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How to Recognize and Defuse Emotional Time Bombs In Your Relationship

A guide for crafting the perfect response during an explosion of bottled-up emotions

The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and everything is right with the world when all of a sudden…

“I can’t BELIEVE you!”

…your partner explodes. Perhaps they give you the silent treatment, or throw out a spiteful comment, or assault you with an unwarranted emotional outburst.

“If you loved/respected/appreciated me, you would have [insert unexpected action]. I can’t believe you [insert seemingly harmless action]. You don’t care about me at all!”

Where did that come from? And how were you supposed to know that something so small would matter so much?

Welcome to the dark world of hidden expectations, my friend.

It’s common (although quite dangerous) to expect our partner to love us exactly the way we want to be loved without actually telling them what the love we want looks like. Typically we don’t even know exactly how we want to be loved, so we look to our partner — the person who should know us better than anyone else in the world — and expect him/her to just know. We don’t tell him/her that we want flowers on our birthday because, after all, they should “just know” that. Right?

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

W-R-O-N-G. Unfortunately, expecting someone to “just know” what you want will only lead to confusion and contempt in your relationship; the best way to get what you want is to communicate exactly what it is that you desire.

There are two possible results from clearly communicate your needs; either you get what it is that you wanted OR you’ll get a reason why your partner didn’t/can’t/won’t give it to you. Either way, you’ll initiate an open, honest conversation about the needs and expectations each partner has for the other instead of bottling up your frustrations.

BUT what if you’re on the receiving side of the expectation battle? That is, what if YOU get blindsided with a heated outburst from your partner? How can you diffuse the ticking time bomb before your partner explodes?

Step 1: Validate their emotions.

The #1 response to a passive aggressive comment, cold shoulder, or the “look” from your partner is emotional validation.

Validate your partner’s feelings by repeating back the emotions they’ve expressed to you (in words or with their body language) with empathy and non-judgment. Be specific.

“I understand you feel [insert emotion] about [specific event]. Is this correct? I want to be sure we’re on the same page.”

The benefit of validating your partner’s emotions is two-fold;

  1. You give him/her a sense of “feeling heard,” which may be the reason for fighting in and of itself AND
  2. You receive clarification of their actual emotional state. Questioning your partner’s ulterior emotions with support gives them a safe space to explain his/her feelings, but it also gives you a clearer understanding of what it is that they want/need from you (either in that moment or in the future).

Sometimes emotional validation is all it takes to ‘read’ your partner’s mind and say exactly the right thing. “I hear you, I understand that you are experiencing a real emotion, and I am here to help find a way to move forward”can typically defuse an emotionally-charged situation and open a line of honest conversation.

Photo by CMDR Shane on Unsplash

What if, though, your partner is following you around the house with complaints, questions, and sarcastic remarks that they know will irk you enough to engage in an argument?

Step 2: Don’t just respond or react — interact.

“Whenever you’re in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.” -William James

Your partner probably isn’t looking for answers to questions they impose during an emotional rampage as much as they are simply trying to get your attention. The may be demanding action or answers on the surface, but deep down they’re saying, “I need you to interact with me. I need your words of affirmation.”

In other words, your partner cares less about what you say and more about how you say it (and show it).

Fighting isn’t typically a positive interaction, but it’s attention and shared emotion nonetheless. Fighting may be one of the only times your partner feels like they are receiving your full attention and full expression of emotion during your relationship, so they push your buttons to elicit a response from you (i.e. attention and emotion).

Avoid an emotional explosion by giving him/her your full attentiononce you’ve seen a signal of distress.

  • Pause whatever you’re doing as soon as possible; if you can’t pause at that very moment, communicate the soonest time that you will be able to sit down to talk and DON’T be late.
  • Face your partner with uncrossed arms and open body language. The more relaxed you appear, the more relaxed your partner may feel. ‘Issa vibe.
  • Make eye contact. Besides being the ultimate sign of respect, scientific studies show that eye contact can actually strengthen the chemical bond between you and your partner.
  • Full ear contact, like eye-contact, is also a sign of ultimate respect. Mute the music, take out your headphones, and/or turn off the TV to show that you are listening.
  • Log off the internet. Physically close your laptop and/or set your phone on silent, face-down and out of reach.
  • Use phrases like “I hear what you’re saying,” “that makes sense,” and “I understand” to reassure your partner that you are listening. Offer your side of the story using statements starting with “I feel” so they don’t feel attacked, invalidated, judged, or blamed.

Physical touch can also be one of the most effective ways to soothe your partner during emotional distress. Perhaps you take their hand in yours, rest a hand on their shoulder/forearm, or pull them in close for a hug; reconnecting with your body may give your partner the reassurance and closeness he/she needs to calm down.

Don’t get upset if they push your hand away or refuse physical touch, though; the need for touch during a peak emotional state varies from person to person and conflict to conflict. If they tell you not to touch them, don’t. Interact without touch by making eye contact, using open body language, actively listening, and speak with intention.

Step 3: Make amends or make plans.

Perhaps you don’t mind leaving a few dishes in the sink overnight but your partner absolutely can’t stand going to bed knowing there are still “duties” to be fulfilled. While it may seem irrational to you, your partner is experiencing real negative emotions that need to be dealt with and avoided in the future.

If you deliberately or carelessly made a mistake, make amends. Take ownership of your mistakes — no matter how insignificant they may seem — and offer any warranted apologies.

Perhaps the dishes are a small piece of a more significant issue at play; maybe your partner isn’t asking for an apology over the dishes per se, but he/she is actually looking for an apology for the fact that you didn’t follow through on promises (e.g. promising to clean your dishes after dinner) or that you were inconsiderate of their feelings (e.g. going to bed without cleaning your dishes because it doesn’t bother you, even though you know it bothers your partner). You don’t have to apologize for actually leaving a few dishes in the sink, but you can apologize for not following through and being inconsiderate.

That isn’t to say that you always have to apologize when your partner is having an emotional outburst; they may have set an expectation for your behavior that you weren’t aware of or they let small annoyances build up until they finally (irrationally) exploded.

If your partner is upset about the way you do something because it’s different than the way they do it, you don’t have to make amends — you just need to make plans to avoid repeating the same conflict in the future.

“Learn the wisdom of compromise, for it is better to bend a little than to break.” -Jane Wells

Compromise doesn’t mean doing whatever your partner wants you to do; rather, compromise is finding a way to appease both parties or avoiding the situation altogether.

Maybe you tell your partner that it’s stressful for you to have to clean dishes after you’ve had a long day at work and would rather relax for a few hours before bed. Instead of doing the dishes after dinner, you propose waking up 5 minutes earlier than usual and get them done before your partner is even out of bed. That way you can go to bed without stressing about dishes and your partner can wake up to a clean sink.

Or perhaps your partner agrees to take care of all the dishes at night so neither of you has to stress about who is going to clean the dishes (and avoid the argument altogether). You could make up for the extra work by swapping with another household chore like laundry on the weekend or picking up the pooch from doggy daycare after work.

Compromise is not giving up, giving in, or getting walked on. Compromise is a necessary skill for conflict resolution that looks different for every couple (andevery situation).

Photo by Andrik Langfield on Unsplash

Step 4: Let it go.

It’s healthy (and necessary) to empathize with your partner’s emotions, but it’s not healthy to let their emotions become your responsibility. You can’t ‘control’ or ‘fix’ or ‘change’ their emotions. Once you’ve validated their feelings, interacted with intention, and communicated a solution, let it go.

“You cannot save people from themselves. All you can do is stand firmly in your hopes for them, with compassion.” -Bryant H. McGill

At the end of the day, the ‘right’ thing to say when your partner’s bottled up emotions are ready to explode is simply that you support him/her no matter what emotion they are experiencing.

You can initiate conversation and make amends for past mistakes, but only your partner can control their emotional distress fuse; it’s not your responsibility to sniff out every ticking time bomb before it goes off.

Your significant other may have emotional trauma, past issues, or simply ego getting in the way of asking for help before it’s too late (and the bomb explodes). If you realize that this is the case, it may be a good idea to talk with a trusted friend or book an appointment with a couples’ therapist. Sometimes we aren’t fully sure of what it is we need until we’ve talked it out with a friend, a loved one, or a professional.

“Take advantage of every opportunity to practice your communication skills so that when important occasions arise, you will have the gift, the style, the sharpness, the clarity, and the emotions to affect other people.” -Jim Rohn

Validate. Interact. Make amends. Make plans. Let go, and love on.


Written by Rachel Clements, creative writer at rachelclementsmedia.com. Originally published 10-4-18 on Medium.com.

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