A client of ours described her relationship like this: “We love each other. We’re really good partners, and we both want to make it work. But we go from zero to a hundred in no time. It's hard when we do that”.
For her, being at “zero” meant peaceful connection. Just hanging out and enjoying each other’s company and having casual conversations. “A hundred” meant yelling at her partner, him yelling back, both of them being so upset they couldn’t think straight. She was totally puzzled about this recurring pattern of acceleration.
When we feel upset, stressed, or hurt, we react with strong emotions. One counseling site summed it up like this: “We are in a state of fight-or-flight and we react, or over react, emotionally. That overreaction is emotional reactivity.”
For a lot of us, it’s easier to recognize reactivity in our partners than in ourselves. We rarely like what we see. We see behaviors such as getting angry over something that seems inconsequential to us. We see them blowing up, cussing and throwing blame around. We see headshaking, crossing arms, or shutting down. Just to name a few.
When we do recognize reactivity in ourselves, we don’t like it either. I worked with a straight couple recently where the woman said, “I don’t mind him asking me for things. But when I’ve said no once, and he keeps asking, I can’t help it; I start acting like a crazy bitch; I say horrible things to him!” After an episode of reactivity like that, they both feel terrible. He’s shell-shocked from the ferocity of the reaction; she’s feeling exhausted and shameful about her reactions.
A man told this story, “I was trying to help my kid with homework and he just refused and refused and starting throwing a tantrum. I lost my shit and blasted the poor kid; I scared him and my wife. Scared myself too!” Afterwards, his wife and kid are scared and distrustful; he’s reeling with shame over losing control.
There are times when an emotional reaction is no problem, even if not ideal. Any one of us can at times get angry, swear, yell, or shut down. As isolated incidents, it might not a big problem. If we know how to calm ourselves back down, apologize and reconnect with our partner, we can move on peacefully.
The real issue with reactivity is twofold: One, it’s the emotional fallout from big reactions (as in the two above examples). Terrible, hurtful words can’t be un-spoken. They can’t be un-heard. It is for that exact reason that Sonika and I try really hard to zip it when we get mad, until we can express our feelings in a more responsible fashion.
Secondly, when emotional reactions repeat consistently to form a pattern of reactivity, you begin to anticipate the next reaction. You’re on guard. It makes sense why you’re on guard, but the guardedness becomes its own issue. Essentially, a pattern of reactivity has a cascade of negative effects, such as guardedness, walking on eggshells, feeling unsafe, avoiding contact or conflicts, and many more.
We don’t see the situation clearly
When you’re in reaction, by definition you don’t think and act clearly. As one mental health site said, “In that moment, our perceptions of the situation are altered. The emotional charge prevents us from seeing the situation for what it is. Instead, we react. At this point, there is no listening going on anymore. Our emotions and defenses are driving our behaviors.”
In reactivity, we are operating from the part of our brain that screams “SURVIVAL THREAT!!” and then attacks or runs away. It’s as if a freaked-out animal takes over the joystick that operates our mouth, arms, and legs!
To be clear, reactivity is not always explosive and loud. Some of us react by going totally still and quiet, confining the discomfort inside ourselves. Some of us start talking really fast. Some try to numb out elevated emotions by distracting themselves with a phone or computer.
Whatever your “brand” of reactivity is, it’s essential to be able to calm yourself and your nervous system if you want to have a lasting, loving relationship without too many breakdowns along the way. And although some might say it’s not your responsibility to calm your partner down, you’ll have a much stronger and connected relationship if you know how to help each other reduce reactivity and come back to love afterwards.
And wouldn’t you want to do that for your partner? Wouldn’t you want for your partner to do that for you?
What do to about it
Emotional reactivity is a huge topic. Working to reduce or control your reactivity is a process. And we have to start somewhere. For that, I have a practical tip and an invitation for you.
First, the tip: Often, our reactions show up in direct reaction to spoken words. I’m sure you know this well. You and your partner are talking. It’s going fine until he or she says, “That’s none of your business” or, “I’ve told you a thousand times …” and you go off in reactivity. Then you say something angry in return. In the conversation/fight that follows, everything you say digs you deeper into a hole. No one is listening, but you’re still talking or yelling. And the (potentially) nasty things that gets said can’t be un-spoken or un-heard.
The tip is … stop talking. Full stop. By not saying another word, you limit fallout damage. It’s as if your silence says, “Ok, neither of us like this. We're only making it worse right now. We both want to be close and work it out. Let’s take a break and reset”. As you stop talking, reach out for your partner. Literally reach a hand towards them or place a gentle hand on their shoulder. Make eye contact. (Only caveat is if someone is highly reactive, even gentle touch might be too much. In that case, don’t use touch, but still stop talking and try to make eye contact).
Words spoken in reactivity are often sharp and hurtful and create a whole other mess to clean up afterwards. So try to stop talking. If you want to say anything, make simple, general statements like, “Neither of us like this”. “This is one of those times …”. “Let’s pause and take a breath …”.
The invitation is for you to join our mini-workshop, Reducing Reactivity (a mini-workshop is a 90-minute class you do from home with your partner (or by yourself). We will walk you through a step-by-step process to help you reduce your level of reactivity. You’ll learn how to …
Avoid “fueling the fire” of anger and frustration
Respond with compassion instead of anger, contempt, or sarcasm.
Communicate responsibly when triggered.
And you’ll learn to use a simple, powerful model to understand and modify your reactivity, so you can help yourself and your partner minimize breakdowns and stay connected.
In conclusion ... reactivity is detrimental to your love, peace, and sense of safety in relationship. Take actions and experiment to learn new ways. Don't let reactivity run on un-checked!
Click below to register for the event ...
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