Two Questions to Ask...When You've Pissed Off Your Partner But Don't Know Why!

You’ve probably experienced this before—you’re having a regular, nice, normal conversation with your partner, and suddenly they are pissed off at you. Or, your partner is already unhappy about something unrelated to you, so you’re talking to them and offering support. But without warning, you now see anger on their face that is directed at you. What happened?!

In any relationship, and especially early in a relationship, you can’t necessarily predict what is going to trigger your partner’s insecurities or patterns, and how they are going to interpret something that otherwise seems benign to you. And when they react with hurt or anger, it may leave you flustered, confused, and defensive. But instead of being reactive, try nicely asking these two questions:

1. What could I have done or said differently?

2. Why is this important to you (or what does this mean to you)?

Asking questions like this is helpful because it’s a total pattern-interrupt for both of you. You have the opportunity do something different, stay present in the moment, and both bring some structure and rationale to an emotionally triggered situation. Then, by asking what you could have done differently, you get the opportunity to get into the head of your partner, and find out what he/she needed in that moment or was expecting. This also makes your partner take responsibility for coming up with a potential solution, instead of just being pissed off. The second question gets to the heart of why your partner was triggered. Did they think you were talking down to them? Trying to “fix” the situation? Implying they were stupid? Or that you didn’t care about them? Listen carefully when they share their interpretation and meaning of that interaction, and don’t rush to defend your actions. And then apologize.

Hopefully, by allowing your partner to speak their truth in that moment and listening with genuine interest instead of defensiveness, they feel heard and understood. And you can now gently share about your thoughts and intentions, and come to a better understanding as a couple overall. I suggest sharing these questions with your partner so that you can both use these as a tool to work through conflict and stay powerful as a team.


Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, San Diego Sexologist | Sociologist | Sexuality Speaker

Stop Pissing off Your Partner - Vent, Gather Info, or Fix? of the most common gender differences I see in relationships regard communication styles. For example, it is not uncommon for a woman to want to talk through things and vent about her concerns. However, many men interpret this as a request to fix the situation. It makes sense -- if someone we love is hurting and tells us that, why wouldn’t we want to do what we can to “fix” it? But interestingly, the woman often becomes irritated because she says he isn’t listening to her or is trivializing her concern. And the man gets annoyed, because he thinks she isn’t taking his advice to make the situation better.

If you recognize this pattern in your relationship, what can you do about it? The best approach is to be clear about your expectations from the start. For example, if everyday when you get home from work you like to tell you partner about what happened and share your frustrations, state up front what you’re looking for. “Hi hon, can I just vent about my day? You don’t have to do anything. I just need you to listen.” And if you’re on the receiving end you could say, “I noticed I’m getting really irritated listening right now and frustrated that I can’t do anything. Do you want me to help you fix this problem, or do you just want me to listen?” This will make a big shift in communication and avoid hurt feelings.

I think there can also be a third category, depending on your personality. Sometimes people share stories and ask questions because they are on a “fact finding” mission. They want to gather perspectives so they can come to a more informed decision for themselves. So recognize this as a middle area, and clearly state your intentions for the conversation. “I don’t need to vent, but I’m also not looking for a fix. I’m curious about your ideas around this topic just so I can gather information.” With this clarity, the partner who is giving the feedback will be less likely to feel discouraged if you don’t take their advice.

Like developing any new habit, it can take time to create this new pattern of interaction. Being clear about your intentions and expectations is a great practice in transparency. In the long run, we’re much more likely to get our needs met when we own them and articulate them from the start.

(Originially posted as part of the Love & Sex Blog for Pacific San Diego Magazine.)

~Dr. Jenn Gunsaullus, San Diego, CA -- Sociologist, Sex Therapist, Sexuality Speaker, Sexologist