Anyone is a relationship knows that partners have the uncanny ability to bring out the best and worst in each other. Accordingly, whether newly married or celebrating many years together, partners can find themselves overreacting in a way that rarely happens anywhere else in their lives.
“ I can’t believe he got me so upset that I was screaming in front of the kids.”
“ She doesn’t stop until I walk out and slam the door.”
“ He insulted me-how did he end up the victim?”
- Overreactions are like flashfloods—all of a sudden they are there, be it from a deliberate or unintended provocation or the build up of unrelated feelings that let loose over something as simple as, “How did you forget the milk!”
- In the moment, it is very difficult to untangle what has happened; much less consider remedies to handle personal and interpersonal triggers and overreactions.
- When physical violence is involved there is no question about change as safety comes first and professional help is warranted.
- While often just as emotionally corrosive, verbal overreactions often become blurred in terms of provocation.
- Most partners simply blame the other and want the other to change.
- What we know about change is that we are much more successful changing ourselves than anyone else.
But what if I am not the person who triggers the overreaction?
You may not be; but you are the person reacting in a way that you don’t like—and that you can change.
Two people can’t dance the old dance if one starts dancing new steps.
When a partner steps out of the pattern to consider some of the reasons and remedies for overreacting, both partners and their relationship can benefit.
Reasons and Remedies for Overreactions
Physical realities of fatigue, hunger and pain compromise our functioning, particularly our capacity to regulate anxiety and anger. In a culture that gets too little sleep and demands multi-tasking, the stage is often set for overreaction.
- Self-vigilance that includes self-care as well as disclosure to your partner about your needs can avert overreactions.
“ I think if I can just unwind and change before I respond…”
“ I’m exhausted and we never do well discussing these issues late at night…let’s pick it up tomorrow.”
When partners can take a moment to disclose their needs, hear each other and try to work together– the chance of an overreaction based on basic needs is lowered.
Sometimes that is not as easy as it sounds!
- Self-vigilance must also include regulating anxiety as it bears on regulating angry overreactions.
Are you the partner who feels such urgency that you cannot wait 10 minutes and insists on talking no matter how the other feels?
Are you the partner who becomes enraged by the other’s inability to contain their anxiety?
- Reconsidering situations from individual and couple perspectives adds the step that reduces acting without thinking. For example,
- Taking 10 minutes to write down your thoughts so you don’t lose them or doing something for yourself for a short time while your partner catches his/her breath may actually give you a sense of mastery about waiting and improve the discussion.
- Put words to your anxiety. If postponing discussing an issue until the morning feels like a “ gag order” that fuels your anxiety, make that feeling known. Reasonable disclosure often invites finding a middle ground solution. Sometimes, for example, simple acknowledgment of a problem offers enough relief that discussion can be postponed.
“ So the boys want to drive to Maine with their friends…we will face that one tomorrow.”
- Mutual respect and flexibility are invaluable.
A presumption is an act or instance of taking something to be true or adopting a particular attitude toward something, although it is not known for certain.
“ You never like spending time with my family.”
“ You have no interest in doing anything.”
Presumptions are triggers to overreactions in partners, because in most cases, they are critical and overgeneralized leaving the partner feeling unfairly attacked and judged.
- Robert Allan, author of Getting Control of Your Anger, suggests that one of the major hooks to anger is injustice.
- It is not surprising that negative presumptions provoke partners to counterattack with anger and often a defensive screaming litany of proofs.
- Often the accused becomes the more aggressive and feels doubly incriminated by his/her overreaction.
- The trap that pushes the overreaction is the need to get the other to agree that he/she is wrong.
- Becoming Assertive -If presumption is a negative pattern in your relationship, and inquiry and conversation have simply fueled the fire, believing in yourself and asserting what you know to be true is a powerful alternative to overreaction.
“ I have always enjoyed spending time with your family. They live very far away but I enjoy their company.”
- Avoiding Defensiveness-Stopping the back and forth with the assertion of what you know to be true is the most important thing you can do. There is power in certitude that needs no defense.
- Ignoring the Bait-If you partner continues to pursue the presumption in an accusatory way – Don’t take the bait. If you have to stop the pattern by getting up to make a cup of coffee or walk the dog, you are walking away from a negative pattern that hurts both of you–not your partner. Come back prepared to proceed normally with the day or evening. The subliminal message is “ I am here but I will not participate in negative interactions.”
Sometimes there has become so much shaming and demeaning in a relationship that overreaction has taken the form of matched provocation.
It becomes the type of situation where children and friends are the captive audience to endless put-downs and blow-ups between partners over minor things or human error. The partners are as stuck as the people around them.
“ I no longer like who I have become.”
“ I am always angry because I feel so disrespected.”
It is important to recognize that in his consideration of predisposing factors to divorce, marriage expert, John Gottman identified contempt as primary.
- Disengagement -As soon as one or both partners disengage from the predictable reactivity to question what is happening, they bring time, cognition and self-control to their future reactions. Each partner is in a better position or is modeling a better position. Interpersonally the pattern has to shift.
You can’t fight or exchange expletives with someone who won’t participate.
- Motivation for the Children -Sometimes at the suggestion of one, both partners are motivated to call a “ halt” to the put-downs for the sake of their children. I have often invited parents to consider that anything negative they say to each other—they are also saying to their children. Research has shown that marital strife is physically and emotionally harmful to children. While perhaps just a first step, motivation to stop is a necessity for the children and a gift to parents.
- Self-Help Behavior –Books, videos, on-line material, and groups that invite questions about co-dependency, fear of intimacy, hidden resentments, anger management and re-kindling love, can be invaluable in supporting the disengagement from overreaction patterns. Identification with others, who have changed, both supports and sets the stage for seeking help.
Mutual concern and interest in changing is very different from mutual disdain.
The day that partners who are caught in a contentious and painful relationship seek help, be it from a couple therapist, a spiritual counselor, a marriage workshop etc., is the day they take a step toward changing the negativity, reducing the overreactions, and finding a way to find each other again.