What You’re Not Saying When You Ask If Your Partner Is Angry

Portrait of unhappy young couple having problemsSeveral minutes after I had asked my husband to skip the gym so we could go straight to a “Fall Fun Festival,” I could tell something wasn’t right. His answers to my questions were monosyllabic and devoid of warmth. I was frustrated that going to the gym was more important to him than spending time with me. “Are you mad at me?” I asked, feeling confused and annoyed. He said, “No, it’s fine,” and walked out the door to run some errands.

For a long time, a lot of our arguments looked this way—me probing for how he was feeling without revealing anything about my own emotional experience. Often, my husband would shut down even more after I asked him this question and our arguments stalled as I fumed and waited for him to own his feelings. I know he’s mad, but he’s not TELLING me he’s mad. This is CLEARLY all his fault. Why can’t he tell me how he feels?

There’s nothing wrong with checking in on how your partner is feeling (“What’s going on for you right now? You look angry”). The problem with asking your partner if he or she is mad at you is it sends the message that (1) his or her emotional experience is the only one that’s responsible for whatever issue has arisen, and that (2) if he or she is not mad at you, there is no point to further discussion. It also allows the questioner to avoid owning his or her own feelings.

Ultimately, whether your partner shares his or her emotional experience with you is up to your partner. Many people struggle to put words to their feelings for a variety of valid and sometimes painful reasons. However, if you find yourself constantly wondering how your partner is feeling in tense moments, you may want to try some of the following suggestions:

  1. Acknowledge that people process emotions in different ways and at different speeds. While one partner may want to talk things out immediately, another might need more time. Both ways of coping are valid. Sometimes, the best time to talk about emotions is after the intensity of the moment has passed.
  2. Check in with yourself about how you’re feeling in the moment. Do you feel distant from your partner? Confused? Alone? Sad? Do you feel increasingly angry or annoyed the more distant and alone you feel? By sharing these feelings with your partner, you can increase his or her sense of safety by showing that you are open to also being vulnerable and honest with your feelings. You can also work together to understand what’s going on between the two of you. Maybe your partner isn’t mad at you and is actually exhausted, stressed, or was reminded of something else he or she is angry about. Either way, telling your partner you feel distant lets him or her realize how his or her own mood is impacting you and the relationship. This is much more productive than accusing your partner of having a feeling he or she may or may not be having.
  3. Assume your partner’s feelings and reactions make sense and approach the situation from a place of curiosity. The idea here is to better understand and connect to your partner.

It took a long time for me to find the words to say, “Hey, I’m feeling really distant from you right now. It’s a lonely, sad way to feel, and the more distant I feel, the more I start to feel angry.” It feels risky and vulnerable to approach someone when it seems like he or she is avoiding you, but the potential payoff for vulnerability is connection. I found when I approached how I felt, my partner was much more likely to meet me with his own emotional experience—whether he was actually angry at me or feeling a variety of other ways.

If you need help communicating your feelings, contact a qualified therapist.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Maria Saavedra, PhD

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Theo

    November 16th, 2015 at 8:09 AM

    The things that go unsaid?
    Often the things that need to be said the most

  • Whitney

    November 16th, 2015 at 3:35 PM

    I know exactly the things to say or do to make my husband mad and there are times when I will admit I do them on purpose just to get a response out of him. It makes me angry when he says nothing at all so I goad him on until he does feel forced to reply. I know that is sort of childish but at the same time he isn’t meeting my needs either by acting like he doesn’t even hear what I am saying.

  • Ronni

    November 17th, 2015 at 8:13 AM

    Well, I have a feeling that I know when he is mad, but then I also know that I do very little to own up to what my part in this could be. I know that I could be responsible for some of that but I don’t think that I should always have to take responsibility for everything.

  • Dr. Saavedra

    November 17th, 2015 at 8:52 AM

    Hi Ronni, I really appreciate your comment, and I completely agree that no one person should have to take responsibility for the negative feelings that our partners’ sometimes have. My hope in writing this article is to articulate that it’s just as important to own our feelings (often a feeling of distance, loneliness, or anger) as it is to be curious about how our partner feels when we ask “are you mad at me?”. I think of understanding our own feelings and that of our partner as being separate from whether a partner ultimately decides to make changes in their own behavior.

  • Kaitlyn

    November 18th, 2015 at 7:19 AM

    I suppose that there are times when it makes us feel better to try to project our own anger onto another, act as if it is them being upset and causing the problem instead of us. I’m not sure why there is this need to divert responsibility onto another person, especially the person who supposedly means so much to us.

  • Lena

    November 21st, 2015 at 1:41 PM

    Most of us never really want to hear it if we are the cause of their anger :/

  • Creighton

    November 23rd, 2015 at 8:14 AM

    Surely it isn’t just me but I know there are times that I say or do that I know will make him even angrier. I guess I am trying to subconsciously get a response out of him, and no matter whether it is positive or negative, I am always still looking for that reaction.

  • rowe

    November 24th, 2015 at 2:40 PM

    These are the conversations that I already enter into mad. Why? I don’t know, maybe I am working on putting up my defenses before we even have a chance to talk it through. I guess that I must feel like I will be verbally attacked so I go ahead and get those defenses up before I even start.

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