How The Frustration-Aggression Principle Affects Your Fights With Loved Ones

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fighting man and woman sitting back to back

What is the frustration-aggression principle? What role does it play in the fights you have with your loved ones?

We've all been there. Everyone has experienced those moments where their frustration level rises into the red zone because of a time crunch or unexpected obstacles.

Stressful life events also contribute to aggression because of the negative feelings that are stirred up. Furthermore, frustration can build from unmet expectations.

For example, you may expect your partner to think or behave the way you think or act. But, frequently, you may not realize that your expectations are unrealistic. 

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Built-up frustration can lead to snapping at a loved one — a partner, child, or friend. It can also lead to aggressive interactions. Often, it's not even loved ones who caused or contributed to the initial frustration.

When you or someone else is unable or unwilling to address the source of the frustration, it tends to be taken out on the most convenient target.

That means that those we love the most are too often the ones who suffer from our aggressive reactions. 

Side-stepping the Frustration-Aggression Principle

If your loved one is under extreme stress or experiencing mounting frustration, it's helpful to remember to stop poking the bear.

If you know that your partner is super stressed and frustrated, this is not the time to bring up your pet peeves about them.

Timing can make a big difference in the outcome. Allowing space for a loved one to decompress may help avoid aggressive interactions. 

If you yourself are the bear, consider whether your actions are helping you achieve your underlying goals.

For example, what kind of relationship are you creating when you dump a toxic load of frustration and aggression on your partner?

If they are not the source of frustration, increasing your awareness of the tendency to vent at a convenient target may help you catch yourself overreacting and improve your ability to dial back your aggressive behavior.

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The fact that human beings tend to become aggressive when frustrated does not mean that you are helpless to do anything about it.

Rationalizing that "I was frustrated, which is why I bit my partner’s head off" is not a recipe for lasting happiness in a relationship. Even when you're frustrated, you still have the ability to choose which behavior you engage in.

Managing your anger when you're frustrated can help protect your relationships from the corrosive effects of aggression. 

In the midst of frustration and aggression, here are 6 ideas to hang on to yourself:

Take a time out. During the time out, do not pump up your anger or frustration. 

Go to the gym, hit a punching bag, or go for a run or brisk walk. Vigorous exercise can provide an outlet for frustration so that it does not turn to aggression. 

Address the source of frustration assertively when possible. If it is impossible to address the source directly, write a letter to the source of frustration and then burn it rather than send it. 

Practice reframing. Ask questions like, "Is there another way to look at this?" or "How might the other person be thinking or feeling?" or "What would someone I respect say about how to handle this?"

Use gratitude as an antidote for frustration. Gratitude can help with grounding and refocusing a negative mindset. 

Strengthen a solid sense of self by increasing self-awareness, practicing self-soothing, being a little more assertive, and practicing self-control.  

The frustration-aggression principle suggests that negative emotions and stress increase the likelihood of aggression.

An awareness of this human tendency can help us to prepare for those rough moments.

Remember that even the tiniest mouse will come out with its teeth bared if all avenues for escape are blocked.

So leave yourself and those you love space to calm down.

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Susan Derry is a Registered Therapeutic Counselor who’s been working with couples and individuals for 22 years. For more information, visit her website.