Am I overreacting or is my partner?
April 1, 2013 8:51 AM   Subscribe

Partner frequently gets angry when we go out. This upsets me.

Partner is generally a calm and easygoing person, but I've noticed a pattern when we go out somewhere. If anything goes at all wrong, partner seems to think that the entire night is ruined and becomes extremely negative. Partner has gotten frustrated when: we have to pay for parking, we don't know where parking is, we can't get a refund (on something we didn't pay for), when there is any slight change we might be late, the GPS gave us slightly erroneous directions and we have to turn around... These are all in-the-moment stressful things, but to me it feels like partner has a very strong reaction. Sometimes it's come out that they were actually upset about another issue and that's why they reacted so strongly. Sometimes partner will get snippy with me, especially if they blame me for what is going wrong, and occasionally they'll be rude to other people as well. They often express negative feelings about the place we're in/the activity we're doing/humanity in general. Usually, though, it's over in a few minutes and partner apologizes to me.

These feel like abnormally strong reactions to me, and more importantly, they upset me. I grew up in a fairly angry household and when partner gets angry over something I don't quite understand I feel like I want to withdraw. Most of the time, no one I know has witnessed this behavior, but on one occasion a friend noted it and mentioned it later, not in a red flag sort of way, but in a "strange that your partner did this" sort of way. I am starting to dread going on dates with partner because this has happened so many times.

Clearly we are both having pretty strong reactions to fairly minor incidents. Is there something we or I can do to change this pattern?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (26 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Yes. Unfortunately, I know all the verses to this song.

Two approaches have worked fairly well. This happens now less often than it did, say, 3-5 years ago.

1) Say, with exaggerated calm, "I am not angry, but if you don't stop now, I am going home," and then do it.


2) Next time you make a plan to go out, say, "Babe, I love going out with you, but if you get angry, then I'm going home, not because I don't love you, but because it's not fun for me," and then do it.

Hang in there.
posted by skbw at 8:58 AM on April 1, 2013 [16 favorites]

My dad used to do this a lot with me or whoever he was with. He was sort of Aspergers-y and being out of his comfort zone and thrust into an area with no routine and a bunch of variables that he couldn't control made him very very uncomfortable which he dealt with by basically blaming everyone around him for his discomfort. I would do a pretty similar thing to skbw and say calmly "I'm sorry you're uncomfortable but you and I are on the same team and now we need to be goal-oriented to find parking/find the place/hurry up. Please don't take your frustration out on me" I see it as an anxiety thing and one that can be modulated/controlled but it sort of has to be viewed as an anxiety thing and not a "normal" response to frustrations. That is, it's normal for them but it doesn't work for you, so the two of you need to work on better communication strategies if you're going to continue to do that sort of thing together.
posted by jessamyn at 9:03 AM on April 1, 2013 [44 favorites]

Sounds to me like a reaction to anxiety - some people's anxious feelings (can't find parking, unexpected payment required, some other minor but unpredicted thing happens) manifest as anger rather than withdrawal, or crying, or any of the other possible "Here's how I do anxious," responses. So for both of you maybe, look into some kind of anxiety treatment (counseling, workbooks, etc.).

When you're not out and about and doing things, can you have a conversation with them about this? The kind where you talk about how you feel when partner behaves in XYZ way.
posted by rtha at 9:04 AM on April 1, 2013 [11 favorites]

It doesn't sound to me like you're both having pretty strong reactions to fairly minor incidents, it sounds like your partner is flying off the handle and you're confused and upset by their irrational behavior. Having a partner catastrophizing dates and the little stuff in life would be miserable for many people.

Part of being an adult and creating a successful relationship is communicating about what is really bothering you. If this behavior continues, you're going to wind up walking on eggshells and repeating the coping mechanisms you learned in your family of origin. The difference is, in your adult relationships you get to determine your own level of involvement.
posted by Nickel Pickle at 9:05 AM on April 1, 2013 [8 favorites]

I can't promise that this is true for him, but when I act this way it's my social anxiety flaring up. The more unknown the ultimate social event is (going out with people I don't know at all/very well, some kind of entertainment type/venue I'm unfamiliar with, strange parts of town, etc), the more likely I will melt down over parking or being less than ten minutes early.

With some self-talk (and education - I will study the crap out of a map of the area, look at seating charts, read the menu, etc) and prep, I can be okay. I do actually have a good time, and I've taught myself how to shake off a bad parking lot or whatever. My husband's strategy is almost always to ignore it, let me have my little tantrum, and then go on about it like nothing happened. He knows what it is and doesn't really take it personally. (When he does it, I will talk him down or bust out whatever knowledge I gleaned in my prep.)

If this is the case for your partner, pre-planning is your friend. Work out a strategy for dealing with this when you're not in the moment.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:09 AM on April 1, 2013 [13 favorites]

Odd question - whose idea is it to a) go out, and b) select what to do?

I wonder if, if it's usually you doing the planning and initiating, if he may settle down a bit if he did some of the planning. That way he can also take the steps to ensure he feels a bit more "in control" even when a random thing goes awry.

If it's all his idea, usually, then I'm stumped...
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:16 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am a bit like your partner. I get sensory overload when I go out sometimes and my reaction to it is to get angry because it's that or freak out completely, and it's often times at my partner because hey I can't yell at random strangers too often or people look at you funny. My husband handles it by telling me I need a time out and taking me somewhere quiet for a coffee or a soda until I get my shit together. This only works for us though as we have talked about the problem and because my husband doesn't take the anger on as directed at him as more directed at the environment and my feelings of lack of control.

That might be harder for you to do based on your background but please talk to your partner, obviously not while out and he's angry, you say he's normally an easygoing and reasonable person so he's probably upset at himself for acting like this too. Maybe you can work out a phrase or arrange a time out system of your own, both of you working together to work out a solution that works for both of you.
posted by wwax at 9:19 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

"Plans are worthless, but planning is everything." -- Dwight D. Eisenhower

I get the same way, particularly about schedules, but I take a moment and repeat that quote to myself.

Usually, though, it's over in a few minutes and partner apologizes to me.

Sounds like your partner is aware of the issue and genuinely wants to be better at handling the little things. As wwax advocates, a phrase or time-out system can help with this. Try ding training.
posted by Etrigan at 9:23 AM on April 1, 2013

Does he possibly feel like it's his responsibility to make sure everything is fine and that he has failed if it doesn't go that well? It sounds like he feels under pressure from something. Probably self-imposed, probably not that rational. If that's the case, I feel bad for him. That doesn't mean he should keep acting that way. Maybe point out to him that one little glitch doesn't ruin the outing but having him in a prolonged bad mood might.
posted by BibiRose at 9:37 AM on April 1, 2013

Oops, sorry. Sounds like his behavior is not usually prolonged. But it does compound and personalize whatever went wrong.

For whatever it's worth, my partner used to do this a lot but hardly ever does any more. He thought it was harmless but I said it bothered me and would point out when he was doing it.
posted by BibiRose at 9:40 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Boy, can I ever empathize with your partner. I have some serious social anxiety issues these days, growing out of my being at home most of the day (hopefully working) and other self-image issues that make me fearful of being out. The upshot is that I become very frustrated when I have to go out into public and deal with the everyday bullshit that entails. I get easily overwhelmed.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:40 AM on April 1, 2013 [4 favorites]

My partner does this too. I handle it pretty badly, so I can tell you what NOT to do:

- Don't get upset at your partner for being upset.
- Don't get upset yourself because you think that the fact that they are upset means that you should be upset.
- Don't agree with them that humanity is terrible/parking is an institution of the devil to try to placate them.
- Don't completely shut down into a shadow of yourself with anxiety at their outburst and ruin the evening yourself by being numb/silent/crying
- Don't have an argument about the merits of whatever point they are making ("Is humanity terrible?" Here are five reasons why and why not.)
- Don't stereotype them as grumpy and yourself as perfect -- or them as aware of difficulties in the world and yourself as insensitive and Pollyanna-ish.
- Don't completely ignore it.
- Don't think that their behavior justifies you doing something similar when you are anxious in front of them.

I've had all of these reactions and none of them ended well. I'm really not sure what the right reaction is, but some of the options given upthread look interesting.
posted by 3491again at 9:54 AM on April 1, 2013 [15 favorites]

It's encouraging that it's over quickly and that partner apologizes. I get this too, and then I feel bad for ruining everyone's day, which kind of contributes to an eternal shame spiral. I too apologize to my hubby and let him know that it's not his fault but there's nothing he or I can do but wait for it to pass. Well, there is 1 thing I can do about it, which is work with a therapist to figure out how to make it not happen anymore. Which I'm doing. But that takes time.
For you, I would just encourage you to be "zen" and not let it get to you. Drop it when he does. Easier said than done, perhaps, but except for not going out at all, it's the most reliable way to nip it in the bud.
posted by bleep at 10:15 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

My dad used to do this a lot with me or whoever he was with. He was sort of Aspergers-y and being out of his comfort zone and thrust into an area with no routine and a bunch of variables that he couldn't control made him very very uncomfortable which he dealt with by basically blaming everyone around him for his discomfort.

I do this. Mr. Llama knows me well and when I start to get worked up he just tells me to 'put on your falconry hood' which is like this imaginary hood that I put on when I close my eyes and he circles the block for ten minutes looking for a parking space and I breathe slowly.

Also, we tend to need to leave earlier so I don't get flustered by lateness, and when I'm particularly vulnerable (I have diagnosed PMDD which makes this fun, but it also comes up when I'm very tired or hungry) we don't go to, say, new restaurants. We do tried and true things with predictable outcomes. I schedule *meetings* around it sometimes. If I'm feeling less sensitive to stimuli or less anxious or less overwhelmed by sensory input than I sometimes am, I make a special effort to say Yes to less predictable things so that Mr. Llama doesn't get stuck with me being pedestrian and playing things safe and needing to get me 'back into my sarcophagus' 100% of his life.

So: self-knowledge, sense of humor.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:18 AM on April 1, 2013 [10 favorites]

Perhaps your partner needs to stop working on 'apologizing afterwards' and focus on 'self managing their frustration beforehand'.

Or your partner needs to accept the consequences of their behavior: When you feel shitty and take that shittiness out on people around you, they are going to want to stop spending time around you, no matter how many times you apologize afterwards. That's sort of the way it works.

But since you're focusing on how you're reacting - withdrawing - perhaps it might help to pay attention that your desire to withdraw is a reaction that is actually healthy. Why would you want to want to spend time with someone who seems to not be trying hard enough to protect you from their own shitty behavior? Adults don't get to act like two year olds having a mini temper tantrum. I mean, I'm sure the parking thing is frustrating to you too, but you're not getting all grar all over them are you? You're managing yourself. They need to step up to the plate.

The healthiest response I've ever seen to this has been a zero tolerance policy by say, Person A and Person B. As soon as the first snip comes out of Person A's mouth, I've seen Person B shift the focus to Person A's the behavior. Doesn't matter if they are in public or private, because Person A already made it public by starting to snip at Person B in front of others. It doesn't matter if it's about parking or whatever, as soon as the bad behavior comes out Person B started commenting on the behavior. So for your situation it would be something like:

I understand that you might feel frustrated, but you need to not take that frustration you feel about parking out on me. I find it hurtful. I'm not your proxy punching bag.

I want to enjoy an evening with you, but I find your snippy behavior hurtful. Please stop it. Person A a chance to self regulate. And one of two things happened - Person A caught themselves and de-escalated: apologized immediately, or Person A escalated, by somehow suggesting that they weren't responsible for their shitty behavior, because of you know, the drama of the parking, or whatever. And when they did that, the party was over. Where ever they were going, Person B said it was time to turn around and go home. Or if they were in a store, Person B just walked away.

The best way I can describe it is that Person B just decided that the way they felt afterward such exchanges was shitty enough to decide that they were allergic to the anger outburst/snippiness, and resentful, and embarrassed. So, they stopped trying to change Person A's behavior. Person B just started believing that if they had to self regulate their frustration and disappointment when they were in public, then everyone did. So Person B stopped giving anyone a pass (by trying to understand where they were coming from, by trying to soothe, etc). I like to think that Person B just decided to raise their standards and expectations about how they deserved to be treated. And no one's company, not even Person A's, was worth their mental well being.
posted by anitanita at 11:45 AM on April 1, 2013 [9 favorites]

It sounds like there might be TWO overreactions here, in which case you'll want to untangle them:

1. Your partner is overreacting if and when they express their anger by blaming you or becoming rude or e.g. shouting at painful volume in a small automobile. This is bad (albeit human) behavior.

2. You are overreacting if and when the mere fact that your partner is experiencing and expressing a strong emotion (anger) causes you to treat the situation as pathological. (I'm not saying this is necessarily happening. But such an overreaction from you would be perfectly understandable given your background.)

You are not to blame for your anxiety, any more than your partner is to blame for their anger. The trick with both emotions is to recognize and channel them in harmless ways. For Bonus Partner Points, you might even help each other with this recognition and channelling. E.g.:

"Yes honey, we hates that parking garage. We hates it forever." (Express solidarity while adding a tiny bit of your particular couple-y in-joke humor.)

"You seem kinda freaked out. Do you want to talk about it?"
-If yes: "Cool, just wait till I park this damn car -- there's always parking at that faraway spot, and this way we'll have time for a nice long chat as we walk."
-If no: "How about I drop you off at that nice soothing yarn store, and then I'll go park this damn car and come back and we can walk to the restaurant together."
posted by feral_goldfish at 11:45 AM on April 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

I've experienced this with someone on the autism spectrum so it's interesting that jessamyn mentioned Asperger's. Anyway, I dealt with it by both reducing the novelty of our time spent together (so instead of going to a new restaurant every time we went out, we'd go to the same place over and over, for example) and spending a lot more time in familiar, controllable environments. I'm a bit of a homebody sometimes myself so it was never something I disliked or became bored with and it was much more fun to be able to relax without worrying about his anxious freakouts.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:51 AM on April 1, 2013

I am starting to dread going on dates with partner because this has happened so many times.

Then why are you doing it? Have you said this to him? If so, what was his reaction? If he minimized your discomfort, even a little, and tried to say that you are the problem because you are "too sensitive," etc., that shows a serious lack of respect for you and your feelings. It is not a good idea to be in a relationship with someone who does not respect you and your feelings.

I definitely agree with the above posters that it is not your job to soothe or "understand" him. It's his job to get a grip on himself and stop acting like a bratty toddler. And if he can't do that, find an adult to date. You deserve better.
posted by rpfields at 11:57 AM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

if he can't do that, find an adult to date.

Please note that the OP:

-takes care not to specify partner's gender;

-indicates that dating does not constitute the bulk of their relationship (both by using the word 'partner', and by contrasting how partner behaves "generally" to partner's behavior on dates).
posted by feral_goldfish at 12:33 PM on April 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

IANAD, but I know some autistic people.
Partner exhibits some traits of Autism. Getting upset when things do not go smoothly could be a symptom of autistic requirement that everything be neat, orderly and quiet. Has s/he been evaluated?
posted by Cranberry at 1:31 PM on April 1, 2013

I myself share a few elements of this, I think partly as a result of being a slightly anxious person, somewhat introverted (though fairly good at faking it), elements from my childhood, and a pathological horror of being late. God I hate being late.

So for me, I often end up trying to rein myself in as we're on the way to something. Things that help me with this include:

1) Lots of notice about the event. Like a week. I like to kind of mentally gee myself up about them. It's very helpful. 24 hours' notice or less is bad, especially if I have lots of social events all together. I don't even need all the details, just knowing that something is "on" that day is enough. Also, preferably no more than one event per weekend, unless the second is ultra-casual. If it gets sprung on me I'm ashamed to admit it can engender a fairly pissy, sulky atittude that I try to fight.

2) leaving very early to ensure that there's plenty of time to find parking or whatever. This means ideally arriving ten minutes early at the latest - even if it's not the kind of event where being early *actually* matters.

3) Ensuring that I am NOT hungry. Sweet mother of God, being hungry and being in these situations is a recipe for disaster. Sometimes this means I have to eat a small meal before leaving.

4) Music/radio in the car, any kind of distraction, really. Helps me stop obsessing about stuff.

5) *Not* driving around for hours looking for the perfect park, or something "a little bit closer". Especially if it comes at the expense of being on-time. If there's a park, take it. 100 metres is not very far to walk, especially when the likelihood of closer parking is slim to none. Likewise, drive straight to the top/bottom of the car park instead of driving around for 15 minutes trying to find a park on the packed first level near the entrance.

6) The knowledge that should the event not turn-out I can leave with no pressure at any time. This kind of parachute cord rarely gets pulled, but there's nothing I hate more than the prospect of being "stuck" somewhere, either socially or logistically, and unable to leave. Knowing I can bail when I need to is very reassuring.

Christ, reading that over makes me sound like the world's most neurotic shut-in, really I'm not! But these simple little things can contribute a lot to my peace of my mind when I'm heading to a social event I'm not really in to.
posted by smoke at 2:59 PM on April 1, 2013 [8 favorites]

Jessamyn mentioned her dad, but i am myself sort of aspergersy... and this sounds like me. A lot.

Note that i'm projecting here and spitballing stuff off of how it works for me, but fuck if this doesn't sound incredibly familiar.

A very, very big part of me getting upset is worrying that even after $PROBLEM passes my partner will be be distant/bitter/generally acting different either because of the problem(WHICH DOES HAPPEN), or my reaction to it. This blows it up in my head to a Big Ass Thing that i get disproportionately upset about.

A recent example would be that me, partner, and friends were going to another friends birthday party. It didn't start until pretty late in the night, and was a concert/activity sort of party so we agreed we should get some drinks beforehand. By the time we had gotten ready, picked up friends, and driven across town it was 10pm(which everyone was griping about) and the party was already underway. My friends all just wanted to go straight there, but my partner still wanted to go to the bar for a bit. Now what do i do? Regardless of what option i chose, either me, her, everyone else, or some combination of the above is unhappy.

Not that i haven't gotten upset in situations in which it's simply frustrating like the parking thing, but the situations that are really upsetting and tend to cause reactions like what you described are when i feel that there's no option that wouldn't cause someone to be upset, or that something frustrating is going on that there's no obvious solution to and i just have to deal with itâ„¢. Obviously, in the latter situation it's especially unreasonable and problematic, but in the catch 22 type situations it always feels extra justifiably frustrating to me.

Not even just in my own life, but i also have friends who can act like this... or have dated people who sometimes acted like this.

The number one thing i can say is that it really seems like the standard response to this sort of thing is just the silent treatment, which helps nothing and only makes pretty much any situation worse. I can be fairly readily snapped out of it if my partner goes "you're doing that thing again" with maybe a couple more puffs of grar, but every time the reaction is just silence and refusing to/passively answering any questions as to whats wrong or whats upsetting them it just escalates how upset i am. Ditto for friends/partners of friends who act this way.

I almost didn't want to write that, since it seems like saying "you can't give them the silent treatment" is somehow denying you the right to feel the way you do, but honestly, that's complete childish bullshit too. I'm trying my best though to say here; You being upset by this is not invalid, but your reaction to it if it's at all like that may be doing nothing but escalating the situation.

I'm going Nth the ding training type thing here. Making them aware, calmly, that their being irrational in a specific way is the best thing you can do.

Oh, right before i hit submit... Another thing that REALLY REALLY helps is making plans that aren't "we are going to do these things in this order and possibly at these specific times" but "i want to do something like this and this, and definitely go to this one thing if it works. but it's ok if we only do some of that stuff because we'll have a good time anyways". Making very specific plans locked in a specific order always feels needlessly stressful to me unless they involve work or something that specifically requires a schedule. Many, many situations in which i got stressed out and upset that nothing would go right no matter what i did/my partner would get upset at nothing going right or me or something could have been really easily avoided by not having super rigid plans and just going "we're gonna go do something from this grab bag of things until we do this one thing if we still feel like it". All of the stress and me getting upset in that story could have been completely avoided if it wasn't insisted upon that we stick to the script by my partner.

And on the "find an adult to date" comment and similar ones, all i really have to say is that if you aren't willing to flex a bit and work with your partner then why date anyone at all? Everyone is different, and the gears that mesh people together rarely instantly fit together perfectly. Projecting once again here, but i feel like by doing these things that stress them out they're already bending over to do things the way you want. Why not lift them back up a bit and see if you can't still do things you both enjoy in a different way that isn't as stressful for them?
posted by emptythought at 3:01 PM on April 1, 2013 [6 favorites]

It helps when my partner treats me with compassion and gives me lots of hugs, because he knows that it's me suffering for some unknown reason, not me punishing him. But that's also being careful to point out that he knows I'm working on correcting the problem on my end, and I try really hard to pull myself out of it whenever I see an opportunity.
posted by bleep at 3:47 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I am sometimes your partner. For me I think it comes from a few things the main being that I am prone to some high anxiety. Usually I know when I'm feeling that way and try to take actions to manage it, or avoid the situation that will put me over the edge entirely, but sometimes it does get away from me. If I'm already anxious and feeling a secondary pressure I can lose it (the secondary pressure can sometimes be physical, like having low blood sugar, or having a headache, or it can be another emotional thing like perfectionism). I've lost it on my boyfriend at least twice in recent memory that I feel straight up shame for and I think he takes the brunt of it because I feel safe with him. I don't necessarily feel like he should HAVE to take it though - he absolutely should not.

One thing though that I think is a contributing factor from him that I can unpack a little more is this: my anxiety often hits his redline when we're together and I'm trying to execute a plan and it's starting to go badly and I don't feel there is any help coming from him on solving the problem. I tend to be the bossier one (surprise) in the relationship and I do wish he'd step it up a little more on being the one to set and execute a plan for things we're doing together and he just isn't that person mostly. So what I actually want from him is not just to take my shit but to actually take control and solve my goddamn problem why the hell doesn't he also know where there's a nearby parking lot to try because he knew we were going here and why do I have to do EVERYTHING. Etc. I don't say that when I'm blowing up because it would not come out in... let's say a "conducive to further dialog manner" so instead I just holler about other drivers or the waiter or whatever.

You might try asking him about that. My partner is very very good at de-escalating my anxiety once the initial crisis is over but I think if he could step up and take over the situation when I'm redlining it would actually be more helpful. And even better, to be a full partner in what we're trying to do or get to or accomplish that day would take a lot of the pressure off ahead of time.
posted by marylynn at 3:54 PM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

Mod note: Folks, it's okay to MeMail people directly if you have your own questions for them.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:04 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I, too, am sometimes your partner. To use the example of parking, I often get very stressed about parking if I can't find a space and then I get frustrated because I get a little overnervous about tight parking and oh no I thought that space was available but there's a stupid motorcycle hiding in it and now I'm halfway back home and I cannot take this much longer because god I'm frustrated and now I'm stuck in a parking lot and have to reverse out because some fucking moron designed it and the sun got in my eyes AND FUCK IT I QUIT I AM GOING HOME I AM NOT GOING OUT TO THE RESTAURANT THIS IS STUPID I HATE IT I HATE IT!! halp

And, as has been said so many times, it's anxiety coming to the surface. Anxiety and stress boiling over to frustration, which tends to be revealed at the only person around whom I feel comfortable enough to let my guard down and reveal it: my partner. And that's not fair of me at all, and it's no good for her. But this ain't a new thing; this anxiety->stress->frustration->anger->anxiety feedback loop has been with me my whole life. Thankfully, my partner is understanding and not at all like me in this way, and we're working on scooting me around it. Talking with her about it helps her know more about what's happening to me and also makes me much more cognizant of what I'm doing. And from this knowledge, solutions grow!

My partner prefers to be the passenger while I drive, for a few reasons, and that's okay: while I hate parking, I like driving. A few weeks ago we were driving to a cafe and parking wasn't working for me. I could feel myself getting stressed, and she could, too. So we stopped the car, traded places, and she quickly got us into a parking space without stress or worry.

As much as I wish it would, this anxiety doesn't seem to be going anywhere. That doesn't mean we can't kick its butt in other ways. As long as you two are both willing to recognize what's happening, it's absolutely something that can be worked around and solved. Especially if you're willing to park the car for me, please.
posted by barnacles at 10:07 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

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