7 Ways To De-Escalate Situations With An Emotionally Reactive Partner

by Kristine Fellizar
It can feel very frustrating to  be putting in more emotional work than your partner.

Every couple has their share of issues that need to be talked out and worked through together. In order to solve anything, it's important to come into the discussion with a clear mind and a willingness to hear your partner out and make compromises. But it can be tough to stay calm when you have an emotionally reactive partner. If you get easily triggered by your partner's reactions, it can lead to an even bigger fight. So what can you do to prevent your partner's emotional reactivity from hurting your relationship? According to experts, there are some things you should keep in mind.

"An emotionally reactive person feels emotions very strongly and immediately," Michelle Henderson, licensed mental health counselor who specializes in relationship issues, tells Bustle. "While most people can take a moment to pause and think before they act on their emotions, an emotionally reactive person doesn't do this. They have very little time between feeling something and then acting on that emotion."

As you can imagine, this can lead to bigger issues in the relationship. For instance, it can make your fights more volatile and frequent. It can mean having to defend yourself over and over again because your partner can't let things go. It can also mean having to deal with your partner's bad attitude over small things that shouldn't be a big deal.

"Being with an emotionally reactive person can leave you feeling either exhausted from experiencing their emotional intensity or walking on eggshells trying to avoid conflict as much as possible," Henderson says. So here are some ways to deal with an emotionally reactive partner, according to experts.


Take A Brief Moment To Ground Yourself Before Responding

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The reality is, you can't control how your partner behaves. If they have a tendency to lash out when things aren't going their way, that's something they need to work through on their own. What you can control is your own behavior and reactions.

When your partner is being emotionally reactive, Christine Scott-Hudson, licensed psychotherapist who specializes in relationships, tells Bustle to check in with yourself first. "Pay attention to to the truth that you feel within yourself before responding and try not to be pulled into their reactivity," Scott-Hudson says. When your partner is angry and you respond by being angry right back, it's going to make matters much worse. So practice grounding exercises like taking a few deep breaths to relax before speaking your mind.


Communicate How You Feel And Focus On The Impact Of Their Behavior

When you're dealing with someone who immediately reacts before thinking, it's going to be hard for them to see that they're wrong. "If you point out that they're overreacting, the response will likely be defensive," Danielle Bayard Jackson, certified women's coach specializing in relationships and communication, tells Bustle. "But if, instead, you focus on the impact of their reactions, you'll get the person to reflect on what's happening without them being so emotionally involved."

For example, a statement like, "When you get upset like this, I feel like I can't share my feelings with you," will make someone less defensive than a statement like, "You always get mad for the smallest things." Making accusatory statements will only make things worse. "Sometimes removing the attention from the person to the impact they have encourages them to participate in rectifying their behavior," Jackson says.


Try To Understand Your Relationship Dynamic


The next time you get into an argument, pay close attention to what's happening and take note of any patterns. As Meredith Prescott, New York City-based psychotherapist who specializes in relationships, tells Bustle, the key to working on emotional reactivity in a relationship is self-awareness and a willingness to improve your communication strategies. For instance, when your partner gets emotional, how do you respond? Do you get defensive and start playing the blame game? Or do you immediately check out?

"If this pattern continues for a long time, this can lead to a very unhealthy relationship and/or a breakup," Prescott says. "Both parties have to understand how this dynamic has been created and how both partners can respond to each other more effectively."


Set Boundaries For Yourself

When you know your partner is emotionally reactive, it's essential to take care of yourself. That means putting yourself first, learning how to set boundaries, and being able to clearly communicate your feelings to your partner. As Henderson says, "It can be easy to avoid telling them how you really feel because you don't want to make things worse, but this can be detrimental to your mental health to keep so much inside." If you don't speak up, there's very little chance that things will change.

It's important to take your past into consideration as well. For instance, if you're prone to co-dependence or you grew up in a toxic environment, you may be more vulnerable to accepting poor behavior. According to Scott-Husdon, it can be difficult to see how bad things are while you're still into your partner. "It might take a professional therapist to help you learn to break the spell," she says.


Take A Break From Your Partner If It's Getting To Be Too Much


While it's good to talk out your problems as they come, you don't have to look for a solution right away. If your partner is getting really heated, don't push or try to speak over them. It's OK to take a step back and cool off. You can't solve anything when you're both overwhelmed with emotion. "If you feel unable to engage calmly or the situation feels emotionally toxic, remove yourself from the conversation by stating, 'I’m not ready to talk about this with you right now. Let’s revisit this conversation when we are both in a better space to talk about it,'" Alonna Donovan Makinson, relationship counselor, tells Bustle. It's better to take a time out than let things get worse.


Remove Yourself From The Situation If Your Partner Starts Being Mean

When someone is in the heat of the moment and overwhelmed with negative emotion, they may say things that can be really hurtful. If your partner starts being verbally or emotionally abusive, remove yourself from the situation immediately. "Do not put up with any abuse in order to try to help them regulate as this is a mistake," Scott-Hudson says. "Tell them you love them and reassure them you are coming back once they are emotionally contained."

If the situation continues, it may be time to reconsider being in the relationship. Loved ones or a professional like a therapist can help you in leaving this relationship.


Get Help From A Professional


Sometimes you can't work through things on your own. Going to a professional can be helpful in putting your relationship back on track. For instance, Prescott helps partners recognize the dysfunctional patterns that keep the reactive dynamic in place. "Couples therapy can be so helpful when partners are having issues around communication," Prescott says. "The therapist is able to hold the partner that's emotionally reactive accountable and allow room for change with the support of the other partner." They can also help you figure out the root cause of the reactive behavior.

It's important to remember that you can't control or change how your partner is. The only thing you can do is focus on yourself. If your partner is emotionally reactive, these are some things you can do. But if things become abusive, it may be time to exit the situation.


Michelle Henderson, licensed mental health counselor, owner of Next Chapter Counseling

Danielle Bayard Jackson, certified women's coach, author of Give It a Rest: The Case for Tough-Love Friendships

Meredith Prescott, New York City-based psychotherapist who specializes in relationships

Christine Scott-Hudson, licensed psychotherapist, owner of Create Your Life Studio

Alonna Donovan Makinson, relationship counselor, owner of Life Tree Counseling, LLC