Emotional Reality v. Reactivity

What "needs" do you need to get met?

Posted Oct 13, 2008

Seeking to "get your needs met" in a relationship will not improve it. Neither will just solving problems. Besides the fact that these are often veiled attempts at manipulating your partner into doing what you want, they are likely to increase the emotional reactivity at the heart of your discord. To improve your relationship, you have to change your emotional reality. If you don't consciously choose your emotional reality, your brain will create one on automatic pilot, based on past experience and biases, and that will keep you making the same mistakes over and over.

Most people want the emotional reality of their relationships to be harmonious, affectionate, loving, and compassionate. But instead of behaving more harmoniously, affectionately, lovingly, and compassionately, they blame their partners for their failures to do so. Because emotional reactivity is so strong between people who are emotionally bonded, they each see their own negative feelings and behavior as merely reactive to the other.

One says, "I tried to be pleasant today, but you were rude. If you would be pleasant and caring, I would be pleasant and caring."

The other says, "I tried to be pleasant today, but you were so negative. If you would be pleasant and caring, I would be pleasant and caring."

Both are hurt - beneath their resentment and self-righteousness - but neither can see what the other is reacting to, and not because they are selfish, pathological, in denial, or suffering poor communication skills. We all have huge blind spots about our own behavior when emotions are aroused. Due to the higher emotional content that goes with perceived threat (of rejection, betrayal, or harm), the other's hurtful behavior is encoded more forcefully in memory, while our own behavior and emotional displays - what our partners react to - are barely recorded at all. In other words, our defenses, which indicate emotional reactivity, are largely invisible to us, while the threat of the other stands out like a cold or menacing sore thumb.

It is very difficult for couples to get a feel for this, even when they understand it intellectually. They won't get it by putting themselves in the shoes of the other, which, in the long run, makes them judge their partners by their own vulnerabilities: "I wouldn't have been afraid if that happened to me," or "I wouldn't have been insulted by that," or, "I know you would feel better if you talked about it (meaning I would feel better if I talked about it)," or, "I know that talking about it will make things worse (because it does for me)."

There are various empathy-provoking techniques that attempt to get people to suspend emotional reactivity, and they can be useful in a therapist's office. But in real life, their reliance on validation from the other tends to produce more resentment - "He (she) Just won't do his (her) share of validation." I have had hundreds of couples come from these therapies with the mantra, "I am empathic to my partner, but he/she is too selfish, inconsiderate, or stubborn to face his/her childhood wounds and be empathic to me."

Please understand that I do not mean to criticize empathy/active listening techniques; if they work for you, keep doing them. But if you have found that they have not changed the emotional reality of your relationship, i.e., it is more resentful and disappointing than compassionate and cooperative; there is another path up the mountain.

You are far more likely to create the emotional reality you want by striving to be the person and the partner you most want to be than by manipulating your loved ones to meet your needs. The good news about emotional reactivity is that compassion, affection, and love are almost as contagious as criticism, resentment, and contempt

The only real emotional need you have in a relationship is to be true to your deepest values about what kind of person and partner you want to be. Violation of your deepest values produces guilt and shame that only worsens when blamed on your partner. When blamed on your partner, the guilt and shame of failure to be the kind of person and partner you want to be hardens into resentment and contempt, which evaporate the joy of living with the ferocity of the sun on desert sand.