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What do when you or your partner has a major overreaction

Updated: Dec 8, 2022

Strong reactions can occur in any relationship, be it business, romantic or from a parent to a child.

During the Christmas holidays, the tendency to overreact might be even greater, with dispersed family members coming together, high expectations to have a special Christmas, and the emotions of being with family during the darkest and coldest time of the year in the northern hemisphere.

Overreacting can happen to anyone

Sometimes people fly off the handle at relatively minor triggers.

Most of us have had a moment where our own response to someone else's behaviour was disproportionate to the situation. Where a little thing or remark sets of a cascade of emotions that it takes a little while to recover from.

To be on the receiving end of an overreaction can be difficult and painful, especially if your behaviour was the perceived trigger.

When couples fight and it escalates fast!

In romantic relationships when someone has a disproportionate reaction to the situation, it may be that they have been triggered emotionally. This means that the situation they are in may be triggering some of their unmet needs or traumatic experiences from childhood or a previous relationship. For instance, whilst their wife might have been making a minor joke about their eating habits, they may hear a stronger criticism and may trigger worries about their body and appearance which may have roots in past experiences.

Whilst the emotions that surface may seem disproportionate to the person who is not triggered, they can be very real for the person experiencing them. Especially if there was a time in childhood where they did not get the attention and acceptance that they needed from their parents, or,if a parent wasn't around.

How do you know is something likely a trigger for a past experience and not just a response to the present day argument?

It's likely that you or your partner's reaction is rooted in past experience when:

-It brings up past memories - "your just like Person X"

-Feeling flooded with emotion that doesn't completely link to the recent behaviour

-The level of emotion is disproportionate to the event (a partner forgets to bring home sellotape and the partner has a tantrum)

What to do if your partner is triggered?

If you do something that seems harmless and your partner has a strong reaction try and be patient. Whilst you might see that their outburst or strong reaction is something much bigger going on for them, telling someone in the moment that they are triggered is not going to help either. If possible, try and stop what you are doing or saying immediately and wait for them to regain composure.

What to do if you are triggered by your partner

  1. Become aware of your own personal triggers, what was said or done?

  2. See if you need some time to reflect or have a break to calm down

  3. If it is a good time, try and explain to your partner that you have been triggered and neutrally explain their behaviour or words and how it made you feel.

  4. If you notice a lot of emotion. Sit with yourself and identify what emotion it is. If it's unclear where do you feel it in the body? Think back is there an early memory of experiencing that emotion. What did that experience tell you about the world around you? How is the current situation similar or completely different to that early memory?

Loving relationships are a lot of work

Whilst attending to your partners needs may seem like a lot work (and it is) it's also part of building trust and intimacy in your relationship. Whilst this doesn't mean that your partners behaviour is without limit, it hopefully means that they can step back, realise their triggers and share this with you. Once you realise their strong reaction is not about you and their own past experiences, you can be supportive and hear their feelings.

What if a person doesn't think that they are triggered?

Ideally, the person who is triggered is on a journey to self understanding so they are curious about their triggers and aware of some of their hurts or pains from childhood. But we all have blind spots, even those that have done a lot of therapy or self discovery and self help work might not realise that it's something else that we are really managing rather than the fact your partner didn't bring your toothbrush when you asked them to bring it!

In the book, Triggers by David Richo, Richo suggests that it's worth considering what emotional needs might not have been met in childhood that may be re-surfacing now and then as part of being an adult, we try and meet our own emotional needs, or our partner can provide some care and validation.

Recommended reading: Triggers by David Richo

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