“Big” Emotional Responses in Relationships

by | Relationships

What could be happening when your (or your partner’s) emotional response feels bigger than it “should” be?

Sometimes when I’m working with a couple on their relationship, they report to me that they have emotional arguments about what they consider to be “nothing” topics. The couples rarely know how to resolve these conflicts because the stakes seem cognitively low but one or both people involved report a strong emotional reaction “that just comes out of nowhere” and feels “like it doesn’t fit what’s happening.”

Generally, this signals to a couples therapist that the conflict is rooted in an attempt to meet an unmet attachment need. But sometimes the source of the inexplicably strong emotions is something different and a little trickier to uncover: trauma. And this is when I’m glad that I’m a couples therapist who also is trained in trauma treatment, because then I can bring a different skillset to bear.

Here’s an example of what this can look like. I’m sitting in session with a couple (not based upon a real couple, but upon a composite of couples I have worked with), Tim and Sherry, who are reviewing with me the disagreement that they had over the weekend.

Their story goes like this: they were invited to a barbeque at a friend’s house. The stakes for punctuality were low (their hosts had asked them to show up “whenever” after 2:00). But it was 2:15 and Sherry was becoming agitated because they were just then leaving the house. She complained several times that they were going to be “late.” She became tense and critical of Tim, who was “moving too slow.” Then she accused him of dismissing her. “You know how important it is to me to be on time!” Tim became defensive because her tone and criticisms made him feel attacked and confused. Hoping to “calm her down by being logical,” he said, “We can’t be late when there isn’t even a time when we’re supposed to be there!” Instead of this calming her down as he had hoped, she seemed to become even more agitated. “Why can’t you see how important this is to me?” she hissed. “I can’t see it because it’s not important! Because we are not late!” he replied with an exasperated tone. That was answered with a silence that lasted until the front door of their friend’s house opened and they went in, pretending that all was fine.

After relaying the story to me, Tim exhales heavily. “The only thing more frustrating to me about us fighting yesterday is having to talk about it again in couples therapy!” he exclaims.

Sherry agrees. “A part of me hears him tell the story and I think, ‘this was no big deal.’ I know I shouldn’t be so mad about this- it’s just dumb,” she says, and closes her eyes, as if searching inside to double check how she feels. Then her eyes snap back open again and she says through clenched jaws, “But even now when I think about it I am just so angry!”

I share with the couple that I can see how frustrating this is for them. I even share that I, too, don’t understand what made Sherry so upset. But I invite them to step back a little and to notice without judgment the emotions that are present. While it’s true that the situation as described doesn’t seem to have a time crunch involved, the emotions that are showing up for Sherry suggest that some part of her thinks that there is. She has even said as much. Something is making her upset. Instead of judging how we think she “should” be feeling in this situation, what if we noticed what she was actually feeling and got curious about it?

“How do we do that?” they both ask.

I ask them if we can take a few moments to focus on what is coming up with Sherry and they agree. I ask Sherry to sit comfortably, to take a few deep breaths, and to tune into the sensations she feels in her body. Then, I ask her to return in her imagination to the time when they were getting ready to leave. Can she remember the feeling of frustration that she felt with Tim and the thoughts that were coming up about being “late”?

“Yes.” We spend a few more moments connecting to and exploring these sensations and thoughts so that they feel very alive and present to Sherry. Then I ask her to float back in her memories on these sensations and to see when else she has felt them before, even if the circumstance of the memory seems unrelated. Sherry shifts uncomfortably in her chair. I ask her if something is coming up for her. “Yes…” She sighs. “This is how I felt when I was a kid, getting ready to go places when my dad was driving. He never gave a time for when we were supposed to leave, we just had to be ready when he wanted to go.”

“That must have been really stressful for you as a kid, not to have clear guidance. What would happen if you weren’t ready when he wanted to leave?” I ask softly.

She cringes. “He’d yell and say nasty things to make fun of us. Sometimes he’d throw things, or grab us and drag us along, or make us leave without our shoes and coats.”

“Oh, I see!” I say. “So yesterday, when you didn’t have a clear time to go and you saw Tim getting ready, a part of you started to remember that. You weren’t responding to the situation in 2024 but were instead attuned to what those circumstances reminded you of when you were growing up!”

Tim has turned to look at Sherry, and I notice that his face has softened. “I know that your dad was (is!) hard to be around, but I didn’t know he was so bad about that. Is that what you mean when you say it’s important to you to be punctual?”

Sherry turns to him with a look of relief on her face. “Yes! I never even thought about it before, but I don’t even really care about when we get there. I just want to make sure that we’re leaving on time.” Sherry turns to me. “I was the oldest, and I always tried to make sure that everyone stayed out of trouble, so I took on the job of herding everybody when I knew that Dad was getting ready.” Sherry sighs. “It makes me sad to think that that still affects me without even realizing it.”

“What’s it like to understand what makes you so emotional about the circumstance?” I ask.

She smiles. “Like I’m not crazy. Like, I don’t want this to still be affecting me, but it makes sense. And when I know that I’m not worried about anything that’s actually happening, it makes it feel less stressful. I also feel less like I need to bother Tim about it.”

“And what’s it like for you, Tim?” I ask.

Tim extends a hand to hers, and their fingers intertwine. “One of the things I love and admire about Sherry is how well she has overcome her rough upbringing. And she does such a good job that sometimes I forget that there still might be things going on with her that maybe she hasn’t worked through. It’s good to be reminded that sometimes her responses may not be about me. I mean, I don’t like being snapped at, but it helps me to snap back less when I remember that the bad guy in the situation may not be me.”

I then spend more time working with the couple about how they might discern when something like this is happening. I invite them to notice and become curious when they feel that they are having an emotional reaction that seems “too big” or “disproportionate” to the circumstances. What are the emotions, thoughts, and bodily sensations they notice? And when have they experienced these before? Sometimes, just realizing that you are reacting to a trauma trigger helps the person to calm down. At the very least, they aren’t stuck with the “crazy feeling” of having an emotional response that they can’t explain to themselves, much less their partner. Then being able to explain what has happened can help in a repair with their partner. Finally, they can bring that to therapy for further exploration, either on their own or in couples therapy with their partner.

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