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April 26, 2023

Has your partner in a heated moment ever said something harsh or demeaning of you and suddenly you fire back with sharp, angry words of your own?  

Has your partner, in a social gathering, ever revealed to friends something about you that you regarded as very personal and you turn silent, quietly simmering with anger? 

In each example, there's a stirring of anger. But anger was probably not the first emotion that stirred in those moments. In the first example, the initial emotion was likely hurt or shame. In the second example, the initial emotion was likely embarrassed or humiliated. We call those initial emotional reactions — hurt, shame, embarrassed, humiliated, and others — primary emotions. The anger that showed up — we call it a secondary emotion: it appears after and secondary to something that came before. 

Some experts believe that most of the anger we feel and express in our primary relationship is secondary.  

We're not good at noticing — and naming — our primary feelings, those difficult, softer emotions that leave us vulnerable. When vulnerable, we can feel unsafe and threatened. Threat triggers our instinctive flight (become quiet or withdraw) or fight (show anger) responses. Rarely are flight or fight helpful during dicey relationship moments. Effective communication depends on partners hearing what each other is truly feeling — the primary emotion. In the first example above, an angry response is likely to escalate conflict, while “Your words are hurtful,” is likely to bring down the energy and even invite a partner’s compassion. In the second example, “I felt embarrassed and humiliated when you shared something I consider very personal” might lead to a partner’s understanding and compassion; anger would turn up the heat in the moment. 

The next time your partner angrily barks at you, try to stay quiet and just listen. Take deep breaths to settle yourself, especially if the blast of anger that came your way triggered your own defensive anger.  Think about whether you’re hearing primary or secondary anger (it’s probably secondary). Consider what the primary emotions might be. Then gently and softly ask: "What else are you feeling, underneath the anger?” If your partner seems unclear, ask: “Could there be hurt? Could there be fear? Or shame?" Approach it slowly; invite your partner to get curious with you about whether there’s something else stirring beneath the anger that didn’t rise to the surface at first glance. Say, “I want to really understand what’s happening for you.” There almost always is something primary beneath secondary anger. 

If you're the one feeling angry, get curious about what’s stirring within you. Ask yourself if the anger is primary or secondary. Look for the primary emotions that might be underneath and let your partner know what they are. 

Identifying and talking about our primary emotions offers the best likelihood of hard conversations moving toward positive outcomes.