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How To Stop Overreacting in a Relationship – 5 Relationship Experts Reveal How To Overcome Overreacting

by Yasman Karimi – MA, LMFT, Caroline Sabi – MA, LPC, Oona Metz – LICSW, CGP, Rachel Orleck – PsyD, Barbara Bourgeois – MBA, MS, LPC, NCC

How To Stop Overreacting in a Relationship

“Emotions can get in the way or get you on the way.”

~ Mavis Mazhura

Emotions Can Get in the Way Mavis Mazhura Quote
Yasman Karimi

How many times have you been told you are overreacting? 

How many times have you heard your partner tell you to calm down or relax? 

How often have you heard that something is not a big deal when it feels like a huge deal to you? 

Finding yourself stuck in a dynamic where you are left feeling invalidated, misunderstood, and downright silly for your emotional experiences feels lousy. 

Moreover, it makes you feel millions of miles away from your partner, even when they are sitting right next to you. If this pattern continues, it is unlikely that it will forge a fruitful relationship. 

Something to keep in mind is that we can only control our own thoughts, words, and behaviors, not our partner’s. 

If you are not receiving the response you would like when expressing your emotions, here are a few things you have control over that may promote change: 

1. Use “I-Statements” 

When we feel invalidated after expressing a complaint or an emotion, it’s usually because the response we received was defensive. Defensiveness is a response to hearing criticism or feeling criticized. 

When statements include descriptions of your partner’s thoughts, behaviors, and actions, they are more likely to begin and end with the word “you”, naturally gearing up the listener to stand up for themselves. Try making statements like “I have been feeling…” and “I needed…” instead of “you are…” and “you never/always…”. 

2. Understand your own triggers 

We all enter romantic relationships with some emotional baggage from significant life experiences. No one is perfect and we are all works in progress; however, not understanding your own stuff could leave your partner feeling confused and helpless. 

Triggers are activated when your partner’s words or behaviors feel parallel to a powerful past experience. 

Oftentimes when we are triggered, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, throwing us into a fight-or-flight response. In that state, you might notice that your heart rate has increased, you might tremble, feel hot, or feel out of control. The frontal lobes of your brain are deactivated, making it impossible to make rational decisions and control your responses. 

Pay attention to your body and take a break from the conversation as soon as you begin to notice any of the physiological signs mentioned. 

Take a 30 minute break where you spend some time self-soothing. Knowing your triggers and sharing them with your partner will allow them to understand your emotional responses to specific events. 

3. Practice communication 

We all interpret and decode messages differently in our own minds depending on how self-critical we are, the way our parents spoke to us, and past experiences and interactions. A lot of times when you make a statement, your partner is hearing their version of it. 

For example, someone who has high expectations of themselves might hear that they are not doing enough around the house when they are asked if they could clean the bathroom. This would naturally lead to a defensive response. 

Once you hear the defensiveness, you might say something like “Hey honey, I noticed you got defensive. What did you hear me say?”. 

If they respond honestly about the criticism that they heard, you are given the opportunity to rephrase or explain. This takes lots of practice and requires slowing the conversation down by pausing, thinking, and then responding. 

Changing the way we deliver messages impacts the trajectory of the conversation. 

Because it takes two to communicate effectively, if you feel you have tried to improve on delivery and still feel invalidated, reaching out to a couples therapist for some guidance may be beneficial. 

Yasman Karimi, MA, LMFT – www.houstonrelationshiptherapy.com

Caroline Sabi

Relationships are the hardest and the most important part of our lives if you ask me.

I wish we had a curriculum in schools teaching about interpersonal relationships, conflict resolutions and such. But unfortunately, we do not have any healthy resources to learn about relationships other than witnessing our parents and family while we are growing up. 

What we witness really primes us for future relationships.

What I have noticed in my personal life and as a psychotherapist specializing in relationships is that by the time, we are ready for a romantic relationship, we walk the earth filled with unconscious patterns that mainly hurt our relationships. 

  • We become pursuers if we were raised by non-attentive parents which creates an endless pit of longing for connections. 
  • On the other hand, we can become withdrawers if we were raised by overbearing parents who did not respect our boundaries. 

This is of course a very simple picture of two very ingrained patterns I see in my clients.

Overreaction happens when an individual is triggered by a partner who acts like one of the early caregivers did. 

The important point here is that the triggered individual is hijacked by the problematic behavior and is no longer really present to what is happening in the present moment. 

For example, if a woman had an absent father, or one she was not securely attached to, an inattentive partner can easily trigger her, to be precise a very young part of her gets activated. 

All of this is happening below the level of consciousness and meanwhile the couple can get into a difficult place because no amount of reasoning can help the activated woman. 

The question posed in this essay is how to stop overreacting at this moment.

Neuroscience and our advance in technology is allowing us to have a look into the brain of an activated individual and what is shown in FMRI’s is that when caught in overreaction, the prefrontal cortex( the part of the brain that allows us to judge and discern) is not on board anymore and instead the amygdala which is our mammalian brain (our emotional brain) is on overdrive. 

At times like this it is the responsibility of the activated person to take time off from the interaction and apply tools that soothes the nervous system and creates the balance needed by getting the prefrontal cortex online.

The first part of tending to an overreaction is to pause. 

I call this the sacred pause. Just stop doing whatever you are doing. Actually, visualizing a stop sign can be very helpful.

If seated, it helps to just get up and take a few steps.

The second part is to start paying attention to your breath. 

It is normal to have very shallow breathing at those times. There are many breathing techniques coming from the eastern traditions of mindfulness. 

My favorite is called 7/11. 

Take an inbreath for the count of 7 and exhale for the count of 11 with an open mouth. Be aware that it will take a few breaths to get to the count of 11 in your exhale. Adding your favorite essential oil to the palms of your hands while doing this breathing makes it more potent.

Another good technique is stream of consciousness writing, in this format, you don’t care about grammar or spelling, you just keep writing for 10 min without stopping.

The key is whoever is activated is responsible for calming their system down and not relying on the partner to make it better for them. This is how two mature adults can have a successful relationship. Becoming aware of their triggers and becoming their own expert as far as what is needed to get back to baseline. 

Once the system is calmed down, I would recommend agreeing on a time to sit and talk when no one is triggered. 

When we speak to our partner from a place of calm, the chances for change to happen are much higher.

We are as happy or unhappy as the quality of our relationships. 

It’s about time to see how important the quality of our relationships is and to show up as much as we can from our adult self instead of the activated/triggered/ wounded part.

Caroline Sabi, MA, LPC – www.carolinesabi.com

Oona Metz

If you find yourself having an outsized reaction in your relationship, here are some things to consider….

Is your reaction related to your history or is it really all about the present? 

For example, if your last boyfriend/girlfriend cheated on you, you might carry that anxiety into a new relationship. You might find yourself reacting in the present to something/someone from your past. At a calm moment, ask yourself how much you are carrying from the past.

Consider and evaluate your overall stress. 

If you are overstressed, you are much more likely to overreact to something small. What can you do to reduce your stress? Can you work less, ask for more help, incorporate yoga, exercise or meditation into your daily routine? And don’t forget to breathe. It’s easy, free and you can do it anytime.

Get perspective from a friend. 

Sometimes if you are feeling a lot of feelings it can be hard to tell if you are overreacting or not. Call a trusted friend, the one with a level head, and ask your friend how they would feel in your situation.

If someone is telling you that you are overreacting, that may or may not be true. 

Women are often told they are overreacting, which can be a form or gas lighting. 

Remember, your feelings are never wrong. 

Feelings are not actions. 

For example, feeling upset is OK, but throwing a chair when you are upset is not. There is a big difference. 

Talking to a trusted friend, family member or therapist can help you to determine whether the feelings you are having fit your situation.

Oona Metz, LICSW, CGP – www.oonametz.com

Dr. Rachel Orleck

“Overreaction.” Women are stuck in a position where they have to be soft, nurturing and emotional, but not too much. 

If they have stronger emotions, crying, or anger then women are told they are too much.

Anger and tears are frequently made out to be overreactions. 

However, if you are angry or upset there is a reason for these feelings. Invalidating your own feelings by judging them as “overreactions” is crazy making.

When you are in a relationship, you both impact each other. 

So how you react when you are upset will either lead you closer to your goal of connection and comfort, or further from it. If you are quick to react in anger, raising your voice, harsh tones, or sarcasm then it’ll push your partner further away.

Use these skills to improve your communication and reduce your reactivity:

– Communicate your feelings. To be better understood and acknowledged by your partner, it’s important to communicate your feelings. 

– Use “I” centered language and make sure not to blame your partner for your feelings or actions. Blame will make them get defensive.

– Take a break. 

When you feel strong emotions, that’s not always the best time to express them because you may be more reactive. Take a breather, journal, or meditate to come back to a center where you can communicate calmly and more clearly.

– Take responsibility. 

It’s important for you to take responsibility for your behavior, reactions, and emotions. Your partner doesn’t make you feel anything. Your emotions are reactions to your beliefs about what your partner did. 

When you tell them that their action caused you to feel or act in a certain way, you are blaming them and not taking responsibility.

– Validate yourself. 

Keep reminding yourself that you are allowed to have your emotions. Your emotions make sense. Be compassionate with yourself. Work to understand your emotions more thoroughly. When you don’t try to change them it will make them easier to express without being hurtful.

Bottom line, this is someone you care about and cares about you. 

The goal here is to become more connected, not less. You want to be heard, seen, and appreciated by your partner; and ultimately, they want the same thing. Work together to be more open to each other’s emotions so you don’t have to hide them in the future and are more readily able to communicate.

Rachel Orleck, PsyD – www.relationshipswithgrit.com

Barbara Bourgeois

People overreact for a variety of reasons, and rarely does it have anything to do with what is actually happening in the moment.

Some examples of overreacting include blaming, assuming, angry outbursts, name calling, and giving someone the silent treatment.  

All of these behaviors, although very different from one another, have one thing in common….they are all forms of defending ourselves or protecting the part of ourselves that still needs healing.  

We defend ourselves when we feel threatened, whether the threat is real or imagined.  

What triggers this protective response is almost always a situation which evokes an emotional memory, a time in your life when a similar emotion was felt and the chosen emotional reaction was actually warranted.  

Usually this initial experience is one that took place in childhood, often we may not even remember clearly what caused it.

Imagine for a moment your boyfriend says he will be home at 5:00 for dinner but doesn’t actually arrive until later.  For some, this event would result in little more than annoyance and hopefully a well-deserved apology.  But for others, a full blown outburst may ensue.  


The emotions and feelings brought on by wondering where your boyfriend is take you right back to a childhood moment when perhaps you were left waiting for a parent who forgot to pick you up more often than not, or perhaps a time when an absent parent once again didn’t keep their word about their weekly visit.  

As a child, these events are extremely painful and the emotional residual can still wreak havoc on our lives as adults.

If you tend to overreact, the first step is to seek professional help to figure out why.  

This process can be painful, but a necessary step to healing old wounds and allowing you to move forward and replace your reactive brain with a responsive one, one that can assess the current actual situation and respond accordingly with understanding and curiosity instead of defense and anger. 

A friend and yoga teacher once said to me, “Every loving thought is true…..everything else, in any form, is a cry for help and healing.”

Remember, its not how you handle the sunny days, but rather the rainy ones, that determines the health of the relationship.  

Conflict is inevitable and part of a good life…don’t run from it, run into it, get curious about each other in this place and grow together from it.

Barbara L Bourgeois, MBA, MS, LPC, NCC – www.bbtherapyct.com

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