6 Ways to Calm Down an Out-of-Control Partner

6 Ways to Calm Down an Out-of-Control Partner

New relationship research suggests 6 approaches that can de-stress your partner.

Even during the best of times, some people have partners who always seem to question their feelings about the relationship. For example, on one occasion, things were going reasonably well, and you didn’t think there would be a problem if you went out for a socially distant evening with your friends, leaving your partner at home. You were having so much fun that you didn’t even realize how long you’d been out until you got an anxious text from your partner wondering where you were. When you returned home, your partner went completely off the rails, accusing you of having an affair.

The stress of living under COVID-19 is turning the best of times into the worst for many couples. If you share the same household, you’re together almost non-stop, putting your relationship under a new kind of microscope. If you live apart, perhaps even at some distance, it’s difficult to find ways to see each other. In either case, with an insecure partner, the new reality will put stress on your relationship.

Researchers in the area of close relationships established some time ago the idea that adults who have difficulties feeling safe and secure got to be this way as a result of problems in early life when their caregivers (usually parents) failed to meet their basic emotional needs. According to the concept of attachment styles, adults carry on forward into their adult relationships the so-called “internal working models” resulting from how they were cared for as infants. Securely attached adults will be able to withstand a wider range of relationship situations than insecurely attached adults, whose alarm signals go off at the slightest hint of perceived neglect from their partners.

A new study by Sapienzo University of Rome’s Giacomo Ciocca and colleagues (2020) suggests that it’s not only an insecure attachment style that leads partners to become out of control when they fear abandonment, but also the use of so-called immature defense mechanisms. Based on psychodynamic theory, the authors note that contemporary views of defense mechanisms regard them as reactions to “stressful or threatening mental representations and feelings that would otherwise produce psychological distress, protecting the individual from mental suffering and one’s altered perception of self, others, or one’s own emotions” (p. 385). From this perspective, an insecure attachment style might only be partly the cause of your partner’s constant need for reassurance.

You might know about defense mechanisms from a psychology course you took at one point, or from popular media coverage of such topics as “passive aggressiveness” or “repression.” The traditional Freudian view of defense mechanisms sees them in terms of sexual desires, but as you can see from the Ciocca et al. quote, the more contemporary approach places them in the larger context of stress more generally. The categories of defense mechanisms within this approach range from “immature” ones that involve “massive reality distortion” to the “mature” ones that “allow relatively more conscious awareness” of potentially threatening feelings and experiences.

Partners who overreact when they perceive abandonment only make things worse, as suggested by the Italian authors, when they become so overwhelmed with fear that they can’t even recognize the reality of what’s happening to them. It’s thus the combination of an insecure attachment style plus immature defense mechanisms that might lead your partner to become so panicky and upset when sensing your possible lack of “support.”

Putting this approach to the test, Ciocca and his colleagues tested a statistical model on data from a sample of 1,129 college students living in Italy and Albania using measures of attachment style, defense mechanisms, and, as an outcome, psychological distress. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 49 but averaged 22 years old, and the majority (65%) were female. The attachment style measure provided scores on the extent to which participants were securely attached, fearful (afraid of intimacy), preoccupied (afraid of abandonment) or dismissive (unwilling to become attached).

As the authors predicted, people who scored high on either the preoccupied or fearful attachment styles were indeed more likely to report high levels of distress, but this relationship was statistically accounted for by their use of immature defenses. Ciocca et al. interpret this finding in more depth to suggest that people with insecure attachment styles aren’t only insecure about relationships, but also about their own sense of identity. They try to keep themselves from having to acknowledge this sense of personal weakness by resorting to one of several immature defense mechanisms, but these only make things worse. Rather than being able to recognize and accept their limitations, they try desperately to cover them up. If you get in the way of this, you might very well become the brunt of their tendencies to act out, project, or passive aggressively try to attack you.


How, then, can you use the findings of the study to help your partner gain greater emotional control? Taking the relevant concepts from this research into account, here are the six methods that might help defuse situations that can easily harm your relationship:

1. Recognize the source of your partner’s insecurity. No one wants to have an insecure attachment style. If your partner seems overly needy, it’s not due to a personal choice.

2. Support your partner’s sense of personal identity. Both you and your partner might gain from recognizing each other’s strengths and positive attributes.

3. Be patient and supportive. Again, your partner doesn’t want to be this way. It’s easy to become angry and defensive yourself, so try to remain calm yourself.

4. Help pave the way for more mature defense mechanisms by your partner. Recall that humor is one of the more mature defense mechanisms. Although this might seem only to fan the flames, perhaps in a calmer moment you can agree with your partner on ways to defuse things through a smile or even a little laughter.

5. Use situations that have escalated in the past as a way to prepare for the future. Again, once things are calmer, go back over (in a non-accusatory fashion) the way things developed in that situation to figure out how to stop the next one from spiraling out of control.

6. Find ways to manage your own feelings of distress. It’s upsetting to be exposed to the unhappiness of a person you care about. You might need those occasional nights out with your friends, and if you establish ground rules ahead of time, your partner might be able to accept this with greater equanimity.

To sum up, having a partner who easily becomes enraged and upset can make daily life difficult for both of you. Understanding the dynamics behind your partner’s insecurity can help bring both of you back onto a more even and fulfilling keel.


Why Romantic Partners Really Argue: What You May Not Know

Why Romantic Partners Really Argue: What You May Not Know

What’s really at the root of arguments and what can help.

The quality of relationships is the quality of life. Yet, relationships are innately challenging. There tends to be at least some conflict in almost every relationship and there’s widespread confusion about what drives it and how to prevent it. This unfortunately can lead to more arguments. Partners often say, “We argue over stupid things.” This is somewhat true. That said, there are a lot more things partners are actually arguing about under the surface than what meets the eye, especially for the partners themselves.

When it comes down to it, your partner doesn’t actually care as much about whether you turned on the dishwasher, or were 20 minutes late to an important appointment. As an emotionally-focused therapist, I view the core of relationship conflict as a protest against disconnection. This often manifests as a cycle of mutually-enforcing negative interaction rooted in emotional processing from our need for close relationships. With romantic partners especially, emotionally charged exchanges can evolve so fast and become so chaotic that it’s too easy to miss what actually happened and how partners could have reacted differently. They can become deeply distressing, to the point where it can feel like you are fighting for your life. We’re wired and programmed to bond as social mammals—arguably more than we’re programmed to eat. Our need for close relationships and the powerful emotions accompanying them tend to arise sharply and suddenly.

So, focusing on the content of arguments (i.e who forgot to mail the important package) misses the forest for the trees. What fights are really about is the emotional safety in a relationship, partner’s’ subjective sense of the other’s caring from them (or being there for them), and fear that they will get hurt. In this sense, a relationship solution is emotional vulnerability, accessibility, and responsiveness. This leads to acceptance of painful and disowned feels and parts of self that can significantly strengthen a relationship.

Our relationship and attachment needs are naturally healthy and adaptive. Aside from disagreements rooted in personality differences, partners actually argue because their interactive patterns leave them feeling stuck and disconnected. These patterns are demarcated as the relationship’s “negative cycle,” in which partners must learn to combat as a team. The out is creating emotionally-bonding experiences of vulnerability and closeness instead of stuckness from their negative cycle. In this sense, their arguments actually demarcate stuck patterns of mutually-reinforcing responses in which their attachment bond feels threatened. Relationships fail not because of increased conflict, but lack of connection, decreasing affection, and reduced emotional responsiveness because of partners’ stuck responses in their “negative cycle.”

Research on partners’ arguments suggests that they don’t use communication skills in the heat of an argument. So, contrary to what you may think, if you seek EFT relationship therapy, your therapist won’t be teaching you communication skills often. Most people in struggling relationships generally know how to communicate. You likely communicate quite well with friends, coworkers, strangers, etc. Yet why do you have a hard time communicating with your partner(s)? The answer is that you are caught by a negative pattern of reactions (arguments), feelings unspoken, and confusing or hidden ways of trying to get your need for connection and comfort met. There’s a lot more going on underneath the words that isn’t being communicated. Getting to what’s underneath leads us to the true cause of arguments and relationship distress.

Thus, focusing on communication skills won’t get to the root of the problems or fix them long-term. Research on the arguments of partners shows that they don’t use communication skills in the heat of an argument. In reality, when you’re upset and you need good communication the most, you likely react from your gut at lightning speed. You typically don’t stop to think about using communication skills such as “I-statements” and “reflecting” or “validating” the statements your partner just made.

In this sense, partners need to look closely at what’s underneath their arguments and fueling negative patterns. What is blocking underlying feelings? Partners need to learn to reach out to each other with those feelings such as sadness about the disconnection, feelings of failure or inadequacy, or fear of rejection.

Therapy can help

This softer, more vulnerable sharing can feel downright scary and profoundly uncomfortable. Turning toward vulnerability is hard work, but worth it. Good relationship counseling is a deep bonding experience that lasts months and years after therapy ends. You may be nervous, but starting therapy may just save your relationships(s) and change your life. Too many partners start therapy up to seven-plus years too late.


How Screen Time and Green Time May Affect Youth Psychological Outcomes

How Screen Time and Green Time May Affect Youth Psychological Outcomes

Less screen time and more green time are associated with better psychological outcomes among children and adolescents, according to a study published September 2 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Tassia Oswald of the University of Adelaide, and colleagues.

The prevalence of mental illness among children and adolescents is increasing globally. Technological developments in recent decades have increased young people’s engagement with screen-based technologies (screen time), and a reduction in young people’s contact with nature (green time) has been observed concurrently. This combination of high screen time and low green time may affect mental health and well-being. But research investigating the psychological impacts of screen time or green time typically considers each factor in isolation and fails to delineate the reciprocal effects of high technology use and low contact with nature on mental health and cognitive outcomes. To address this question, Oswald and colleagues analyzed the findings of 186 studies to collate evidence assessing associations between screen time, green time, and psychological outcomes (including mental health, cognitive functioning, and academic achievement) for children and adolescents.

Word cloud of the language used to conceptualise and measure ST and GT in the included studies (ST = 114 studies; GT = 58 studies; Both = 14 studies). Image is credited to Oswald TK, et al (2020); PLOS ONE.

In general, high levels of screen time appeared to be associated with unfavorable psychological outcomes, while green time appeared to be associated with favorable psychological outcomes. Young people from low socioeconomic backgrounds were underrepresented in the literature overall and may be disproportionately affected by high screen time and low green time, making this a priority group for future research. However, additional longitudinal studies and RCTs are needed to determine whether decreasing screen time and increasing green time would improve psychological outcomes. According to the authors, preliminary evidence suggests that green time could potentially buffer the consequences of high screen time, meaning nature may be an under-utilized public health resource to promote youth psychological well-being in a high-tech era. Investment in more rigorous research is needed to explore this.

Oswald adds: “This systematic scoping review highlights that nature may currently be an under-utilised public health resource, which could potentially function as an upstream preventative and psychological well-being promotion intervention for children and adolescents in a high-tech era. However, robust evidence is needed to guide policies and recommendations around appropriate screen time and green time at critical life stages, to ultimately ensure optimal psychological well-being for young people.”