Psychologists have long been interested in the words people use to express themselves because words often convey more than their literal meaning. For example, couples who frequently use the word “we” are more likely to be satisfied with their relationship, and single people are more likely to be interested in dates who use words that are similar to the words they use themselves.

Our research team was interested in learning more about the words that romantic partners say to one another when feeling irritated or annoyed because these are often the moments that escalate into more intense conflict. Of course, we assumed that romantic partners would use more anger words such as “mad,” “hate,” and “stupid” when they felt more annoyed with their partners.  

But we also wondered whether people’s past family experiences influence how often they use anger words. Considerable research shows that people who grow up in aggressive homes are more likely to be aggressive in their own romantic relationships. But no one has looked specifically at the language they use. It makes sense that people who grow up with aggressive parents might be more likely to use anger words when they feel irritated with their partners. 

To test this idea, we asked heterosexual dating couples in their early 20s to carry around a smart phone that recorded 50% of the couple’s conversations over the course of one day. We transcribed these conversations and used a software program that counts the frequency of various words to calculate the proportion of total spoken content that were words that expressed anger.  The smart phones also alerted couples to complete a brief survey every hour to report how irritated or annoyed they felt towards their partner in the past hour.

We found that men used more anger-related words during times when they felt more annoyed with their partners.  In addition, men who had received more verbal aggression from their parents while growing up tended to use more anger words in conversations with their partners, regardless of how annoyed they were at the moment.

An unanticipated finding was that women used more anger words during times of the day that their partners reported feeling more irritated. In other words, men’s irritation—but not women’s irritation—was related to women’s use of anger-related words.  It’s possible that, rather than using anger words when they are irritated, women use more indirect ways of expressing their annoyance, such as by ignoring their partner or using an irritated tone of voice.

Interestingly, women who grew up with very verbally aggressive parents were more likely to express anger words when they felt annoyed with their partner. Thus, both men and women’s use of anger words related to their experiences growing up.  But for men, having parents who were aggressive was reflected in more anger words sprinkled throughout the day, whereas for women, exposure to aggressive parents was reflected in using more anger words at the time they felt annoyed.

The words you use with your romantic partner appear to change in connection to your moods, your partner’s moods, and your family history. If you don’t want to repeat the communication patterns of your parents, you may want to explore using different ways of expressing annoyance toward your partner.

For further reading

Han, S. C., Schacter, H. L., Timmons, A. C., Kim, Y., Sichko, S., Pettit, C., & Margolin, G. (2020). Feelings of annoyance and spoken anger words in couples’ everyday lives: The role of family-of-origin aggression. Social Psychological and Personality Science. doi:10.1177/1948550620958806


Sohyun Han is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of Southern California. She studies risk and resilience, childhood adversity, close relationships, and daily biopsychosocial processes.