6 Ways to Calm Down an Out-of-Control Partner

New relationship research suggests 6 approaches that can de-stress your partner.

Posted Sep 05, 2020

Even during the best of times, some people have partners who always seem to question their feelings about the relationship. For example, on one occasion, things were going reasonably well, and you didn’t think there would be a problem if you went out for a socially distant evening with your friends, leaving your partner at home. You were having so much fun that you didn’t even realize how long you’d been out until you got an anxious text from your partner wondering where you were. When you returned home, your partner went completely off the rails, accusing you of having an affair.

The stress of living under COVID-19 is turning the best of times into the worst for many couples. If you share the same household, you’re together almost non-stop, putting your relationship under a new kind of microscope. If you live apart, perhaps even at some distance, it’s difficult to find ways to see each other. In either case, with an insecure partner, the new reality will put stress on your relationship. 

Researchers in the area of close relationships established some time ago the idea that adults who have difficulties feeling safe and secure got to be this way as a result of problems in early life when their caregivers (usually parents) failed to meet their basic emotional needs. According to the concept of attachment styles, adults carry on forward into their adult relationships the so-called “internal working models” resulting from how they were cared for as infants. Securely attached adults will be able to withstand a wider range of relationship situations than insecurely attached adults, whose alarm signals go off at the slightest hint of perceived neglect from their partners.

A new study by Sapienzo University of Rome’s Giacomo Ciocca and colleagues (2020) suggests that it’s not only an insecure attachment style that leads partners to become out of control when they fear abandonment, but also the use of so-called immature defense mechanisms. Based on psychodynamic theory, the authors note that contemporary views of defense mechanisms regard them as reactions to “stressful or threatening mental representations and feelings that would otherwise produce psychological distress, protecting the individual from mental suffering and one's altered perception of self, others, or one's own emotions” (p. 385). From this perspective, an insecure attachment style might only be partly the cause of your partner’s constant need for reassurance.

You might know about defense mechanisms from a psychology course you took at one point, or from popular media coverage of such topics as “passive aggressiveness” or “repression.” The traditional Freudian view of defense mechanisms sees them in terms of sexual desires, but as you can see from the Ciocca et al. quote, the more contemporary approach places them in the larger context of stress more generally. The categories of defense mechanisms within this approach range from “immature” ones that involve “massive reality distortion” to the “mature” ones that “allow relatively more conscious awareness” of potentially threatening feelings and experiences.

Partners who overreact when they perceive abandonment only make things worse, as suggested by the Italian authors, when they become so overwhelmed with fear that they can’t even recognize the reality of what’s happening to them. It’s thus the combination of an insecure attachment style plus immature defense mechanisms that might lead your partner to become so panicky and upset when sensing your possible lack of “support.”

Putting this approach to the test, Ciocca and his colleagues tested a statistical model on data from a sample of 1,129 college students living in Italy and Albania using measures of attachment style, defense mechanisms, and, as an outcome, psychological distress. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 49 but averaged 22 years old, and the majority (65%) were female. The attachment style measure provided scores on the extent to which participants were securely attached, fearful (afraid of intimacy), preoccupied (afraid of abandonment) or dismissive (unwilling to become attached).

As the authors predicted, people who scored high on either the preoccupied or fearful attachment styles were indeed more likely to report high levels of distress, but this relationship was statistically accounted for by their use of immature defenses. Ciocca et al. interpret this finding in more depth to suggest that people with insecure attachment styles aren’t only insecure about relationships, but also about their own sense of identity. They try to keep themselves from having to acknowledge this sense of personal weakness by resorting to one of several immature defense mechanisms, but these only make things worse. Rather than being able to recognize and accept their limitations, they try desperately to cover them up. If you get in the way of this, you might very well become the brunt of their tendencies to act out, project, or passive aggressively try to attack you.

How, then, can you use the findings of the study to help your partner gain greater emotional control? Taking the relevant concepts from this research into account, here are the six methods that might help defuse situations that can easily harm your relationship:

1. Recognize the source of your partner’s insecurity. No one wants to have an insecure attachment style. If your partner seems overly needy, it’s not due to a personal choice.

2. Support your partner’s sense of personal identity. Both you and your partner might gain from recognizing each other’s strengths and positive attributes.

3. Be patient and supportive. Again, your partner doesn’t want to be this way. It’s easy to become angry and defensive yourself, so try to remain calm yourself.

4. Help pave the way for more mature defense mechanisms by your partner. Recall that humor is one of the more mature defense mechanisms. Although this might seem only to fan the flames, perhaps in a calmer moment you can agree with your partner on ways to defuse things through a smile or even a little laughter.

5. Use situations that have escalated in the past as a way to prepare for the future. Again, once things are calmer, go back over (in a non-accusatory fashion) the way things developed in that situation to figure out how to stop the next one from spiraling out of control.

6. Find ways to manage your own feelings of distress. It’s upsetting to be exposed to the unhappiness of a person you care about. You might need those occasional nights out with your friends, and if you establish ground rules ahead of time, your partner might be able to accept this with greater equanimity.

To sum up, having a partner who easily becomes enraged and upset can make daily life difficult for both of you. Understanding the dynamics behind your partner’s insecurity can help bring both of you back onto a more even and fulfilling keel.

Facebook image: Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock

References

Ciocca, G., Rossi, R., Collazzoni, A., Gorea, F., Vallaj, B., Stratta, P., Longo, L., Limoncin, E., Mollaioli, D., Gibertoni, D., Santarnecchi, E., Pacitti, F., Niolu, C., Siracusano, A., Jannini, E. A., & Di Lorenzo, G. (2020). The impact of attachment styles and defense mechanisms on psychological distress in a non-clinical young adult sample: A path analysis. Journal of Affective Disorders, 273, 384–390. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2020.05.014