to anger. It refers to an immediate and damaging flash of anger or hurt that shapes our response to our partner. This interferes with our ability to slow down. An impulsive, outlandishly angry response takes the place of better judgement and filters.

Possibly, the issue is in our brains and not in our partners.

What happens to our brains when we feel angry? This can cause a profound inability to communicate. The sympathetic nervous system is activated by tiny almond-shaped structures located in the middle of our brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is associated with memory functions in the brain. It sends out signals of perceived threats and activates neurotransmitters. These increase heart rate, blood flow, blood pressure, breathing, and heart rate. The process activates additional neurotransmitters, hormones, such as adrenaline and nor adrenaline which further increase physiology and sustain anger. This complex combination of responses is called ” flooding.”


It is important that partners who are flooded have intense reactions, are fast and involuntary, as well as rapid responses. This means that the amygdala runs the show, and the prefrontal cortex (the brain that is associated with impulse control and judgment) is temporarily disconnected. It’s about survival, even if we don’t know what triggered it or what the triggers were.


Triggers can be triggered by events in our history, which the brain encodes at that time and stores for future safety and reference. Our brain activates triggers when there are similar events in our lives or that remind us of negative past events.

Enduring vulnerabilities refer to events that cause an emotional wound that can activated and relived in real-time. In those moments, the past becomes present.

Couples can be confused about what is really happening because the flooded reactions seem so intense and out of the blue. This seems outlandish and excessive. Once we understand how flooding happens when deep felt emotions are being triggered we will be less likely misinterpret it as crazy or oversensitive. This is how humans wired to anticipate danger and find ways to feel safe.


Flooding does not always mean that someone has strong reactions. Flooding is a physiological response to danger, usually indicated by a heart beat above 100 bpm. The resting heart rate could range from 60 to 100. It is worth looking out for a heart rate well above 100. Resting heart rates can vary from one person to another and are affected by factors such as physical health and medications.

Flooding may signal that self-protection and the alert system are being activated if there are strong, overwhelming emotions or responses that seem excessive. Flooding can trigger a non-declarative or feeling memory. This is a memory that you are not aware of but which you cannot access.

One couple that I met in my office shared their story of a fight that they had on a camping trip. Pedro and Alicia (not real names) had taken Jackie their seven-year old daughter camping. As they were packing up, Pedro saw a yellow jacket hovering around Jackie. Alicia was nearer to them so Pedro shouted to Alicia to grab Jackie as he ran towards them. Jackie couldn’t understand what Pedro was trying to say and, as she tried to ask him what he wanted the yellow jacket made Jackie feel even more uncomfortable. Pedro yelled at Alicia in a rage, accusing her not being attentive to his mother.

This was not a typical interaction. Pedro did not usually accuse or blame Alicia. He often said that Alicia was a loving and wonderful mother. What happened? Pedro was raised in a large family. He was a middle child in a family of five and often had to take care of himself. He understood that his parents were doing the best they could but he became angry when he realized that Alicia wasn’t aware that Jackie was in danger. His midbrain immediately activated, sending out alerts. The emotional memory of neglect was what defined his reality at that time. The brain’s rational thinking was not accessible.

We had a different conversation about what happened and the reasons why Pedro reacted. This gave a different meaning to the negative interaction. Pedro had already apologized to Alicia for his actions. However, he felt shameful and confused about his reactions before he realized that he was triggered. Pedro and Alicia began to see their conflicts differently after learning about flooding triggers. They also discussed what to do if either of them got flooded. Although we all have the responsibility for our emotions, it’s much easier to manage them when you understand their root causes.


It is important to decide to stop talking if you feel overwhelmed or overwhelmed. It is best for both of you to agree to signal the other that it is time to stop talking. This is a good preventative strategy to avoid things getting worse. A research study found that a 20-minute break is necessary for parasympathetic stress hormones to stop runaway emotions. The conversation and your partner will keep the physiology flowing. Instead, read, walk, meditate, or listen to the radio. You can do anything to distract yourself from the incident.

Once you feel calm enough to have an honest conversation, you can approach one another to start a second conversation. Things are more likely to go well if the mid-brain doesn’t run things.

It can be helpful to talk about triggers that might have been pushed at some point. I think my strong reaction may be due to being ignored as a child. That feeling is horrible.” Now is the time to be compassionate, not to judge. It is a great way to show vulnerability and validate the partner’s feelings by sharing a trigger. “I can understand why I didn’t respond to your question. That could trigger that feeling.”


This article is about negative anger. This flooding state has been identified by Ottoman research as one predictor for relationship meltdown. It is pervasive and a characteristic of how couples handle anger. Research also shows that there are healthy and constructive forms of anger that can increase intimacy and closeness. Keep watching for “The Upside of Anger in Relationships”. We have the inside scoop on what works and what doesn’t in managing conflict.

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