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Why Your Partner Overreacts (And You Do, Too)

Understanding relationship triggers this holiday season.

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'Tis the season to be jolly, and to extend goodwill to our fellow humankind.

The reality is that under the pressure of Christmas expectations, tempers often fray.

Most of us find our partners exasperating at times. They overreact or are "triggered" by the smallest things apparently out of the blue, especially in stressful times. Why are we like this with our nearest and dearest?

When anyone "overreacts," the chances are that their reaction is in proportion to what they subconsciously think has just happened. The present situation has automatically triggered some existing beliefs or fears. In a very real sense, their reaction is not about what just happened, but about what their past has led them to understand from such a situation or interaction.

We may fume when our partner is five minutes late to meet us—if we equate lateness with a lack of care. We may feel rejected if our partner does not agree with a suggestion we make—if we equate being in charge with being valued. We may be very stressed by loud voices—if we learned that preceded Dad's anger.

Of course, we necessarily base our understanding of the present on our past experiences: There is no other option. But our present may be quite different from our past. For our partner, some flexibility about precise meeting times may seem acceptable and even supportive; problem-solving may be seen as a shared activity by equals; and loud, excited voices may not signify danger. The problem for a relationship comes when we cannot update our understanding so that we react to our partners as if they share our assumptions about what their behavior means.

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We cannot control the initial, automatic feelings that are generated when we inadvertently encounter one of our subconscious defensive landmines. However, for a harmonious relationship, we must learn to question whether our triggered thoughts are really warranted now. Intractable problems will arise in a relationship if we continually misattribute triggered feelings to a partner’s actions—rather than to our beliefs or fears about what their actions might mean—and then act on these beliefs as if they were facts.

Unless at least one partner is aware of such triggers, communication can descend into a kind of shadowboxing with neither quite sure what is going on, or what needs to be done to fix it.

We must accept two things with humility. Firstly, some of the beliefs we hold as self-evident when we are self-righteously triggered may not hold up to scrutiny today. And secondly, our partner's internal logic is likely to be different from ours, but equally "self-evident" to them. When they infringe our "rules," it may be merely because they have different rules about what constitutes good behavior.

When we are stressed, we are less able to step back and see the big picture. In an attempt to keep ourselves safe, we become biased to search for evidence for our fears, to interpret ambiguous information as proof, and to filter out any information to the contrary. So when we are triggered, as well as tending to behave unreasonably, we are often self-righteous and quick to judge our partners negatively. Which is a recipe for ill will all around.

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Being triggered does not give us a free pass to behave badly… Whilst we may not be able to control the initial emotional hit of encountering a trigger, we can choose to use any sudden irritation, frustration, or anger with our partners as a sign for us to step back and calm down.

Learn to look objectively at what happened. Does the current situation really warrant the feelings triggered in us? Are there possible interpretations other than the upsetting assumptions we are making? Do we need more information?

More generally, we should try to identify our personal landmines: The power of a particular trigger will begin to dissipate with awareness. Why does your partner’s occasional lateness bother you so? Why is it OK for others to tease you, but it is unacceptable when your partner does so?

We should also be sensitive and understanding of our partner’s triggers but must accept that they will go off unexpectedly at times.

People whose early experience led them to conclude that others will not meet their needs, or that they will be rejected, tend to have very strong defenses as adults. Understandably, when triggered, they find it particularly hard to consider that what they feel might be misplaced and that someone’s intentions might be benign or positive. Such entrenched beliefs may benefit from a therapist or focused exercises.

The key for all of us is compassion for ourselves and our partners. On a given day, all we can do is our best, given a past that was out of our control.

So, if you want to have a harmonious Yuletide, take a deep breath when your partner annoys you, and give them the benefit of the doubt.

More from Sarah Gingell Ph.D.
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