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Never Underestimate Your Partner’s Defenses — Here’s Why

What do you do when you accidentally push your spouse’s buttons—or they yours?

Source: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

All your psychological defenses exist to protect you from perceived ego threats. So any person menacing your feelings of safety or security — or your core sense of being “good enough” — compels you to react negatively. In doing so, you immediately alleviate painful feelings of vulnerability — a vulnerability experienced all too often, and acutely, as a young, defenseless child. Since children don’t yet know how to self-validate, anyone to whom they give authority can make them feel fearful or ashamed of themselves. Plus, for most of us, these adverse, self-doubting feeling states are never completely eradicated, even after we’ve reached adulthood.

In fact, this is precisely what’s meant by “getting your buttons pushed.” Collectively, those "buttons" represent your ego when it experiences itself under siege. For your ego depicts everything you associate with your identity: whom, in essence, you think you are and (indirectly) how you need to view yourself to believe you’re basically okay. So if another criticizes you, and the criticism brings to the surface subterranean levels of doubt, anxiety, and shame, you can’t help but be propelled into self-protective mode. And because of an emotional survival mechanism innate in our species, you do so through automatically mobilizing one or more modes of defense.

I’ve written many posts on the surprisingly complex phenomenon of anger (e.g., see “What Your Anger May Be Hiding”). And what in the present context makes anger such a vital topic to explore is that, although Freud never considered the emotion as itself a defense, it’s commonly (universally?) employed to ward off threats to one’s self-image. What’s happening here is that you’re redirecting what you took as criticism right back onto the criticizer. It’s not you who are mean, selfish, stupid, unattractive, incompetent, etc. It’s them. And ironically, while displaying reactive anger may look as though you’re attacking the other, in reality it’s how you’re defending yourself (or, rather, your beset ego).

And of course, many other defenses can come into play when you feel criticized (i.e., attacked). Any negative evaluation, or even suggestion that you do something differently, can reanimate worrisome self-doubts. However unconsciously, unless past insecurities have been fully rectified, outward criticism incites such potent defenses as denial, acting out, rationalization, projection (intimately related to angry outbursts), dissociation, and regression.

But the main point to be stressed in all this is that whenever you react to another’s adverse opinions or judgments defensively, you’re almost always overreacting. Not that (in the moment at least) it will feel this way. It certainly doesn’t. That is, whatever the other person said or did pushed your buttons just as hard as was the vigor (or vehemence) of your reaction. And though this description probably sounds illogical, keep in mind that the manner in which you got provoked inevitably brought to the surface still-charged emotional issues from your past. So the long held-in — and as yet unreleased — energy of these never completely resolved disturbances inevitably broke out.

There must be some axiom in psychology positing that whatever you can’t resolve must repeat itself. And since the mind works by way of (mostly unconscious) association, any here-and-now provocation is likely to awaken from the depths the there-and-then sources of your present reaction. If old, unwelcome, negative self-assessments start to pester your consciousness, you’ll reflexively attempt to counter them through a psychological defense. For if you can’t do this, you’ll experience rising levels of anxiety and shame — and likely depression as well. Paradoxically, even depression can be viewed as an attempt (though hardly effective) to quiet nagging feelings. Consider that a key feature of depression is apathy (literally meaning “not feeling”).

Still, when you react forcefully to some felt provocation, your assumed adversary — whose words or deeds were probably much less malignant than the actual effect they had on you — will doubtless experience your inflamed reaction as exaggerated. After all, how could they not view it this way when they’re only privy to their immediate behavior as it prompted your (to them) disproportionately charged comeback? They’re hardly in a position to grasp the energetic power of emotionally fraught issues from your past influencing your present-day reaction — especially since, in the moment, you yourself may not recognize just what’s boiling inside you.

So if your father was, say, a rageaholic, and frequently, without a second’s warning, became unglued and threw a temper tantrum, then when your partner suddenly raises their voice to emphasize a point, you might react (or rather overreact) as though they’d just turned into your father. Consequently, with “counter-anger” toward your father’s verbal brutality — that as a child you could never afford to express, but still may harbor deep inside you — you might “go off” on them as though they’d acted horribly abusive toward you. And since their raised voice alone pushed your childhood buttons (which, by the way, is where all your buttons originate), this anger will feel totally warranted to you, though not at all justified to your partner. In such situations, you could become archly (and gratuitously) defensive. Or you might abruptly leave the room, in tears or fury. In these instances, you wouldn’t merely be responding to present-day stimuli, but also to earlier provocations still carrying substantial emotional residue.

It should be pointed out that the overblown reactions I’ve been describing are far more likely to occur in a family context than a professional one. That’s because in a work environment, it’s easier to stay within a delimited adult role. Your buttons aren’t as likely to be pushed by an office mate, for in this more formal relationship, their words aren’t as likely to operate as reminders of distressful things that happened in your family of origin. But once you have a family of your own, seemingly inert — though really dormant — memories can easily be roused by your spouse or children. And when you project your old, unresolved frustrations onto them, they’ll doubtless experience you as irrational or unfair. Or, if how you behave hooks into their unresolved issues, they’ll be made to feel inadequate, inferior, worthless, etc., because they can’t but take to heart what, in your current regressive state, you’re taking out on them.

In any case, if you’re on the receiving end of another's reacting unreasonably toward you, what’s the best way to respond? Obviously, you need to realize that coming back at them in kind won’t be useful in resolving your frustrations — nor will it serve to placate them, or the relationship. Rather, in the face of this seeming unfairness, you’ll first need to calm yourself down. (Deep breathing, anyone?) Only then can you safely inquire as to what, regardless of your intentions, your partner heard you say — or, given their past, how they couldn’t help but negatively interpret your behavior.

In other words, you need to seek additional information rather than to reflexively counter their attack, defend yourself, or leave the scene — and leave them feeling abandoned). If — as the adult you are — you’re able to be self-validating, their aggressive or tear-filled words don’t have to upset your emotional equilibrium. For what they’re needing from you (though it hardly seems apparent) is to be listened to, reassured, and empathized with. (See my earlier post, “Can You Give Your Spouse as Much Love as They Don’t Deserve?”).

In such situations — after you’ve calmed yourself down:

  • Gently inquire (non-confrontationally) about the meaning to them of whatever you just said or did.
  • Open-mindedly accept what they say as what’s “true” for them — however erroneously they may have construed your motives.
  • Ask them whether they can remember times in the past when they might have been made to feel this way. (Possibly their parents’ harshly criticizing them? Screaming at them for an innocent mistake? Ignoring them when they desperately needed attention or assistance? etc.)
  • Offer them as much empathy and compassion as you have it within you to give. (Admittedly, this can be extremely challenging — particularly if their overblown reaction pushed one of your buttons.) So, for example, you might say to them: “I can understand how, if that’s the way you saw where I was coming from, you would have felt I didn’t care about you, or that you weren’t important to me. That must have felt really hurtful. So, it must have been almost impossible to resist the impulse to try to hurt me back. And maybe that’s why you started yelling at me.”

And if you’re the one who got their buttons pushed? Below, I’ll offer the basic steps to follow (though to develop a more comprehensive plan, you might want to review my earlier 4-part post entitled “Disarming Your Buttons: How Not to Get Provoked,” as well as "Want to Avoid Blow-Ups With Your Partner? Here's How" ):

  • Do whatever works best for you to calm down — always the first step, whether it’s done through progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, self-hypnosis, visualization (such as taking yourself off to a private beach, floating on a cloud, or sitting by a rippling brook), or any of the various relaxation techniques described in literature readily available on the Web.
  • Explore what may have triggered you, realizing that the strength of your reaction was probably as potent as it was, because it was pulling up from deep within old emotional disturbances never fully put to rest.
  • Explain to your partner that he or she accidentally pushed your buttons, so that a child part of you temporarily took custody of your being, and you just couldn’t help reacting as you did. And that’s not solely a rationalization for your losing it, but an accurate portrayal of what took place inside you. Note also that you’re taking responsibility for these vulnerabilities (for, after all, whose else could they possibly be?). Moreover, you’re helping your partner to better recognize your particular buttons — so hopefully, they’ll be more careful in the future not to inadvertently set them off (even as you yourself strive to extricate yourself from them).
Free images on Pixabay/CCO Public Domain
Source: Free images on Pixabay/CCO Public Domain

As I’ve suggested, none of this is easy. But when each of you can succeed in retrieving your more balanced, rational adult self, you’ll find it extremely empowering to be able to transform spousal conflict into a mutually supportive and satisfying resolution.