Whether you describe them as emotional, dramatic, having an anger problem, being too sensitive, or always overreacting, living with partners or family members whose emotions easily ramp up and down can be an exhausting challenge. You find yourself always walking on eggshells, holding back, trying to avoid doing “that thing” that may set them off.
Or you may get frustrated and angry and fed up — because you are trying to get them to see reality, to explain how you feel, to defend your actions, to get them to calm down. And if this has been going on for long enough, you may feel at times like walking out, because you’re tired of feeling abused or criticized, of always being in the doghouse, of not being appreciated, feeling like it’s never going to get better.
But emotional volatility has causes.
To Ann, Eric seems like he is often on the verge of a meltdown. A negative comment by his boss, the kids squabbling too much, or the sudden cancellation of a family gathering because of bad weather can throw him off-course and rattle him, cause him to be irritable or explosive, cause him to disasterize and expect the worst. And after these reactions, he can often get into a funk — being critical of himself for how he acted or falling into a gray, why-bother attitude.
This is the nature of anxiety and its companion, depression: the always looking ahead and seeing the worst-case scenario, being rattled by sudden changes, the feeling overwhelmed and at times unable to act or decide, the over-reaction. For some, anxiety takes on more of a controlling aspect: Eric, for example, coming down hard on the kids to toe the line, trying to manage his anxiety by controlling his world and getting others to do what he wants them to do.
Explosions of anger
Sara has what others would call an “anger-management” problem. She has a short fuse; if the common reactions to stress are either fight, flight, or freeze, Sara’s go-to is always anger.
Often such folks are anxious and hypervigilant, like Eric. But where he melts down, these folks get aggressive and angry. They often have a limited emotional range: Whatever else they may be feeling — like worry or hurt — always comes out as anger.
Anger and abuse
While Jake has a short fuse like Sara, his anger has another edge to it. He not only easily flares up, but he's also learned to use his anger to intimidate and manipulate others into getting his way, and he does. Yes, this is about emotions, but also about power, entitlement, and a lack of empathy for others.
Most of us have images of what those with borderline personality are like: volatile, dramatic, impulsive, idealizing others and then turning on them and seeing them as evil, being prone to self-harm. What Allison experiences most in her relationship with Bill is his seeming ability to twist everything she says, his constantly blaming her for everything, his constant bringing up of past infractions, his never appreciating anything good she is doing in the present. The walking-on-eggshells feeling dominates the time she is around him.
Ellen’s partner Jan has a rapid-cycling form of bipolar disorder. Jan’s moods can swing up or down from extremely positive to bottom-line negative and depressive in a matter of hours, leaving Ellen feeling like she is perpetually riding an emotional rollercoaster.
But for others with bipolar disorder, such mood shifts can be less dramatic and/or less rapid. There are longer stretches of depression, self-blame, inactivity, and irritability, and then impulsiveness, acting-out, overspending, abuse of alcohol and drugs, psychotic thinking.
What to do
The cause of each of these disorders may be a mixture of genetics, brain chemistry, and traumatic or unstable childhoods. But what they all have in common is the person’s struggle to regulate his or her emotions. Here are some suggestions on how to cope:
1. Learn to listen.
When the other person is melting down or exploding or attacking, your understandable natural tendency is to ramp up to try and reason with them, or to get defensive and angry back. This usually only makes the situation worse; it is like throwing gasoline on a fire. Your first line of defense when the person is emotional is to try to remain calm and just listen. Listening helps the fire burn itself out, helps the other person calm down.
2. Say to yourself that the other person is struggling.
Yes, easier said than done. But this is the voice-over you want in your head. This helps you not take their reactions so personally.
3. Set boundaries.
Listening does not mean that you stand there and be an emotional punching bag, that you cave in and do what the other person wants. If listening is not helping to put out the fire, if you are feeling abused or getting upset yourself, you need to leave the situation. But don’t just stomp out; let the other person know you will come back after you are both calm.
And when they are not explosive, set limits: Let them know that you won’t tolerate being mistreated. Set clear bottom-lines about what is important to you, such as them taking their medications and/or going to therapy.
4. When calm, talk about what you can do that helps them the most when they are upset.
You not only want to set limits, but you also want to know what to do or not do to help. Again, this is the rational conversation you want to try and have when things are calm. Again, the answer that you just need to do what the other person wants all the time is not an option, but leaving them alone, going for a walk, or watching a movie on Netflix may be.
5. Be a thermostat for the environment.
If Ann can tell that Eric has had a hard day and is anxious and irritable, she may clearly tell him that she is in charge of the kids that evening, and then she actively intervenes to not have them push Eric’s buttons. If Ellen can see that Jan is already stressed and getting depressed or hypomanic, she may skip the conversation about bills.
6. Be sensitive, but don’t walk on eggshells.
It’s easy to begin to think that if you only get it right, walk on eggshells better, the other person will not get emotional. This borders on magical thinking, and the end result is that you will try and try and never get it right. You want to be sensitive and empathic—but be you.
7. Have outside interests.
This may be hobbies, it may be a job that you enjoy. Living with a volatile person can create tunnel-vision, making your world too small and only focused on the other person and their moods. You need to have a bigger life to balance your perspective.
8. Take care of you.
This is about exercise, friends, yoga, hot baths — things you do for you that can help you keep your perspective, help you calm down when frustrated or discouraged or fed up.
9. Consider professional help—for yourself.
You’re living in a difficult, stressful situation. Therapy can help you not blame yourself, help you stop walking on eggshells, provide you with tools to help you stay grounded, and give you the support you need to manage the day-to-day.
10. Educate yourself about the disorder.
Learning about the other’s struggles can help you take things less personally and separate the disorder from the person.
11. Coordinate with other professionals.
Here you periodically sit-in on your partner’s therapy to provide your view on how life is going, or you both do family or couples therapy to have a forum for these conversations. Here you let the professional know your concerns by calling up and leaving a voice message about new concerns, or you advocate for your partner or family member when it seems like the treatment isn’t working.
12. Decide on your own bottom lines.
What comes with the tunnel-vision of such relationships is often the feeling of being trapped, leading to your own depression. Be clear in your own mind what you can tolerate and what you can’t, and state this. Be clear at what point you may need to leave or end the relationship. This is especially important if dealing with some like Jake, where power and abuse can quickly demoralize you and make you feel that you are the one at fault. Don’t tolerate such abuse.
Ideally, this is about loving the person, not the disorder — loving you, rather than feeling like the martyr or victim.
The best you can do is doing the best you can do.