Okay, so you think you’re a perfectly reasonable and logical person. But sometimes, when your mate says or does something that makes you feel criticized or disrespected, you shout out your defense and soon find yourself in a full-blown war of words. You know the situation is out of control, but you don’t know what else to say to get your (totally reasonable!) point across.
For instance, a friend of mine was playing with her 4-year old daughter in her bedroom while her husband was watching TV in the living room. Her husband walked over and shut the bedroom door. Annoyed, my friend retaliated by pushing the door open and yelling, “You’re so rude!” Her husband replied, “Well, I didn’t want to hear the noise you two were making on the toy piano.” “Noise?” she countered. “The sound of your daughter playing is noise to you? If you cared about your daughter you’d shut off the TV and come play with us!”
My friend’s anger was understandable, but yelling at her husband for such a small thing, and within earshot of her daughter? That’s inappropriate. And connecting his shutting the door to the notion that he might not care about his daughter? Overreaction.
What I’ve learned, and taught others, is that an overreaction can actually be a good thing. It can serve as a red flag that something is missing…
As a general rule, overreactions happen when there is a gap between how we feel and what we say. In the above example, my friend didn’t explain to her husband that she felt that their daughter was missing out on special father-daughter time. She wasn’t upset about the door, but rather about that fact that she was saddled with the full responsibility of finding activities for their daughter. She was frustrated and jealous because she felt that her husband used TV time to escape from family time, and she wanted to have some escape time herself. All of these points were reasonable, but they weren’t articulated in the heat of the moment. And even a pretty good husband and father, is not going to be a mind-reader.
When we overreact and then push the issue under the rug, the storm of the battle passes quickly, but the hangover leaves its mark. Rather than being embarrassed by our overreactions or continuing to justify them, we should apologize and use them to jumpstart deeper thought about the gap between what we are thinking and saying. Once you’ve filled in the blank in your own head, go to your mate, ask him/her to sit down with you a few minutes so you can apologize and explain what you really meant.
That kind of talk leads to solutions. Happy couples do fight, and they also know how to make up.
Laurie Puhn is a Harvard-educated lawyer, couples mediator, and bestselling author of "Fight Less, Love More: 5-Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship Without Blowing Up or Giving In," who frequently appears on CNN, "Good Morning America," and "The Early Show" to offer relationship advice. Visit her at www.fightlesslovemore.com