I often speak to people who are in distress over the way their romantic partner treats them. They believe that they want to be close, but that their partner is preventing it by being "condescending," "critical," “irresponsible,” “distant,” or “rejecting.” This makes them feel terrible or forces them to take control, demand attention, or stand up for themselves. They complain about the tense, unpleasant interactions that result from their partner’s offensive behavior:
- “He’s always talking down to me, correcting what I do. He even started telling me how I should pack our son’s lunch the other day.”
- “She never has time for me; then, when we do talk, she just zones out and goes on her phone.”
People have some fairly valid complaints about their partners, because, after all, their partners are human, and we all tend to be somewhat flawed. However, they often fail to see their part in the dynamic and instead, regard themselves as victims and their actions as controlled by their partner. In talking about their own actions in their relationship, most people tend to feel justified, identifying their behavior as reactions to the other person:
- “His tone was condescending, which made me furious. So I just shoved the lunchbox into his hands and said, ‘Why don’t you pack it since you’re such an expert?’ and stormed off.”
- “I was sick of being ignored, so I’ve been giving her the cold shoulder for a few days. Now, she can see how it feels for a change.”
We tend to be more emotionally reactive in our closest relationships. We may be easily triggered, then act in ways we would find unacceptable if we saw someone else acting that way. All it takes is for our partner to take a certain tone, or for us to think we catch an eye roll, and we’re off and running. The most important thing for us to remember in these moments is to not zero in on our partner and catalog every mistake they are making, but to really shift our focus to our own behavior. We need to ask ourselves, "How do I want to act in the situation? Who do I want to show up as in my relationship ... or anywhere else for that matter?"
Each of us can take responsibility for our behavior rather than feeling that our partner’s behavior left us no other option than to respond the way we did. Our personality is not based on someone else’s way of being. We always have the power to decide who we want to be and how we want to react. No one else truly controls us, and yet, we hand over control to another person when we bend ourselves out of shape and act in ways we don’t respect. While we can’t always choose how we feel, we can choose how we act. Even though we may feel hurt, disregarded, or enraged by a partner's behavior, he or she cannot make us be mean, defensive, or victimized. Only we get to choose what we do.
When we’re reactive or engage in a tit-for-tat type of relating (“He said this, so I did that"), we give up our own personal standards for who we are. We also reduce our chances of getting the respectful, caring, loving responses we want from our partner. When we get triggered emotionally, we often take our eye off the ball and forget what our ultimate goal is. We respond in ways that create more distance with the people with whom we seek to be closest, be it our partner, our kids, a parent or other family member, or even a boss or co-worker.
One reason it’s so important to pause before we engage in any heated interaction with someone close to us is that, often, our emotional reactions are based on or exacerbated by triggers from our past that make it more difficult to be objective in the moment. For example, our partner may very well have a condescending way of relating to us at times that is understandably irritating. It’s reasonable to express that we don’t like being treated that way. However, it’s also important to take a step back and look at what may be going on inside us.
Take the recent example of a woman whose husband was driving her crazy, giving her directions to a place they’d been a dozen times. After she semi-jokingly told him to “Quit it, Mr. GPS,” her husband quieted down, but she could still feel him watching the road, which was making her furious. Finally, she exploded at him, “I know where I’m going, okay? You treat me like an idiot. Stop acting so superior. You’re not even a good driver!” Unsurprisingly, her husband had a different perception of the interaction. He felt that he was just trying to be helpful, listened to her request to stop directing her, and then got yelled at for no reason. His response was to get quiet and sulk for the rest of the day, even after his wife apologized.
Both people in this interaction were reacting to something real in the present, but they were also unintentionally triggering old feelings in each other. His giving her directions ignited feelings she had experienced in her past with a controlling, critical mother. For him, his sulking was reminiscent of how he reacted to his mother’s frequent tirades.
Couples’ interactions are complicated, because partners tend to read a lot of distorted meaning into each other’s words and behavior. Most of us aren’t just dealing with what the other person is saying or doing, but with what we’re telling ourselves about what the other person is saying or doing. We often experience our lives through a filter of our own histories, insecurities, worries, expectations, or inner critic. We all have a “critical inner voice” commentating on our lives, often fostering harsh attitudes toward ourselves and suspicious attitudes toward others. It can leave us feeling easily criticized or slighted by specific things—thinking someone is angry with us, for example.
We put our own spin, interpretation, or projection onto the world around us. Therefore, we often react irrationally. Couples, in particular, have a tendency to act in this way. In relationships, we become extra sensitive or attentive to each other’s comments or moods, and we’re ready to interpret them through the filter of our critical inner voice.
Of course, our partner will sometimes say and do things that upset us. Yet even if we’re right about the way we’re being treated, we still have control over how we react to it. When we act out or take the low road in responding, we usually just feel bad. We turn against ourselves and the other person. And we rarely get what we want. We give up a lot of power and possibility for closeness when we’re in a reactive mode. Essentially, we are back in our past, reacting with intensity that has nothing to do with the present. And though we can never control another person, when we change our reaction, we make it much more likely to shift the dynamic, soften the other person, and keep the interaction between two adults in their lives today.
Returning to the couple that got into an argument while driving, the woman was determined to take a different approach the next time they had a potentially heated interaction. She had just put their 5-year-old to bed, and her husband made a comment that their son really should be going to sleep earlier, so he doesn’t wake up groggy. She felt like screaming at him, “What is wrong with you? You should be thanking me, not telling me what I did wrong!” Instead, she took a second before responding. She considered the fact that her husband often wakes the kids up and takes them to school and calmly said, “Yeah, that may be a good idea for next time. I know you feel bad when he doesn’t want to wake up and gets upset.” Her husband immediately corrected himself, “I meant we both could try to get him to bed earlier. It’s my responsibility as much as yours.” He then put his arm around her and thanked her for putting the kids to bed. This sounds like a simple scenario, but it’s amazing how small choices like this can completely shift a larger dynamic. Instead of being at odds all night, the partners were able to feel closer and more like themselves, even while addressing a mutual source of stress.
We can all take control of our responses and be the type of partner we want to be. We can shift the dynamic by changing our half of the interaction. Here are some principles we can adopt to achieve this outcome:
1. Don’t be victimized, reactive, or defensive.
Trying to “win” a fight with force or by employing manipulative strategies never gets us what we really want, even if these patterns lead to temporary relief or a fleeting apology. We should stay true to how we want to be, because it’s more likely to have a long-term positive effect on our relationships and our sense of self.
2. Take a pause to decide how you want to react.
Sometimes our initial reactions don’t represent who we are or what we really think. We say things out of emotion that we don’t even mean, and we act in ways that counter our own goals. We often find that after a fight we have the perspective we needed before things escalated, so try finding quiet before entering the storm.
3. Calm down.
If we feel really emotionally shaken up by another person, we should do what we can to calm down before we react: Take a walk. Call a friend. Take a few slow breaths before responding, or try a moment of meditation. Anything we can do to help us feel less stirred up is a smart choice in these moments.
4. Think about the big picture.
We should always try to keep our eye on the end goal. It may feel really good to try to win the battle of an argument, but not if we lose the war. If our goal is actually to be closer and more connected to another person, then what’s the point of the victory? Keeping both the image of who we want to be and our goals for the relationship in the forefront of our mind can help.
5. Take note of your triggers.
Every one of us would benefit from exploring and really getting to know the situations that set us off. Maybe we feel insecure about being ignored, because we were left alone a lot as kids. Maybe we’re sensitive to being told what to do, because we had an intrusive or hypercritical parent. If we know what riles us up, we can be aware of the scenarios that are likely to trigger us. For example, we can catch on that we’re reading criticism into a certain look from our partner, or that we may be feeling exaggeratedly hurt by the fact that they’re working late or seem distracted.
6. Seek honest and direct communication.
Conflict is bound to arise in any relationship. The point of controlling our reaction is not to shut up or shut down ourselves. Rather, we should strive for direct and honest communication. We can choose sensitive times and ways to communicate what we want or how we feel toward our partner. Being open and vulnerable creates an environment in which the other person feels comfortable to do the same, and we can both work toward a common goal of knowing each other better and getting closer.
At the end of the day, we cannot control anyone but ourselves, and no one else can control us. We can take control of our own behavior and ask ourselves, "Who do I want to show up as in my life? How do I want to treat my relationship partner?" And once we decide, we can do our best to live by that, knowing that we’ll make mistakes, but owning who we are.