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Emotional Reactivity—The Bane of Intimate Communication

Inquiry before judgment can prevent negative interactions.

How wonderful it would be if you were totally relaxed and comfortable when the most important person in your life is finding fault with you. How amazing it would be to let the critiques fly by and respond with only graciousness and dignity!

Many years ago, in the early days of my therapeutic career, I frequently observed couples diligently trying to follow my directions in a session, only to just “lose it” when a challenging remark overcame them. I had followed the advice of a wise medicine man who gave me an eagle feather: Only the partner holding it was able to speak. It did help some, but it was totally ineffective as soon as the non-holding partner stopped listening and began building his or her next move.

There are so few people in intimate relationships that can give up their attachments to the outcome when they feel threatened, and learn instead to respond patiently. It appears to be built into our emotional mechanisms to become defensive and adrenalized when our intimate relationship security seems in danger. Whether we feel guilty, outraged, scared, or hurt, we are prone to quickly dismantle the only part of our brain that sets us apart from other mammals and default to fight/flight/freeze — the three responses of prey to a hunter.

That anxiety/control response is the way we avoid, postpone, or nullify the threat of loss. Our partner says or does something that makes us anticipate grief and we jump into the fray to minimize the anticipated damage.

The sadness is that most of the threats are either not as bad as we think they are, or could be negotiated if we only would take more time to listen before reacting. Our instant, need-to-control responses can become a bigger problem than we had to begin with. And, the more repetitive the conflict, the more likely the immediate negativity will begin to fly, making the chance of real resolution will vanish.

Example Number One

Her: “Honey, I’d just like to talk to you about something a little delicate. When will you have time to listen?”

Him: “Oh, for Christ’s sake. Just tell me now and get it over with. I won’t be able to think about anything else until we handle what’s on your mind. I know how you get when you hold things back and I’m not willing to deal with it.”

Her: “Oh, just forget it. I don’t want to talk to you when you’re irritable. I’ll just handle it myself.”

Him: “There you go with the martyr stuff again. Don’t play that game with me. Just spit it out and I’ll take care of it, okay?”

Her: “It was just about asking you if you would take some time and go over how we should talk to our son about watching porn.”

Him: “Why didn’t you just say that in the first place? You make such a big deal out of things with your careful approach, like I’m some sort of crazy person. Now you’ve got me riled up over nothing. You need to change your style if you want things to work better with me.”

Example Number Two

Him: “What are you doing?”

Her: “Just relaxing and watching a little TV.”

Him: “What time is dinner?”

Her: “I just sat down. Why do you always ask me for something when I just get a little chance to kick back? It’s as if I’m not supposed to do anything that doesn’t make sure you’re okay first. I can’t believe you’d say something like that when you know how hard it is for me to take time for myself.”

Him: “Hey, settle down. I just wanted to know what time dinner was so I’d know if I could do a little errand before we sit down. What’s the real beef here?”

Her: “Now you’re just trying to make me feel guilty for expressing my feelings. I can’t ever win with you. Why don’t you just tell me how happy you are that I’m taking care of me? It’s always a little jibe. I’m just not going to feel guilty for this one.”

These two vignettes may seem to exaggerate a reactive response but they are actually representative of how quickly conflicts often start by assumption, reaction, and defensiveness.

Sometimes the partners in a relationship are jumping to conclusions that are actually accurate because of so many repeated patterns from the past. At other times, one or both partners may just be in an irritable mood, or taking out their distress from another situation on each other. Charged, emotional reactivity can also be a cover for underlying cumulative resentment or guilt over another situation projected on to this one.

What is always true is that no real understanding or resolution is possible when reactivity is prevalent. If partners just have the patience to get to the underlying issues that are buried within first responses, they often find that they didn’t understand the situation, have little if no disagreement at all, or can more easily resolve the one they have.

Example Number Three

Partner A: “You sure have been preoccupied lately.”

Partner B: “That sounds like you’re feeling something you’re not saying. What’s up?”

Partner A: “I didn’t mean to be that obvious. Yeah, I’m missing you but you’re working so hard, I didn’t feel it was right to ask for more time right now, and I guess I was afraid you’d be resentful if I did.”

Partner B: “Honey, I really appreciate your being careful and not putting more pressure on me until I get this damn trial over, but I always want to know how you are and what you need. Maybe I can’t give it all to you right now, but I’ll do what I can.”

Partner A: “I always forget how much you’re there if I were just more open and not so fearful.”

This dialogue does sound a little too good to be true, but just think where it could have gone if Partner B had responded with something like, “G****mn it. I’m overloaded and you know that.”

Follow these simple rules when you feel challenged by your partner:

  1. Calm down inside and get centered.
  2. Ask for more information and try to get to what’s behind his or her challenge.
  3. Tell your partner you are interested in how he or she is feeling and needing.
  4. Agree with each other that you won’t give in to reactive emotions.
  5. Talk about your own needs without invalidating those of your partner.

Then put all the data on the table and decide what your best bet is for resolution. You may not be able to give each other everything but you won’t end up enemies in the process.

Reprinted from Huffington Post

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