Anyone in 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.
- “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.”
- “ How does he end up the victim, when he insulted me?”
Overreactions are like flash floods—all of a sudden they are there, be it from a deliberate or unintended provocation or the build-up of unrelated feelings that burst loose over something as simple as,
“How could 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. Here are five ways to avoid overreactions.
- Account for Physical Realities
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-Reflect and Disclose
“ I think if I can just unwind and change before I respond…”
“ We are exhausted and never do well discussing these issues late at night…let’s pick it up tomorrow.”
When partners can take a moment to reflect upon and 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. Why? Anxiety
Are you the partner who feels such urgency that you cannot wait 10 minutes and insist on talking no matter how the other feels? Persisting or insisting rarely leads to a good place.
Try reducing the likelihood of an overreaction by regulating your anxiety:
- Take 10 minutes to write down your thoughts so you don’t lose them or to do something for yourself for a short time while your partner catches his/her breath. This 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 a middle ground solution.
- Sometimes, for example, simple acknowledgment of a problem offers enough relief that discussion can be postponed or becomes possible. Showing mutual respect and flexibility lowers overreactions.
“ So the boys want to drive to Maine with their friends… I am a bit nervous. Do you want to talk about it now or tomorrow?”
(If a partner chooses “tomorrow” and really follows up the next day – a big step of trust is taken for working together in future situations)
- Avoid Presumptions
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.
In most cases, they are critical and overgeneralized, leaving a 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 angry and feels he or she has been set up to overreact.
4. Use Assertion and Containment
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.”
Avoid 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.
Regulate and Ignore the Bait-If your partner continues to pursue the presumption in an accusatory way – pause and use containment. Don’t take the bait. Regulate your urge to react by doing something else like getting up to make a cup of coffee or walk the dog. You are walking away from a negative pattern that hurts both you–and 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.”
5. Evaluate How Much of Your Interaction is Overreaction
The quality of a relationship is key to mental and physical well-being. Step back and evaluate your interactions together. Is there so much shaming and blaming in a relationship that overreaction has become the painful method of interaction.
Psychologically this is a very dangerous situation for adults and children. When parents are constantly battling, children are in a storm of dysregulation without a lifeline. No one wins.
Friends and family often feel like a captive audience to a couple’s endless put-downs and blow-ups. Sometimes friends and family want to avoid the fray but stay for the children or stay to help. Not easy.
“ I no longer like who I have become.”
“ I am always angry because I feel so disrespected.”
“ I don’t know how this happened to us – We are stuck!”
- This situation of overreactions often fueled by disdain warrants professional help for the sake of the partners and the well-being of the children.
- 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 partners who want to try to re-build or want to separate.
- Children need their parents to be safe-so that they can be safe.
It is likely that if you are in a relationship, there will be times when you will overreact. Those times don’t have to mean the end of the relationship or the start of a war.
Looking closely at how and why you overreact, and using strategies to enhance understanding and restraint, can become a pathway to protect and expand your love and relationship.