The Overreactor in all of us

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, ignored, 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. My friend was having a nice time playing with their daughter until suddenly she looked up and saw her husband in the doorway, shutting the bedroom door. Annoyed, she got up, pushed the door open, walked straight to the living room, and yelled loudly enough for her daughter to hear, “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.

The red flag moment

It’s easy for me to look from afar and declare my friend in the wrong, but I’ve walked in her shoes and I know it’s a lot harder to bite your tongue in the moment. 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 even on the weekends when her husband was home, she was still 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.

Say what you mean, and mean what you say

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

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