Why People Dump on Their Partners
How to get sympathy from your partner without starting a fight.
Posted Jun 27, 2020
Jim and Carla were both stressed out social distancing and working from home with their rambunctious 2-year-old son, Arlo. They lived in a small two-bedroom apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens just a few blocks from Elmhurst Hospital, the epicenter of the COVID-10 pandemic. Somehow, they had to entertain Arlo while getting their jobs done remotely. They worried about getting infected when they went outside to get groceries or a breath of fresh air wearing masks. They were both sleep-deprived and becoming irritable. They started snapping at each other over stupid little things.
Finally, a major argument broke out about how to get their son to sleep through the night. Jim wanted to do a tough-love approach and let Arlo cry it out in his crib. Carla felt the path of least resistance was to just let Arlo sleep in bed with them. As they started raising their voices in anger during their argument, Arlo burst into tears and started crying hysterically. Carla snapped at Arlo, “Shut up, I can’t take this anymore!” which only upset Arlo all the more. Jim screamed, “Don’t yell at him, he’s only a little baby!” At that point, Carla burst into tears and started crying hysterically. Finally, Jim picked up Arlo to comfort him and started talking to everyone in a soothing voice to calm everybody down. Shorty thereafter, they called me for emergency tele-couples’ therapy.
Stress spillover is what happens in a marriage when one or both spouses are stressed out by the demands of work or child care and then take out their frustrations on each other. When stress is chronic or overwhelming, partners begin to suffer self-regulatory depletion. That means that their ability to regulate their emotions, anxieties, and resentments deteriorates and they begin to suffer emotional dysregulation. When feeling overwhelmed by our feelings, our feelings just spill out uncontrollably without much thought about how letting our feelings spill out might impact others.
Unfortunately, stress spillover often impacts others poorly if others are also stressed out and close to their breaking points. Our stress spillover pushes others past their breaking points, and they start spilling out their emotions as well. This is called negative affect reciprocity. Spilling our negative emotion overload just triggers negative emotion overload in others who then begin spilling their negative emotion overload as well setting off further chain reactions until you have a nuclear meltdown. Soon enough everyone is angrily screaming at the top of their lungs or crying hysterically.
Why We Dump on Others
It’s human nature to dump our feelings on our spouses because we look to our spouses for sympathy, comfort, and understanding when we feel overwhelmed by life’s stresses. Yet if our spouses are also feeling overwhelmed by life’s stresses simultaneously, they might feel pushed off the deep end when we dump our feelings on them. In addition, if our spouses are the source of some of our stress, we might express our feelings in very blaming and accusatory ways, that fault our spouses for stressing us out. Of course, that never gets us anywhere as blamed spouses who are stressed out themselves will just respond defensively, often lashing out in anger. We don’t get the empathy for which we were looking but quite the opposite. We just get counter-complaint. Our spouses just dump on us all of their pent-up frustrations with us since we are venting our pent-up frustrations with them. All this venting of emotion looking for sympathy just gets us attacked for expressing our true feelings.
Becoming Mindful of How We Express Emotions
Effective communication is communication that actually succeeds in getting the result you want. If dumping your feelings on your spouse doesn’t get you the response you want, it’s not effective communication. We must become mindful of how the way we express emotion impacts the listener. If dumping our feelings on our spouse or blaming them for our stress provokes a defensive response don’t do it.
A constructive alternative is just to calmly talk about how you feel even though you don’t feel calm without blaming anybody while recognizing your spouse’s point of view. That is more likely to get a sympathetic response. Jim could have said to Carla, “I know you think tough love with Arlo is too harsh, but I can’t get a good night’s sleep with Arlo in the bed and then I’m just too tired to focus on anything for the rest of the day.” Carla could have said, “I know you think I’m spoiling Arlo by letting him sleep with us, but I think he’ll outgrow it over time and I already feel guilty that he’s bored trapped with us when we’re working all day.”
Respecting your partner’s viewpoint, owning your feelings, and expressing those feelings in a calm way is not incendiary. It’s much more likely to elicit a sympathetic response and a willingness to compromise on the conflictual issue.
Becoming Mindful of How We Respond to Being Dumped On
Dumping on your spouse because your spouse just dumped on you doesn’t get you anywhere. It just makes a bad situation worse so don’t do it. The constructive alternative is to just bite your lip and listen though you’re chomping at the bit to put in your two cents. Let your spouse vent without interruption. Interrupting and talking over your spouse will just add fuel to the fire.
If you just listen, the emotional dump will run its course and at some point, your spouse will ask what you feel and think. When your spouse is finally ready to listen to you, you could briefly say something sympathetic but then calmly and respectfully express your own point of view if you see things differently. You are leading by example. If you just let your spouse have his or her say, your spouse is more likely to let you have your say and give you a sympathetic hearing. Hopefully, the vicious cycle of negative affect reciprocity will be broken as you both become more mindful of how you express your feelings and how you respond to your spouse’s emotion dumps.
Josephs, L. (2018) The Dynamics of Infidelity: Applying Relationship Science to Psychotherapy Practice. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.