How to Handle Short Fuses
Ways you and your partner can begin to de-escalate conversations
You start talking with your partner, then all of a sudden he loses it.
His face turns red, balls his fists, and you know the conversation is done.
Or as soon as he brings up sex you can't help it but lose it. After everything, how could he bring this up NOW? This irks you in a certain way.
For some people there are certain topics, or triggers that get your blood boiling.
As soon as it is brought up, you see that facial expression, or that thing happens, and you can't help it.
You lose your cool.
What's hard about this is how once you slow down and think about it, your partner is the last person you want to lose your cool on.
They are the last person you want to show this side of yourself to.
You want to love them well. You want to feel connected, happy, and close to them.
But what happens so many times is one of you has a short fuse. And once the fuse is lit, everything blows up.
Many couples come to my office stuck here. No one wants things to blow up.
Many people find ways to either avoid the blow up (distance, disengage), or get burned out because of the amount of escalated moments.
It's hard not to point fingers here.
This is a really hard place to be in.
Whether you are considering reaching out to a couples therapist or not, there are a few practical things I can offer you.
Below are a few things to know and to begin addressing with your partner to address the 'short fuse situation.'
#1 Learn more about yourself and what lights the fuse first.
Dr. Dan Siegel developed a concept called the Window of Tolerance.
We all have a Window of Tolerance, or a "best state of arousal or stimulation in which we are able to function or thrive in everyday life" (see link to an article on this)
When we are within this window, we can be playful, curious, have intimacy with ourselves and others, learn effectively, and focus well.
All of us have different sized windows due to our backgrounds, trauma, social environments, and coping skills.
And when we get outside of our window, we either become hyper-aroused, or hypo-aroused.
Here's where the short fuse comes in!
For some of us, when we get outside of our windows, we become hyper-aroused.
This looks like fight/flight, anxiety, anger, overwhelmed, or just a bunch of energy.
It is our bodies and minds in some way proclaiming the message, 'Let's MOVE to change this!'
What's challenging about this is for some of us, our window is a bit smaller.
Maybe we have been through some trauma, and things our partner says or does can trigger past pain.
Maybe our window tends to be smaller due to a lack of sleep or physical rest because we have a newborn at home.
Maybe our fuse is short because our job environment has been so stressful for some time, and it feels impossible to not bring it home.
Whatever it is, for those of us who lean towards hyper-arousal under distress, on the outside it looks like having a short fuse.
The first step here is not only about learning about my tendency towards hyper or hypo arousal, but also trying to be more aware of what beings to have me drift outside of my window of tolerance in general:
'If I'm feeling investigated by my partner, my blood begins to boil.'
'If he isn't talking back to me, I often begin to feel unheard and unseen.'
'If that on person/mistake is brought up, I feel really anxious.'
'I can't help but be extra critical when they don't follow up on what they said they would do.'
'If I've had a stressful day at work, I often come home anxious.'
Being more aware of what sends me over the edge, AND what happens after this, is a huge thing.
This awareness becomes useful in all relationships.
#2 Learn more about how your partner's arousal impacts your own state.
And this of course leads to the second practical step: being more aware of the back and forth.
Noticing not only our own arousal, but how our partner's arousal impacts our own.
What often can happen in relationships, especially intimate ones, is when one person goes into hyper-arousal, the other person becomes distressed as well.
Maybe when your partner escalates, you can't help but blow up right back in defense.
Maybe when your partner escalates, you shift gears into hypo-arousal, and regulate yourself through shutting down or separating yourself from the situation.
This might involve a physical withdrawal by leaving the space, or by emotionally separating via stonewalling (see more on stonewalling by Gottman Institute here).
Either way, knowing your body and mind's response to your partner's arousal is huge.
If we aren't aware, then we may be missing a key cycle or dynamic that festers in our relationship.
Many couples get stuck here.
The cycle, or the back and forth, often has a lot to do with each person's state of arousal.
One person gets triggered, and goes into a state of hyper-arousal.
Once this happens, the other person enters into a state of hypo-arousal to protect themselves by disengaging.
Then, the first person becomes even more anxious/angry/hyper-aroused, due to the distance.
Then, the second person pushes away even more or maybe even shifts gears into frustration.
And it keeps going, and going.
#3 Create safety for yourself and your partner.
The key for moving beyond awareness is taking actions to establish safety.
If it is possible, I'd recommend scheduling a time to talk more about this when you both of you aren't overly tired or stressed.
This might be an odd recommendation for a date night conversation, but it could be a step in the right direction.
Once you sit down with your partner to talk about this, the goal is to discuss how each of you can help the other feel safe in the relationship.
Safe might be an odd word here-- to give it more context, here's what I'm referring to with safety:
Our minds and body are almost always 'scanning' for emotional and relational safety
Some of us might have extra-sensitive 'scanners,' some of us might not.
Being aware of this is part of the first step discussed here.
Safety in this way involves our body and mind taking in what is around us, and sending a message to the rest of ourselves that things are okay (or that things are NOT okay).
Something as small as our partner's tone, their eyes, facial expression, or posture could send us signals of SAFE or UNSAFE
So... How does this 'safety conversation' go?
Begin first by explaining what you've learned about yourself.
Then, give your partner room to respond or ask questions about safety.
Next, let your partner have space to discuss their 'Window of Tolerance' and their tendencies.
Allow space for you to respond and ask questions safely.
It might sound something like this:
'Sometimes when I come home after a hard day at work, my window is already feeling smaller. I'm on edge. I can tell by my jaw being clenched, and shoulders feeling tight.
It helps me feel safe and secure when you greet me with a hug and less words at first.
Sometimes when you ask me a lot of questions right when I walk in, I feel overwhelmed, and don't respond well.'
Or like this:
'Sometimes when we are talking about things, I feel like my concerns are being dismissed. I've thought about this, and I often feel this way when you walk away from me or avoid eye contact with me. When this happens, my window is already feeling smaller. So I get angry.
It helps me feel safe and secure when you sit next to me, and look at me in these conversations.
Sometimes when it feels like things aren't addressed, I feel anxious that things won't get better, and what comes out is anger.'
'Sometimes when we are talking or hanging out, and you raise your voice or talk quickly, it feels like you're angry at me. When this happens, my window shrinks, and I often back away and get quiet to help myself calm down.
It helps me feel safe and secure when we are able to take a break from an intense conversation for a few minutes, and come back to it when I've been able to digest it.
Sometimes it feels like everything moves so quickly; so I get quiet to not make things worse.'
Why this is Hard
These are just a few examples of how this conversation could go.
Yet, there are hundred's of reason this conversation is really tough.
Every couple and every individual have different levels of arousal, different triggers, and different responses.
Not only that, but just by having this conversation, one person's safety alarms might go off.
If you and your partner are finding that it is really hard to not only talk about these things, but to be aware of them, you aren't alone.
It can be really hard to slow things down, and reflect more about something that has been a part of ourselves for a long time.
If this is interesting to you, I'd recommend you check out more content on Window of Stress Tolerance.
You might start with this video.
Or this article (this article is specifically geared for adults helping children, but is still helpful to explain the concepts).
Lastly, maybe finding a therapist you trust to help you slow down and reflect about this in a safe place could be a great step to take.
If you aren't sure what to do next, feel free to reach out to me. I'd love to set up a free 3o-minute meeting with you to discuss what makes the most sense for you, and for your relationship.
No matter what you choose to do, I hope you know that even though it may feel like it, you are never alone.