Do men and women experience and express anger differently, especially in their closest relationships? As a clinical psychologist, I’ve worked with many couples struggling with ineffective or hurtful ways of dealing with conflict and intense emotions. While each individual and relationship is unique, research has uncovered some intriguing gender differences in typical anger expression.

Anger is an emotional response to a real or imagined threat or provocation. Anger is broadly considered a negative emotion. However, anger differs from other negative emotions (e.g., fear, sadness, and disgust) because it is an “approach” emotion, and prepares you to take action rather than to avoid and withdraw. It is also on the left side of the brain, while emotions associated with avoidance – like disgust and fear – are housed in the right hemisphere.

Both men and women get angry at the same frequency, but they have been impacted by culture to express this anger in distinct ways.

Women’s anger: Indirect and minimized

Multiple studies have found that women in heterosexual relationships are more prone than their male partners to express anger in subtle, indirect ways like withdrawing, sulking, or making snide remarks rather than voicing their frustrations directly.1 This may stem from ingrained gender role expectations that make overt anger seem less acceptable for women. Women can feel pressure to suppress anger to avoid being perceived as shrewish or emasculating.2

Unfortunately, research indicates that when women do express anger openly with male partners, they are more likely to be met with defensiveness or counter-attacks compared to the reverse.3 Over time, this pattern can train women to bottle up resentment. Interestingly, some evidence suggests that women tend to ruminate on anger for longer than men, which could further heighten the impulse to let irritation seep out in indirect ways.4

Facial Expressions

Women have been known to smile when angry while men are more flat faced. Studies have found that there are gender differences in how emotions like anger are expressed through facial expressions. Women are more likely than men to smile when feeling angry or upset. Researchers theorize this may be due to social conditioning, with girls and women feeling more pressure to conceal negative emotions behind a pleasant expression.

A study by Briton and Hall (1995)5 found that women reported smiling more often than men in a variety of social situations, even when feeling angry or sad. LaFrance et al. (2003)6 conducted a meta-analysis of 162 studies on gender differences in smiling and found that women smiled more than men overall, although the difference was larger when participants thought they were being observed.

In contrast, men are more likely to maintain a neutral, flat facial expression when angry. However, it’s important to note that there is substantial individual variation, and such gender differences are averages that certainly don’t apply to all men and women. More research is still needed to fully understand the complex interplay of biological, psychological and sociocultural factors that shape how we express emotions.

Men’s anger: Overt and destructive

On the flip side, studies show that husbands’ outward expressions of hostility take a greater toll on relationship satisfaction than wives’ displays of anger.7 A husband’s harsh criticism, name-calling, or aggressive body language can rapidly erode a couple’s bond. Some experts posit that since many men aren’t taught constructive ways to process vulnerable emotions, they are more prone to use anger as a “cover” for feelings like sadness, fear, or shame.8

Interestingly, research on gender-specific anger triggers indicates that women more often report anger related to interpersonal hurts while men are frequently irked by external stressors like work or finances. But feeling unheard, mistreated, or devalued by one’s partner seems to universally spark anger for both genders.9

Gender Differences in Expressing Anger: Insights from Gottman’s Research

John Gottman’s research has revealed some differences in how men and women typically express anger within a marriage. Gottman found that men are more likely to exhibit “stonewalling” behavior during conflicts, which involves withdrawing, shutting down, and refusing to engage in the discussion (Gottman & Levenson, 1988).10 This can be particularly frustrating for women, who often desire more emotional engagement and communication during disagreements (Gottman, 1994).11 This withdrawal can intensify the wife’s complaining and criticizing. This sets up a vicious cycle in which the more the wife complains or criticizes, the more the husband withdraws. The more the husband withdraw, the more the wife complains and criticizes.

Additionally, Gottman’s research suggests that men are more prone to experiencing “flooding,” an intense physiological reaction to stress that can lead to feeling overwhelmed and unable to process information effectively (Gottman, 1993).12 On the other hand, women are more likely to express anger through complaining and criticizing, the latter which can escalate conflicts and negatively impact the relationship (Gottman, 1994).11 Gottman emphasizes the importance of managing anger constructively in a marriage, as unresolved anger and negative conflict patterns can erode the foundation of the relationship over time (Gottman & Silver, 1999).13

Putting the research into practice

So what can couples glean from these anger-related gender differences? First, it’s key to remember that productive anger expression is a skill that often needs to be cultivated, especially for those who never learned healthy conflict resolution growing up.

Quick tips:

  • Practice assertive “I feel” statements instead of attacking or shutting down
  • Agree on “time outs” to self-soothe before calmly revisiting heated topics
  • Validate your partner’s underlying emotions even if you disagree with their stance
  • Notice anger triggers and aim to problem-solve as teammates, not adversaries

Of course, the goal isn’t to eradicate anger, which is a valid human emotion. The sweet spot is being able to tolerate and respond to each other’s anger respectfully – and use it as a springboard for greater understanding. If dysfunctional anger is creating a chasm, don’t hesitate to enlist a couples counselor for support in breaking the cycle.


To sum up, while both men and women can struggle to express anger constructively, common gender differences in anger style are worth noting. Women may be prone to suppressing or hinting at anger indirectly, while men may be quicker to lash out overtly. The happiest relationships seem to be those where both partners feel safe to assert their anger and work through it collaboratively. With insight, effort and perhaps some professional guidance, even anger-prone couples can learn to fight fair and leverage conflict for closeness.


1. Travers-Hill, E., Dunn, B. D., Hoppitt, L., Hitchcock, C., & Dalgleish, T. (2017). Beneficial effects of training in self-distancing and perspective broadening for high socially anxious individuals. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 54, 18-24.

2. Fischer, A. H., & Evers, C. (2011). The social costs and benefits of anger as a function of gender and relationship context. Sex Roles, 65(1-2), 23-34.

3. Burleson, Brant & Hanasono, Lisa & Bodie, Graham & Holmstrom, Amanda & Rack, Jessica & Rosier, Jennifer & Mccullough, Jennifer. (2009). Explaining Gender Differences in Responses to Supportive Messages: Two Tests of a Dual-Process Approach. Sex Roles. 61. 265-280.

4. Cox, Deborah & Stabb, Sally & Hulgus, Joseph. (2000). Anger and Depression in Girls and Boys: A Study of Gender Differences. Psychology of Women Quarterly – PSYCHOL WOMEN QUART. 24. 110-112. 10.1111/j.1471-6402.2000.tb01027.x.

5. Briton, N. J., & Hall, J. A. (1995). Beliefs about female and male nonverbal communication. Sex Roles, 32(1-2), 79-90.

6. LaFrance, M., Hecht, M. A., & Paluck, E. L. (2003). The contingent smile: a meta-analysis of sex differences in smiling. Psychological Bulletin, 129(2), 305-334.

7. Bloch, L., Haase, C. M., & Levenson, R. W. (2014). Emotion regulation predicts marital satisfaction: More than a wives’ tale. Emotion, 14(1), 130-144.

8. Chaplin TM. (2015). Gender and Emotion Expression: A Developmental Contextual Perspective. Emotion Review, Jan;7(1):14-21. doi: 10.1177/1754073914544408. PMID: 26089983; PMCID: PMC4469291.

9. 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.

10. Gottman, J. M. (1993). A theory of marital dissolution and stability. Journal of Family Psychology, 7(1), 57-75.

11. Gottman, J. M. (1994). What predicts divorce? The relationship between marital processes and marital outcomes. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

12. Gottman, J. M., & Levenson, R. W. (1988). The social psychophysiology of marriage. In P. Noller & M. A. Fitzpatrick (Eds.), Perspectives on marital interaction (pp. 182-200). Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

13. Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (1999). The seven principles for making marriage work. New York, NY: Crown Publishers.