Have you ever seen someone have a very strong reaction to something that seems minor? From your perspective, you’re wondering what the big deal is. Why are they getting so upset?
Of course, this happens all the time in marriages and other intimate relationships. We see our spouse “freak out” over something small. Often, we don’t even know what triggered their anger or upset. When one partner witnesses the other get upset about something that seems trivial, it can be very confusing. Many times, people in my office will tell me that their partner got very upset – and they had no idea why.
So, why ARE they getting so upset? It boils down to this – their apparent “overreaction” is actually 20% triggered by whatever just happened and 80% triggered by something from the upset person’s past. In other words, the incident that just occurred touched upon something deeper inside that person. It may have brought to the surface an old hurt that hasn’t been worked through fully. This old hurt could be something that happened earlier in the current relationship, during a former relationship, or during childhood. As gifted Imago Master Trainer, Maya Kollman M.A., taught me, “if it’s hysterical, it’s historical.”
This may help the witnessing partner to keep things in perspective. It’s likely that when you see someone very upset, her/his own past issue has been activated. Of course, the exception to this is if you did something to intentionally hurt your partner, or did something that was abusive, neglectful, or unacceptable to them. In these cases, the level of upset would be proportionate to the level of pain you inflicted and is quite different from what I’m discussing in this article. What I’m describing here are those times when a partner has intense reactions to minor events – where the reaction is way out of proportion to the actual incident.
So, how does knowing that the reaction may be rooted in the past help your relationship? What do you do when your partner is having a strong reaction to something that seems minor to you? Use the basic Imago tool of mirroring. With mirroring, you paraphrase your partner’s comments back to him/her. For example you would say, “I hear that you’re very angry that the dishwasher was loaded that way.” Mirroring is different from agreeing. Just because you reflect back what was said doesn’t mean you agree. OR, you may decide to acknowledge your 20% responsibility for the trigger by saying something like, “Yes, I did try to fit as much as I could in the dishwasher and the dishes didn’t come out clean.” When dealing with a very upset person, the most important role you can take is that of a calm witness and understanding presence. Try to stay with them through their upset (unless they are attacking or shaming you).
Realizing that they are not just reacting to the dishes, but also to something from their past that hasn’t been resolved yet will help you to remain a calm witness for them. In this example, perhaps your partner grew up in a filthy house and hated that filth because they felt uncared for. Having dishes come out of the dishwasher dirty would touch upon that historical hurt and cause a major reaction to a minor incident. Keeping the historical perspective in mind will help you to stop taking things so personally and help you begin to understand your partner better. Knowing the reaction was triggered by something out of your partner’s past will help you to stay calm and mirror your partner’s words. In turn, your unruffled presence and mirroring will have a calming effect. This is one more way we can show love to our partner.
To schedule an appointment or to learn more, call 908-246-3074 or email GetSupport@CouplesTherapyCenterOfNJ.com