How to Respond When Your Partner's Bark Feels Like a Bite

Their anger may not be about you, but you can still help defuse it.

Posted Mar 11, 2015

January/2014/MaleCodependence, used with permission
Source: January/2014/MaleCodependence, used with permission

The closer your attachment to someone, the more of an effect their words will have on you. So assuming you’re in a committed relationship, how your partner addresses you can closely connect to how good, or secure, you feel about yourself and the relationship.

Moreover, given the nature of intimate relationships, your partner is as likely to be reactive to your words as you are to theirs. At times this mutual sensitivity can lead to some troublesome impasses.

In general, it’s all too easy to offend someone without ever realizing how you could have done so—for the words that spontaneously come up on your internal prompter may be tangential to your intended meaning. In fact, unless you’ve given yourself the opportunity beforehand to mull over your thoughts and feelings, verbally expressing precisely what you had in mind may be almost impossible. To expect otherwise in informal, non-rehearsed speech is hardly realistic.

Simply put, in many situations the words that come out of your mouth are essentially a “first draft” and subject to revision, since they may represent only a rough approximation of what you wished to convey. (This can definitely be a curse when texting.) Though your language may generally be adequate for your purposes, there’s always the risk that you’ll be misunderstood—and have your words taken as objectionable, if not obnoxious.

Consequently, much of the time when your partner baffles you by reacting to your words with umbrage or outrage, it’s because they heard you say something you weren’t even aware of having thought, let alone said.

There are, in fact, many reasons that a partner can misconstrue you. You might have employed a word in a different sense from what they’re accustomed to. Or they might be holding a grudge against you (for reasons unknown), and so be disposed, at that given moment, to take negatively anything you say that’s even slightly ambiguous—as in, prejudicially “mind-reading” you. Frankly, there are a whole host of explanations that might account for your being misunderstood. (Learn more from my post, “9 Reasons It’s So Easy to Be Misunderstood.”)

But the key point is that in the context of an intimate union the lack of verbal clarity, if not handled well, can potentially have serious repercussions for your harmony and good will. And this all relates to the “bark vs. bite” phenomenon—which is to say that if your partner barks at you, it’s crucial that you don’t react in kind, but first find out just what, in the moment, they’re reacting to.

Consider: If you’re like most people, your relationship with your partner is likely not only your most important one but also your most vulnerable. To whatever degree, you need your significant other to both empathize with your feelings and validate your viewpoint. Although ideally we ought to be able to do this on our own, we typically rely on our partners to confirm our worth, attractiveness, intelligence, good sense, etc. There are comparatively few of us who aren’t still afflicted with a variety of self-doubt left over from childhood. So when we at least think we’re getting critical messages about ourself from our partner, it’s hard not to experience their words as threatening—and to react accordingly.

Yet our partner might “bark” at us for multiple reasons—many of which don’t really warrant being taken personally:

  • They may be in an irritable state because they’re tired; stressed out by all sorts of external pressures; angry—either with themselves or someone else; depressed; unusually anxious; or “on edge” generally.
  • They may have been provoked by something you did or said that, regardless of how innocuous your intentions were, pushed their buttons. And, feeling so perturbed, they can’t share their frustrations with you in a civil manner, or (benignly) let you know exactly how you’d upset them (and, in fact, may not really know themselves).
  • They may, without consciously realizing why, be experiencing the need to distance themselves from you, a “feat” that anger accomplishes all too well. For you may have done something that, however unconsciously, has brought up some bad feelings they have about themselves—feelings they’re not yet ready to "own." Maybe you did something unthinking and it reminded them of times when, as a child, they acted impulsively and were consequently ridiculed or shunned by their parents. In such instances, they may feel the need to “dis-identify” from you for a time since you’re mirroring back to them their own immediately felt culpability. Defensively, they’re compelled to turn on you. That way, they’re able to give their parents—who still occupy space inside their own head—the message that it isn’t they who deserve punishment, for they’re every bit as disapproving of your behavior as are their (introjected) parents.

These examples are all meant to suggest how if, on the fly, as it were, you can assess differently your partner’s having just gone nuclear on you, you’ll react to them differently. You’ll experience their outburst as much less threatening than, initially, it felt to your own still vulnerable “inner child.” And you’ll thereby be able to return to your rational, problem-solving adult self and reflect on how you can best begin to move beyond this present relational impasse.

On the contrary, if your partner barks at you and—as a knee-jerk response to what feels like an unjustifiable attack—you can’t help but bark back, you’ll only exacerbate the conflict. Or if, as an alternative reaction, you devote all your energy to defending yourself, you’ll also actively contribute to things worsening between the two of you. In neither instance will your partner feel that you’re willing to listen to them and “get” whatever has so antagonized them.

Ana Blazic Pavlovic/Shutterstock
Source: Ana Blazic Pavlovic/Shutterstock

Never forget: Angry people are poor listeners. They’re agitated and desperately need to get something off their chest. And until that happens, they have virtually no interest in hearing any contrasting viewpoint. However irrational their assumptions about your motives, until they feel heard by you, they won’t (and maybe can’t) attend to anything you yourself might need to tell them.

So, as challenging—and even unfair—as it may seem, what may be called for when your partner is reading you the riot act is for you to focus on soothing yourself. (Here’s a post of mine that expands on how to do this.)

You need to tell yourself—or the “inner child” trembling inside you—that the situation isn’t anywhere as perilous as it feels. That, of course, it doesn’t feel safe—it never feels safe when someone is yelling at you. But that the present-day you has the ability, determination, and will to make you safe. All that’s necessary is to “hold on,” and listen to your partner as understandingly and sympathetically as possible.

The other thing to remember is that if you can calm yourself down, you’ll be able to think more clearly and start reading in between the lines of your partner’s anger. You’ll then be much more likely to grasp what drives it—quite possibly, even more distressing feelings of shame, fear, guilt, or sorrow.

Although it’s easy enough to describe this two-step, problem-solving process, when your partner’s verbal bullets are heading straight toward you, actually executing these steps can be a challenge. If, however accidentally, you’ve triggered your partner, he or she could be exceptionally skilled at triggering you right back. Yet if you can summon up the discipline and restraint to get your own emotions under control, you can do what’s necessary to resolve things—listening attentively, empathizing, and validating. Being able to hear your partner out and offer them the understanding and support they’re hurting for is typically sufficient. And once you can provide this succor, you’ll have vitally helped the two of you regain your peace and harmony.

To conclude: If you’re successful in not reacting to their loud barking as if it were a ferocious bite, over time the divisive impasses between you will become less and less frequent—and hopefully, at some point, pretty much become a thing of the past.

Note: I've written many relationship posts that are complementary to this on. If you'd like to explore them, here are some titles and links:

"Compromise Made Simple: 7 Handy Tips for Couples"

“Courage in Relationships: Conquering Vulnerability and Fear”

 “What’s the Key Imperative for Lasting Love?"

 "How to Optimize Your Relationship: The 70/70 Compromise"

“Don’t Just Salvage Your Relationship—Recreate It!”

“6 Ways to Recreate, Not Just Salvage, Your Relationship”

"Codependent or Simply Dependent: What's the Big Difference?"

“The Three Things You Should Never Say to Your Partner”

“Can You Give Your Spouse as Much Love as They Don’t Deserve?”

“In Relationships, Understanding—Not Agreement—Is Key. Why?”

 “How Fair Is Your Marriage?”

“One Marriage = Two Realities”

"Giving to Get vs. Griping to Get”

“How Rational Are ‘Rational’ Marriages?”

“Couples—Stop Fighting Over Money!”

"Criticism vs. Feedback—Which One Wins, Hands Down?" (Parts 1 & 2)

"Anger—How We Transfer Feelings of Guilt, Hurt, and Fear"

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