Close relationships are essential to mental and physical health.  They are also a source of intense emotions, both good and bad. Friends and romantic partners sometimes let people down and behave in ways that are wrong and even harmful. When confronted with transgressions, people often feel intense hostile emotions such as anger, contempt, and disgust.

Anger, contempt, and disgust may be related to distinct behavioral responses to transgressions. For example, imagine your best friend criticized you in public. Would you just walk away (avoidance), scream at them (aggression), or try to discuss your feelings with them (reparative action)?  Past research suggests some possible links between the three hostile emotions and three different courses of action. 

Anger is typically thought to be synonymous with aggression. Expressions like 'Bull in a china shop' or 'Boiling with anger,' suggest that anger always leads to aggression. However, some research contradicts this assumption, including evidence that anger can have long-term benefits for relationships. Contempt is related to social exclusion and even divorce, whereas disgust is strongly linked with avoiding the other person.

Previous research has not examined the links between all three hostile emotions and behavior in the context of close relationships. We speculated that anger is both good and bad for relationships.  That is, anger may be linked with both aggression and reparative action. We also wondered how disgust compares to contempt in predicting avoidance. Is disgust or contempt more strongly related to wanting to avoid the issue and walk away from relationship partners?

To study this, we studied 169 people in two relationship contexts: romantic relationships and friendships. In two studies, people first completed measures of their attachment (emotional bonding) styles and narcissistic tendencies, which we thought would influence their responses when confronted with wrongdoing. Participants then imagined a situation in which their romantic partner or friend transgressed, and they felt either anger, disgust, or contempt. We then assessed their hostile emotions and how likely they would be to respond with aggression, social exclusion, or avoidance.

We found that anger, contempt, and disgust were all related to aggression in the context of romantic relationships. But only disgust was associated with aggression in friendships. Disgust was the only emotion associated with avoidance in both romantic relationships and friendships. Thus, disgust may be more detrimental to relationships than contempt. Anger was related to reparative action in both romantic relationships and friendships. More anger is linked with wanting to repair the relationship. For example, when people feel angry they may want to discuss what happened and how to move forward from the transgression. Disgust was related to lower levels of wanting to fix friendships, but was unrelated to reparative action in romantic relationships.

Our research suggests that anger can be constructive as well as damaging to relationships.  Anger makes people want to do something to fix the situation, which can include both aggression and reparative action. While disgust can be very bad for relationships, more than contempt, fuelling aggression and avoidance towards both friends and romantic partners. Additionally, in the context of friendships disgust can even hinder the likelihood of wanting to repair the relationship.

Anger can fuel both positive and negative responses in close relationships. To create good relationships, people should pay attention to how they can foster constructive anger over time, and prevent feeling disgusted in their relationships.

For Further Reading

Karppinen, H., King, O., & Russell, P. S. (2023). Hostile emotions and close relationships: Anger can be related to constructive responses. Personality and Individual Differences, 212, 112258.

Fischer, A. H., & Roseman, I. J. (2007). Beat them or ban them: The characteristics and social functions of anger and contempt. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93(1), 103–115.

Weidman, A. C., Sowden, W. J., Berg, M. K., & Kross, E. (2020). Punish or protect? How close relationships shape responses to moral violations. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46(5), 693-708.

Sophie Russell is a Lecturer in Social Psychology at the University of Surrey. She investigates how specific emotions impact our thoughts and behaviors in social and moral contexts.

Helena Karppinen is an Assistant Psychologist in a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service with an interest in the ways emotional expression can impact relationships.

Olivia King is an Assistant Psychologist with an interest in social psychology, in particular emotions and narcissism.