Sage Advice: Fed-Up Partner Startles Easily

By Amy Dickinson | November 26th, 2019

What one person find amusing, another finds alarming


Woman is angry at her partner for always startling her at home Image

Dear Amy: My partner and I have been living together for five years. We are both in our 60s and each have grown children. We are together almost 24/7. We get along beautifully.

For as long as I can remember, I get startled very easily. If someone walks quietly into a room, I jump and gasp in shock and fear.

I really can’t help reacting this way. I’ve never had a horrible trauma that might cause it. I do remember many years ago my father quietly entering a room and my mother jumping with fear when she saw him. My father seemed to find this funny (or entertaining), even knowing how angry she got with him for startling her.

Now my partner does this same thing to me, and I hate it!

Amy, he claims it is my fault for not anticipating that he will walk into the same room, since it’s only the two of us at home. But how can I?

We have had numerous intense arguments about this and it still happens at least a few times a week. If I’m reading, cooking, or doing anything quietly by myself, I’ve asked him to make some kind of noise before approaching me. If he does, I’m not startled, but he says he forgets to do this (most of the time).

I really don’t know how to change my startled response, but — like my father — I think he secretly gets a kick out of watching me react the way I do, and it really cheeses me off!

Please, any suggestions?

– Fraidy Cat

Dear Fraidy: The startle response is an important evolutionary reaction to alarm and risk. We all have it (or should have it) to varying degrees.

However, in researching your question, I’ve learned about a genetic disorder called “Hyperekplexia,” which is, basically, a response that goes beyond merely flinching when a person is startled. Someone with this disorder might “jump and gasp,” as you describe — or, in its extreme form, collapse or seem to be having a seizure. (For information on this, you can check the National Organization for Rare Disorders website at rarediseases.org/). [A very rare but perhaps related disorder went by the fascinating name of “Jumping Frenchman of Maine” when it was discovered in a population near the Canadian border.]

I’m not saying you have Hyperekplexia, but because this issue is affecting you several times a week, you should do some research and get a professional assessment. Cognitive behavioral therapy (or a low-dose anti-anxiety medication) might help to subdue your reaction.

In terms of your partner, I do think it’s possible that he forgets to approach you warily. He also might not realize you are in a particular room when he enters it. I don’t know how you can be certain he is “secretly” entertained by this, but your father’s long-ago unkind reaction might be influencing you. You should continue to talk about it, as you explore the possible cause and treatment, and yes, he should understand that this is serious.


In the tradition of the great personal advice columnists, Chicago Tribune’s Amy Dickinson is a plainspoken straight shooter who relates to readers of all ages. She answers personal questions by addressing issues from both her head and her heart. A solid reporter, Dickinson researches her topics to provide readers with informed opinions and answers. Ask Amy, P.O. Box 194, Freeville, NY 13068

© 2019 by Amy Dickinson

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