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How Emotional Reactivity Causes Conflict

When dynamic reactivity is high, we become what we despise.

Key points

  • In dynamic emotional reactivity, a negative emotion in one party of an interaction causes a negative emotion in the other.
  • Some examples include responding rudely to perceived rudeness and accusing when one feels accused.
  • Negative emotions tend to be fraught with confirmation bias. Questioning one's behavior and others' reactions can help break reactive dynamics.

On an intrapsychic level, “emotional reactivity” suggests overreacting negatively to normal or even benign stimuli due to stress, depleted physiological resources, or emotional disorder.

More pertinent in our highly reactive times is dynamic emotional reactivity — a negative emotion in one party of an interaction that causes a negative emotion in the other, such that the interaction makes them behave uncharacteristically. There is a great tendency these days to:

  • React to jerks like a jerk.
  • Respond rudely to perceived rudeness.
  • Invalidate when we feel invalidated.
  • Devalue when we feel devalued.
  • Accuse when we feel accused.
  • Manipulate when we feel manipulated.
  • Offend when we feel offended.
  • Try to silence when we feel unheard.
  • Shame when we feel shame.

Both sides of the dynamic feel as though they’re merely reacting to the other. They may take solace in self-righteousness or feel like, “You made me do it.”

In an extreme form, we become “reactaholics":

  • Not sure of opinions or convictions until you react to someone.
  • Recalling past disputes with revised dialogue: “When they said that, I should have said this.”
  • Imagining disagreements that haven’t taken place: “You’re about to say the stupidest thing I ever heard.”
  • Feeling that other people bring you down, make you angry, or get on your nerves.

Emotional reactivity spreads exponentially due to the salience of negative emotions (they dominate recall) and their vast contagion: It’s hard to be positive around negative people.

Feelings vs. Accurate Perception

Negative emotions – anger, resentment, anxiety, contempt, disgust, sadness – evolved to amplify and magnify possible threats or trouble. They‘re a better-safe-than-sorry alarm system. (We’d rather be wrong 999 times thinking a spouse is a sabertooth tiger than be wrong once thinking a sabertooth tiger is a spouse.) They’re processed more automatically and much faster than rational judgment. In the experience of negative emotions, most thought processes go toward justifying the feeling, rather than testing the reality of its perceptual influence. As a result, they’re fraught with confirmation bias, which makes us overlook or discount all contradictory evidence. The existential imperative “I think, therefore I am” morphs into “I feel you’re a jerk, therefore you are a jerk.”

Our assumptions and judgments about others are never completely accurate, though they will likely become self-fulfilling prophecies in the throes of emotional reactivity. If I think you’re a jerk, you’ll probably act like one, feeling that I’m a jerk.

Familial vs. Social Reactivity: Chicken or Egg?

Most clinicians who work with couples or families have noticed increased discord, correlating with the polarization in the country at large. Of course, family conflict contributes to social conflict and vice versa. My professional experience suggests that the increase in family conflict preceded social polarization. But that could be a selection issue, due to my clinical specialty of treating chronic resentment, anger, and emotional abuse in families.

At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which comes first; reactivity in both domains is out of hand.

Breaking the Reactive Dynamic

When interactions start to go south, ask these crucial questions:

  • “What is this person reacting to? Are they perceiving me to be disrespectful, biased, narcissistic?"
  • “Am I acting like the kind of person I most want to be?”

In love relationships, we must test the reality of assumptions about our partners. For example, if you think, “My partner is selfish,” ask yourself: “Does my partner feel that I’m acting selfishly?”

To counteract confirmation bias, recall examples of your partner cooperating or acting compassionately.

Instead of reacting, act according to your deeper values and ask the same of your partner: “Let’s try to be compassionate, fair, and respectful.”

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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