When we are reactive in relationships

We have all been there. Being reactive is common and can lead to challenges in relationships especially when we try to ignore it or feel ashamed when we are reactive and then try and deny it or focus on our partner because we feel ashamed.

Some of the things underneath that reactivity are the pain of not being heard, betrayed, lied to, or criticized. We often have particular sensitivities built up from the past. We become vigilant to these behaviors in others, and it takes only a hint of the original betrayal to cause a reaction.  The emotional reactions that erupt out of this pain often take on an intensity greater than the present situation needs, leaving the people around us not understanding the response. This leads to our partner arguing that your reaction does not relate to what is going on rather than understanding how it does relate. Then we are off to the races with the argument escalating.

couples reactive

Let's examine a common reaction to not being heard.

  • There is an interaction that triggers an experience of not being heard ( your partner was distracted, busy, not paying attention) and this leads to a feeling of being ignored.
  • Feelings of anger, hurt and frustration emerge.
  • We have a story we tell ourselves such as; here we go again, why can’t they just listen, they are doing this on purpose, how many times do I have to say something, they don’t want to hear me, they obviously think I have nothing important to say.
  • We make accusations as if this story is true. Our partner hears this as unjust and a sense of powerlessness to be able to get it right. So will defend against it not paying attention to your experience (they have their own reaction and sensitivity that comes up).
  • This leads to a back-and-forth of accusation and defense.

These reactions (triggered feelings, story, and behavior) may lead to behaviors ranging from emotionally demanding, raging, controlling, criticizing, or shutting down.

No one is listening.

Ways to deal with your reactivity 

For the most part, you are the only one that can change the reactivity.  It is not your partner's job to be more attentive, kind, open, happy, calm, and so on so you won't be reactive.

  1. Work through your past hurts so they don't affect your present relationship.
  2. Become aware of your reactions and the story you make up in your head about your partner.  Own it as what you make up. Your partner can acknowledge which part of it is true.
  3. Learn to work with the wounded child. You are the one who is there for them, you are not going to abandon them. They can over time rely on your presence and self-love.
  4. Take time out to deal with your triggers so they don't escalate in communication.
  5. Resist thinking in terms of ‘always’ and ‘never’. Triggered feelings tend to get generalized.
  6. Take time to explore what is happening with your partner, what caused them to behave that way, and what was motivating them, ask questions before you come to your conclusions. Get to know who they are. Receive their truth.