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Anger and Conflict

Anger is an emotion common to all humans, self-protective in nature.

Anger is an automatic reflexive response to ill treatment or a blocked goal. It is the self-protective state of mind that indicates he or she will not tolerate certain types of behaviour or is determined to reach a goal. The automatic reflexive responses: “fight”, “flight” and “freeze” correspond respectively to the self-protective brain states: “anger”, “fear” and “panic”. Thus anger correlates to the fight brain response.

Prolonged anger can lead to bitterness, and as one person puts it, “Being bitter is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” - Author unknown.

Navigating Conflict:

The Three Levels of Anger - Complaint, Criticism, and Contempt

In the intricate dance of human interactions, conflicts are an inevitable part of the journey when two or more individuals converge. How these conflicts are resolved can significantly impact the dynamics of relationships. Within conflict there are three distinct levels of anger: complaint, criticism, and contempt.

1. Complaint: Expressing Dissatisfaction

Complaint, the initial stage of anger, arises when one’s behavior adversely affects another person. This is akin to the common scenario of leaving socks on the floor for your partner to find. Complaints are a natural channel for expressing discontent, a means of addressing issues and behaviours, in isolation, do not pose a grave threat to the relationship. Complaints are, in essence, a plea for understanding and resolution about the behaviour that negatively impacts the other person.

2. Criticism: Identifying Behavioral Patterns

When complaints recur, patterns of behavior emerge, giving rise to the second stage of anger: criticism. Criticism extends beyond addressing specific incidents and delves into the recurrent nature of problematic behavior. It’s not merely about the socks on the floor; it’s about the persistence of neglect, perceived laziness, disrespect, or a failure to listen when the socks have been left on the floor for the 10th time. Criticism, therefore, encompasses the broader context of misbehavior, focusing on the consistency of these actions, when we become repeat offenders.

In healthy relationships, complaints and criticisms are commonplace, as they reflect the natural ebb and flow of human interaction. They serve as signals that prompt self-reflection and change, helping maintain balance within the relationship.

3. Contempt: The Toxic Culmination

When complaints and criticisms fail to elicit meaningful change, the third and most concerning level of anger emerges: contempt. Contempt signifies a significant shift in the dynamics of a relationship.

Anger in Relationships
It transforms the expression of anger into a more destructive force, targeting the other person’s character. Contempt can manifest in overtly aggressive behaviours, such as name-calling, put-downs, or harsh personal attacks. It can also take subtler forms, such as passive-aggressive behaviours or belittling remarks.

Contempt creates an environment that feels unsafe, toxic, and combative. It erodes the foundation of trust and stability within a relationship. This level of anger often leads to a “you versus me” mentality, transforming partners into adversaries and enemies rather than allies and teammates working toward restoration and mutual growth.

In conclusion, understanding the three levels of anger—complaint, criticism, and contempt—is essential for maintaining healthy and harmonious relationships. By addressing complaints and criticisms with empathy, active listening and behaviour change, we can prevent the toxic progression to contempt. Ultimately, the goal is to nurture a connection where partners collaborate to build each other up rather than tear each other down. Staying within the realms of levels one and two—complaints and criticisms—can help us avoid the corrosive effects of contempt and foster unity in our relationships.


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