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How to Avoid Blowing Up at Your Partner

Reduce arguments by attending to your stress.

Key points

  • At a certain level of stress, emotions can overtake thinking.
  • Rating their stress can help people calm themselves before their emotions take over.
  • Someone can best address relationship concerns at low levels of stress.

Being stressed can turn everyday hurts or annoyances into full-blown fights with your partner. You feel the tension growing, and try your best not to let it get to you, but too often end up picking a fight, blowing up, or just pulling away. You want to be different but don’t know how.

Whatever emotions you may be feeling, stress or pressure increases your body’s level of distress until it overcomes you. But you can change this pattern by asking yourself two key questions.

1. How distressed is my body?

On a distress rating scale of 0-10, with 0 being totally chill and 10 being completely overwhelmed, how do you measure the level of distress in your body? Ask yourself this question when you first notice a low level of distress and continue to pay attention as it builds. Eventually, the intensity of the distress will overcome you and interfere with being able to think clearly or to calm yourself down effectively.

So, the simple—but not necessarily easy—answer is not to wait so long. Instead, reduce your stress before this happens. The distress rating scale can be an effective tool to identify when it’s time to calm yourself.

To create the scale, draw a horizontal line with 0 all the way to the left, 10 all the way to the right, and the other numbers evenly spaced along the line. Next, think about stressful situations. Pay attention to your sensations (e.g., churning in your belly), thoughts, emotions, and actions (e.g., becoming fidgety or talkative). Consider each experience and write down what you notice at increasing levels of distress. Continue until you have written a description for most, if not all, of the numbers on the line.

Take a moment and consider the whole range of your distress. Decide what number or range of numbers are associated with your thoughts becoming less clear and more emotionally driven. Circle the number or range of numbers.

For instance, Steve rated his distress a 1 when he felt his body stiffen slightly. At a 2, he noted that he thought something was not OK, and his chest tightened. At a 3 (which he circled), Steve found that he was annoyed, beginning to clench his teeth, and his thoughts became focused on what others were doing wrong. He would go from there to 9 or 10 in what seemed like no time. (With more practice, he was able to describe his experiences at the other rating levels.)

Developing such self-awareness can take some time. But once you can identify the level at which your body’s arousal overtakes your thinking, you can focus on calming yourself before you hit that number.

2. What can I do now to reduce the intensity of my distress?

Once you are aware of the intensity of your distress approaching the point of no return, turn your attention from the topic at hand to your body’s reaction. Ask yourself what you can do to calm your body before returning to the given topic.

The first step is often telling your partner that you need a moment or longer to calm down. You might take slow, deep breaths, listen to music, or go for a walk. Maybe you are hungry and need to eat before you can calm down and think clearly. Again, it’s important to learn what works for you.

Part of what can be wonderful about having a partner is having someone there to help comfort or support you. So, if there is something your partner can do to help you (that they would be willing to do), ask. For example, you might ask for a hug or to watch TV together. To learn more about how being part of a couple can help the partners regulate each other’s emotions, check out this brief video, Co-Regulation: An Essential Relationship Skill.

Creating Constructive Conversations

If the intensity of your distress continues to rise, you will eventually be overcome by it. You will explode, just leave, or do something else to express your intense emotions—likely upsetting your partner and aggravating the situation. However, by learning to attend to, and calm, your distress before this happens, you have a greater chance of working through problems with your partner.

Of course, “working through problems” means addressing them in a constructive manner. For example, it’s extremely helpful to articulate your distress in a clear and nonthreatening way. Also, it’s important to listen carefully and empathically to your partner, focusing on their experience before arguing the facts. This will show them that you care about them, not just proving that you are right.

When you and your partner can both feel heard and truly understood, you will work more effectively toward resolving issues while also nurturing an affectionate and loving relationship.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

More from Leslie Becker-Phelps Ph.D.
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