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How Can I Be Me While You’re Being You?

High emotional reactivity ruins relationships.

George Rudy/Shutterstock
Source: George Rudy/Shutterstock

Do you occasionally feel like you become a different person around your partner? Does it seem like he or she has to change — or that you’ll have to change partners — for you to be your true self? Do you take turns acting like stubborn toddlers and feeling as powerless as one?

Well, you’re not alone. Just about all lovers go through a stage of high emotional reactivity that threatens to destroy their relationship. If one makes a request or an “observation” with any hint of negative emotion, it automatically triggers an unpleasant response in the partner. It doesn’t matter how the request and response are worded, the negative emotion underlying them makes both parties feel wronged and like they can’t be themselves around each other:

"You’re always complaining.”

"I’m not complaining, you’re criticizing.”

"You’re so controlling!”

"You're so uncooperative."

Emotional reactivity is an automatic, usually unconscious response to specific events, situations, or people. Sometimes this is a great thing. While falling in love, the mere presence of the beloved fills us with fascination and joy. We thrill at the smiles of our infants and revel in the excitement of new friends. But under stress, emotional reactivity is almost entirely negative. The environment seems more threatening or fraught with uncertainty. Our “buttons get pushed” more easily. We’re more likely to lash out or, if we hold it in, emotionally shut down. In couples afflicted with high emotional reactivity, a negative feeling in one partner triggers chaos or shutdown in the other.

All social animals are subject to high emotional reactivity when the environment is perceived to be dangerous. A hair-trigger response shoots adrenaline and cortisol into everyone’s bloodstream when one member of the pack senses threat. An alarm in one creates alarm in all, which increases the chances of survival; the pack has multiple eyes, ears, and noses and a singular alarm system transmitted from any individual to all the others.

The problem in intimate human relationships is that the emotional brain is a better-safe-than-sorry alarm system. It would rather be wrong 999 times thinking a spouse is a sabertooth tiger than be wrong once thinking a sabertooth tiger is a spouse. Instead of fangs, the partner has an independent will, which is likely to be construed as stubborn or selfish. Behavior requests become demands, calling for submission rather than cooperation, automatically provoking the toddler standoff:

“If you loved me, you’d do this.”

“If you loved me, you wouldn’t ask me to do this.”

One partner’s perceived “need” for validation crashes headlong into the “need” of the other not to be controlled. Both end up feeling hurt, angry, and wronged.

High emotional reactivity makes us intolerant of differences (you have to see the world the way I do), narcissistic (incapable of seeing other perspectives), all-or-nothing (you’re on a pedestal, or you’re a demon), and dependent on the current emotional state, which in turn depends on the current physiological state (uncomfortable, tired, hungry, thirsty, overstimulated, or ill). When blame is added to the mix, partners seem like opponents first, and eventually like enemies.

The Automatic Defense System

Emotional reactivity puts most interactions in the control of an invisible automatic defense system, which is most often triggered inadvertently by body language, facial expressions, tension, distractedness, hesitations, impatience, discomfort, or eagerness. It’s activated almost entirely unconsciously; by the time you're aware of any feelings, it's in an advanced stage.

Although the automatic defense system operates in workplace relationships, it does most of its damage in family interactions. Think of your gut reaction when your partner avoids looking at you or merely sighs. Think of how you react when you hear the front door close, even before your partner enters the room or says something with “that tone," gets "that facial expression,” or rolls those eyes. Suddenly you find yourself in a defensive posture, prepared for the worst.

When you’re both defensive, bad things are likely to happen. All good defense systems have preemptive strike capability. The missiles seem to start flying on their own, with no one giving the order. You find yourself in a battle of cold shoulders, curt exchanges, or hot arguments. You both feel powerless, irritable, impatient, resentful, or angry. You have an impulse to walk away, ignore, criticize, yell, or devalue.

I’ll explore how to lessen emotional reactivity and deactivate the automatic defense system in a later post.