Dealing with an Overreactive Partner

Try asking these questions when your partner is "overreacting" to something

It goes a little something like this. You ask an innocent question, make a light-hearted joke, or even mildly criticize the way your partner does something—and the next thing you know, they're going to raise their voice, cry, or get defensive. What gives?
Dealing with an Overreactive Partner
Overall, therapists agree that telling your partner to "calm down," accusing them of being overly sensitive or dramatic, or otherwise suggesting that they are overreacting is unhelpful.

For one, these types of ineffective responses will only further escalate the situation. Rachel Sims, LPC, relationship and dating expert at and author of Do You Love Smart or Do You Love Dumb? "This is especially true if they grew up in a home where emotions were ignored or belittled," the authors of the book say.

But it's also important to remember that there's almost always a deeper reason for the way they react - often stemming from trauma or painful experiences.

For example, asking your partner why he left the dishes in the sink may seem harmless to you—but if a parent regularly yells at them for these types of mistakes, it may feel like It's an attack.

“If it’s hysterical, it’s historic,” said Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin, a licensed clinical professional counselor and certified Imago Relationship Therapist, co-founder of the Marriage Repair Project. "Any disproportionate reaction is a good sign that you are triggering something from your past. This is often childhood trauma or unmet needs."

So, what's the best thing you can do in these situations?
Dealing with an Overreactive Partner
Experts say to approach the situation with calm curiosity. This is their recommendation.

Step 1: Acknowledge Their Feelings

First things first: don't try to fix anything. Just focus on identifying and validating your partner's feelings—even if you don't understand them yet.

Amy Morin, LCSW, a psychotherapist and author of "13 Things Mentally Strong Couples Don't Do," suggests saying something like: "I can see my comments It makes you feel uneasy.”

You can also apologize for hurting their feelings or saying something that got on their nerves.

"You don't necessarily have to agree with how they feel to acknowledge that they're feeling something," Morin explains.

Ultimately, experts say, the most important thing you can do here is focus on listening to what your partner is saying.

“During challenging times like this, it’s critical to focus on active listening and empathy,” Sims said. "Encourage your partner to share their perspective and express your feelings without blaming."

Step 2: Wait For Fight Or Flight Mode To End

There's no use trying to have a calm and productive discussion if your partner is still agitated.

"When the amygdala in your partner's brain is activated, which is the emotional center of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, responsible for logic, problem-solving, and receiving feedback, a part of the brain goes offline," says sex therapist and founder of Shameless People Jackie Golob explains. THERAPY & COUNSELING SERVICES LIMITED. "If you try to immediately react or fix what's going on, it will only get worse before it gets better."

Instead, Golob recommends looking for clues that your partner is ready and able to talk about what happened.

For example, you might notice that your partner's tone of voice changes or their volume decreases, their breathing returns to normal, their posture seems more relaxed, or they stop pacing around the room.

Step 3: Stay Curious

Being curious shows your partner that you care about their emotional world.

"By showing a genuine interest in understanding their perspective, you create a space for open communication and emotional connection," Sims explains.

Dealing with an Overreactive Partner
Here are some questions Sims recommends asking:

1. Clarify The Question

These types of questions encourage self-reflection and invite your partner to share potentially helpful information about the "why" behind their answers.

  • Can you help me understand what just happened?
  • Is there anything specific about what happened that you need me to know?
  • Is there anything I did or said that still bothers you that you need to talk about?
  • Can you tell me more about what triggers this reaction?
  • Does this situation remind you of anything from your past?
  • Can you share more of your perspective so I can see things from your perspective?
  • What was your experience at that moment? How does it affect you?
  • Did something I said or did trigger a specific memory or feeling in you?
  • Do you think there is a pattern in our interactions that leads to these reactions?

2. Problem-Solving Focused Questions

These questions focus more on finding closure in this interaction and fostering a sense of collaboration or teamwork in solving the problem.

  • What do you need me to do now?
  • How do we work together to get through this?
  • What would support you right now?
  • In this case, what would your solution look like?

3. Future-Oriented Issues

Finally, the questions are framed around learning from experience and improving communication skills.

  • Is there any way I can communicate differently to make you feel more heard?
  • How do you think we can handle our differences in a way that benefits both of us?
  • How can we create a safe space for both of us to express ourselves without feeling attacked?
  • How can I better communicate my thoughts and feelings to you in a way that makes you feel supported?
  • What could I have done differently to prevent something like this from happening?
  • "Using these questions in combination can lead to more open and empathetic communication, paving the way for constructive conflict resolution and deeper connections," Sims added.