Want to Avoid Blow-Ups With Your Partner? Here's How

Stop accidentally offending others . . . and feeling offended yourself.

Posted Dec 16, 2015

Buttons/Wikipedia Commons
Source: Buttons/Wikipedia Commons

It’s hard to think of anything more crucial to your relationships—including the all-important one with yourself—than the awareness of what words and deeds set you and others off. Learning how to accurately detect hot buttons may be as much an art as a science. Still, attending more closely to your and others’ negative reactions can help you better negotiate conflicts and steer clear of interpersonal disasters.

Here’s how to avoid accidentally offending people you care about, and how to hang in there when you feel like you’re under attack yourself. I call all this “buttonology.” For it’s the methodical study of your—and others’—hot buttons.

What Lies Beneath

Generally speaking, with enough reflection you’ll find that just about everything has its patterns. True, they may lie beneath the surface—but not that beneath the surface either. So, think about whether your chain (or that of someone you know) gets yanked when you (or they) are somehow made to feel:

  • Demeaned, slighted, insulted, patronized, condescended to, or looked down upon;
  • Dishonorable, untrustworthy, guilty or blameworthy;
  • Ridiculed, or made fun of;
  • Disrespected or discounted;
  • Ignored, dismissed or abandoned; unimportant; a non-entity or invisible;
  • Stupid, slow or lazy;
  • Incompetent or inferior;
  • Unworthy or worthless; useless;
  • A burden to self and/or others;
  • Trapped, unsafe, or in danger;
  • Not good enough; defective;
  • Embarrassed; humiliated or shameful;
  • Not likable or lovable; boring;
  • Not wanted; unacceptable;
  • Unappreciated or taken for granted;
  • Weak, powerless, defenseless; cowardly; or
  • Selfish; bad or contemptible.

If there’s some sort of common denominator in all this, it’s the feeling of being criticized or rejected. And, however recessive, various negative beliefs you may harbor about self can surface when you experience someone’s finding fault with you.

Why We React

Finally, your reactivity comes from being reminded of old, distressing feelings of insecurity never fully resolved. When your buttons get pushed, your defenses are automatically activated (and with or without your permission!). And such a reaction can be hard to explain, since if it’s to verbally attack your accuser, such an offensive reaction still deserves to be seen as defensive. My many Psychology Today posts on anger illustrate this circumstance in a variety of ways (see, e.g., “The Paradox of Anger: Strength or Weakness?”, “What Your Anger May Be Hiding,” and “Anger—How We Transfer Feelings of Guilt, Hurt, and Fear”). In short, what triggers your anger toward another (or toward yourself) is anything that threatens to bring to the surface one, or more, of the self-doubts enumerated above.

Elevator Buttons/Wikipedia Commons
Source: Elevator Buttons/Wikipedia Commons

Functioning as a therapist, what’s essential in my response to whatever a client might share with me is that I not accidentally precipitate their defenses (i.e., push their buttons). For I’ve always believed that the only kind of therapist confrontation that’s useful is one that fosters self-confrontation. So I endeavor to make my questions and comments as carefully timed, scrupulous, constrained, and tentative as possible. For even while clients need to be confronted on their maladaptive thoughts and behaviors—which routinely compromise their relationships and impede them from reaching their goals—it’s still necessary to do so with painstaking care.

And that’s why, regardless of the client’s stated therapy objectives, I’m acutely aware of having to find effective ways of bypassing their defenses, which, though they’ve repeatedly gotten in their way, have yet felt (however unconsciously) essential to them. It’s only when I can neutralize these no-longer-necessary defenses that they can begin to make beneficial life changes. So it’s crucial for me to learn just how their buttons “operate”—and how, historically, they’ve served to protect them from feeling bad about themselves. For only then can I help them move beyond the self-made barriers they themselves have unwittingly constructed.

So what practical guidance can you take from all of this? What might help you significantly improve how you converse with others—and yourself, too, since it may be the way you talk to yourself that most needs to be re-examined, and revised? Simply that if you start looking for patterns linked to your, and others’, moments of (over)reactivity, it probably won’t be that difficult to locate them. And it could be enormously advantageous to be more conscious of these buttons, and to keep them in mind in your communication (both intra- and inter-personally).

Buttons—One and All

To be sure, we all have hot buttons. (And I’ve long contended that if anyone’s buttons completely vanish, they’ll turn into white light and disappear—no longer “fitting in” with this all-too-imperfect planet!) But what can hardly be over-emphasized here is that our defenses (read, “buttons”) once served a valuable purpose. If when we were young we lacked the emotional resources to cope with the challenges—or adversity—that seemed to surround us, it was imperative that we learn how to put up our guard. And developing defenses to protect our intensely felt vulnerability was how we contrived to accomplish this feat (despite the fact that we weren’t even aware we were doing this).

It can hardly be stressed enough that our buttons didn’t originate with our adult self. Almost by definition, as adults we can be distinguished from children because our behavior is governed principally by logic, reason, and common sense. On the contrary, a child’s behavior is primarily ruled by impulse and emotion. Not that as adults we don’t have feelings, but that these feelings come from our child self. For example, a child may stubbornly resist doing what they’re told because they don’t feel like it. But when adults (acting like adults) comprehend that something needs to be done, they’re far more likely to tackle it, regardless of mood or state of mind.

It’s also the child part of us that harbors all our old self-doubts—when, that is, they haven’t yet been fully rectified. So when we overreact to something, it’s because in that instant it’s our child self that’s been awakened and “taken custody” of our mind and body (the latter because we’ll also experience physical sensations when these child-derived buttons get pushed). That regressive, but now front-and-center, part of our being is now re-experiencing the overwhelming distress of defenselessness. Which is precisely what engenders, for the (fallacious) sake of survival, our various defenses—from dissociation, to projection, to anger, to outright denial.

Set of Man's Coat and Waistcoat Buttons/Flickr
Source: Set of Man's Coat and Waistcoat Buttons/Flickr

The only way to bring a person (including yourself!) back from such a self-protective, ultimately self-defeating stance is to back off and try, logically or psychologically, to explore what you said (whether to another or to yourself) that threw things, so unsettlingly, off balance. If you address someone else, whose emotions temporarily got the better of them, you need to inquire—caringly and compassionately—how you may inadvertently have offended them or hurt their feelings.

And, despite your own possible (and valid) frustrations in the matter, you need to “authenticate” the subjective reality—or integrity—of their experience. To the extent you succeed in convincing them that, despite what they just felt, you’re really on their side, they may well “come around” and return to their more mature, judicious self. And in that case, since you’re actually protecting their defenses, they may be ready to let them go (see my “Do You Defend Your Partner’s Defenses?—And Why You Should”).

. . . Which will enable you to restore the harmony temporarily lost between the two of you—or, indeed, within yourself.

Note 1: If you could relate to this post and think others you know might also, please consider forwarding its link to them.

Note 2: If you’d like to check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a large assortment of psychological topics—click here.

© 2015 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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