Conflict is a natural product of interpersonal relationships. Rarely do two people involved in a relationship—whether social, professional, or intimate—avoid disagreements. But the way these disagreements affect future behaviors is greatly determined by whether they are hurtful or angry in nature. Hurt feelings and anger can cause someone to feel devalued and less than adequate. Often, hurt and anger occur simultaneously. To better understand how these emotional states influence conflict outcome, Edward P. Lemay Jr. of the Department of Psychology at the University of New Hampshire recently led a study that compared the behavioral outcomes of individuals feeling hurt versus those feeling angry after an interpersonal conflict.
In four separate studies, Lemay evaluated the level of hurt and anger experienced by victims of devaluation. He also examined how their responses compared to perpetrators’ reactions and gauged the ultimate outcomes. He found that people who felt hurt tended to be higher in vulnerability and commitment and worked harder to repair the relationship and gain the acceptance of the perpetrator. This resulted in perpetrators exhibiting higher levels of empathy and guilt and reciprocated efforts of relationship restoration. Conversely, angry victims were less dependent upon the acceptance of their perpetrators and had higher levels of control and destructive responses. Because perpetrators saw less commitment from the victims, they responded with unconstructive and angry behaviors.
The results of this study expose how the delicate nuances of emotional reactivity factor into interpersonal relationships. In sum, people who feel angered by conflict tend to react in negative, maladaptive ways that serve to perpetuate the hostile environment. Their perpetrators are more likely to act similarly, setting the stage for a devolving situation. Lemay points out that hurt works in opposite ways, saying “hurt does not motivate destructive responses.” Instead, hurt is like honey to the bees. Rather than exacerbating a tense situation, hurt serves as an indicator of genuine concern and solicits cooperation by both parties to reconcile the situation in the most constructive way possible.
Lemay, E. P., Jr., Overall, N. C., Clark, M. S. (2012). Experiences and interpersonal consequences of hurt feelings and anger. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0030064
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