What To Do When Emotion Dysregulation Affects Your Relationship
By Brooke Schwartz, LMSW and Stephanie Dowd, PsyD
In past blog posts, we’ve discussed both what emotion dysregulation is and what it looks like in children. Need a refresher? Emotion dysregulation can be defined as the inability to regularly use healthy strategies to diffuse or control negative emotions.
It may not come as a surprise that romantic relationships are affected by how people control (and don’t control) their emotions. Many find that it’s difficult to adapt to their partner’s emotional reactions and that their relationship suffers because of it. And research supports this — couples that struggle with problems related to emotion regulation often experience lower relational satisfaction as well as lower intimacy levels.
What does emotion dysregulation look like in couples? While it varies couple-to-couple, some examples of behaviors include:
Reactive and often impulsive behavior. This may involve making quick decisions, such suddenly going out of town when angry at a partner rather than confronting the issue, or threatening to hurt yourself in the midst of an argument.
Either attacking or withdrawing in the relationship (or a combination of both). Attacking may involve violence or aggression, either physical (such as grabbing or hitting) or verbal (such as name-calling or yelling). Withdrawing may look like feeling so heated during a conversation that you just stop talking or walk out of the room.
Frequent misunderstandings that are difficult to recover from. This may mean that, after a disagreement, it takes a long time to get “back to normal.” For example, if there’s a disagreement at the beginning of a meal, it feels like the entire meal is bound to be stressful and unpleasant.
Extreme thinking. For example, frequently using the words “always” and “never” during arguments, or making general blanket statements such as, “You don’t care. You never have.”
If you’re part of a couple experiencing some or all of the above and are hoping to improve your relationship, you may consider trying to:
Practice relational mindfulness.
Mindfulness is practicing being present in the moment without judgment.
It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to manage your emotions if you’re not aware that they’re escalating in the first place. So first, practice simply noticing and then describing your thoughts and emotions nonjudgmentally (e.g., “I feel my heart racing”). Try not to jump to any judgments such as, “They’re such a jerk!”
Then, notice, observe, and describe only what you can observe about your partner (e.g. “They’re speaking. Now they’re looking down at their feet.”). Being mindful of your partner means you’re not attaching any judgments, interpretations, or inferences (e.g., “They’re not listening,” “They don’t care,” “They always do this”) to what you observe.
Why practice relational mindfulness? It helps slow down your emotions and prevent them from getting out of control.
Validate the emotions, wants, and opinions of yourself and your partner.
Validating is, in short, communicating to yourself or someone else that what they are thinking, feeling, or doing makes sense. “I can see how upset you are” and “I can understand why this angers you because this has happened before” are both examples of validating statements.
You might have to give up being right in favor of getting along. Ask yourself: is it more important to be right or happy in this relationship? Keep in mind that it’s typically more important to be effective in the relationship (for example, by validating your partner) than to be right.
Why validate your partner? Validating is a way of showing your partner that they are heard, which is one of the most powerful ways to reduce intense emotions in a couple.
Distinguish between your primary and secondary emotions.
Primary emotions are universal responses to situations in life, such as sadness when a loved one dies or disappointment when you’re on the losing team in a game.
Secondary emotions are reactions to primary emotions. Sometimes primary emotions happen so quickly that we don’t notice they’ve happened at all, and we jump to secondary emotions. For example, if your partner leaves in the middle of a heated conversation, you may respond with anger (often a secondary emotion), which could be a response to fear (a primary emotion) that your relationship is ending.
Noticing your initial or primary emotions will help you get at the heart of the problem and address it head on. It will also help you avoid expressing unhelpful secondary emotions.
Increase pleasant (or even neutral) time together.
It may seem impossible increase positive time together as a couple if you’re constantly arguing. However, if you can start with at least spending neutral time together, it may help cut down on the negative feelings you have about one another.
Practice being in a room or the same car together — even if you’re not speaking. When it feels manageable, practice increasing shared pleasant activities (for example, doing something you both enjoy together). This can help build a sense of connection between you.
Consider couples therapy.
It’s difficult to manage extreme emotions in a relationship. For those who need or want more support, there are resources available. In Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) for couples, therapy goals include reducing negative patterns in the relationship and creating more helpful, constructive ways of interacting.
When emotion dysregulation persists in a relationship, partners may feel hopeless and exhausted. Despite this, however, working toward and achieving a relationship where both partners can control their emotions and find common ground is possible — it just takes time and hard work.
This site is for information only. It is not therapy. This blog is only for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered therapy or any form of treatment. We are not able to respond to specific questions or comments about personal situations, appropriate diagnosis or treatment, or otherwise, provide any clinical opinions. If you think you need immediate assistance, call your local emergency number.
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