Why Am I Emotionally Reactive to my Partner?
When a couple gets caught in a negative cycle of interaction, several things can happen.
First, the area of their brains that sends them alarm bells, called the amygdala, becomes overactive as it interprets communications as potential harm.
The second thing that happens is that the area of their brains that is responsible for empathy, called the prefrontal cortex, is drowned out by the alarm bells and shuts down.
This leads a couple to more defensiveness towards one another and to an escalation of the vicious cycle. This might also lead partners to ask themselves the question, “Why are we so reactive to each other?”
A Brief History
For many years, therapists and researchers tried to address this question: What makes two people fall madly in love, only to reach the point that they are continually frustrated with one another?
In years past, researchers and clinicians believed that the couple could be helped by learning how to negotiate better and function more like a team. Therapists believed that there were unspoken implicit contracts that couples made with one another, such as who would be responsible for household and yard work, childcare, finances, et cetera.
The assumption was that if something happened in the relationship that upset this contract and the couple didn’t talk about how they would renegotiate, then they would fall into distress and argue more. This of course was not the answer. Couples learned to renegotiate but still fought. They realigned their contracts only to find that anger, hurt and fear still resided in the relationship.
Eventually, it was thought that maybe the couple had pent up anger towards one another and just needed to vent in an environment that was relatively safe. This theory lead to an intervention of foam bats being use to lightly “bonk” one another on the head when partners expressed something they didn’t like about one another. Of course, this didn’t work either, and it doesn’t take much imagination to realize how quickly things got out of control.
Couples were wielding weapons that told one another “I don’t like you anymore, and now I’m going to hurt you.” Fights had to be broken up in therapist offices all over the country. The “venting” of aggrievances did not help answer the question or address the matter of emotionally reactive couples.
A Radical Concept: Attachment
John Bowlby (right) was a researcher in the United Kingdom during World War II. He observed children that had been separated from their families due to war and noticed that many of the children struggled to develop relationships later in life.
What he came to determine was that there is a biological drive within every human that allows us to attach and bond to another human. In doing so, we create a better chance of survival for ourselves.
But attachment is not just about survival—it is also about optimizing our capacities for relationships, and these relationships shape our very sense of self.
Attachment is defined by three pillars: 1. a secure base 2. a safe haven 3. attunement and responsiveness.
1. A Secure Base – This provides the child (and later the adult) a safe place from which to return from exploring. Exploring the environment can be scary, and the parent is a secure base to which the child can return for nurturance and support. This is no different than a partner coming home from a tough day at work and being able to vent to their spouse about their difficult day. Their spouse is providing a secure base to which the partner can return after a stressful, anxious, busy day.
2. A Safe Haven – This is the function a wise and strong adult plays in the child’s life (and later the adult’s life). When a child is scared, mad or angry, the adult provides the child with a soothing response, a caring nurturing hug or a strong presence to help the child cope with their feelings. This is no different in the adult world where partners can soothe one another when they are scared, upset, hurt or angry. A safe haven provides a safe place for the exploration for all feelings.
3. Attunement and Responsiveness – This provides the child (and later the adult) with the experience of someone recognizing, understanding and engaging with their emotional states. The parent acts as a mirror to the child’s emotions, allowing the child to feel seen and understood.
This is no different in our adult relationships when we share our feelings with our partner and hope for an attuned response. We want to feel heard and understood, and having someone in our life who is attuned to our feelings validates and supports our sense of self.
When Attachment Goes Wrong: Coping Styles
Sometimes we don’t always get the parents we need. With no choice in the decision, we find ourselves in situations where we have to adapt to what we’re given. Parents that struggle to provide a secure base, a safe haven and an attuned response shape how their children sees themselves, the world and others. Out of this environment, children learn how to navigate the amount of closeness and distance that they can tolerate in a relationship.
Essentially there are 2 types of attachment that people experience, secure attachment and insecure attachment. A secure attachment is one in which the individual is comfortable with intimacy and is not preoccupied or worried about rejection from the partner. The individual is comfortable in a warm, loving and emotionally close relationship, can depend on his or her partner and be vulnerable with the partner, and can manage his or her emotions well in order to communicate wants and needs.
When someone feels insecure in a relationship, there are 3 types of coping strategies, or attachment styles, that people use.
As you read further, please understand you may have a tendency to see yourself in one of these three styles. If you do, know that this is not an indication of an attachment disorder, but rather, how you learned to cope in your family of origin.
Avoidant Style – People who use the avoidant style tend to prefer their autonomy to togetherness. They keep their partners at arm length, rarely let themselves be vulnerable, and struggle to depend on them.
Their communication is often intellectual, and they may avoid conflict or shut down and withdraw when an argument does start. Furthermore, they may “turn off” their attachment needs and struggle to communicate what they want in the relationship.
Anxious Style – People who use the anxious style tend to always “push” for more closeness. They are worried about abandonment and rejection, can appear needy and require ongoing reassurance. They are overly sensitive to partner’s actions and moods, communicate primarily through their own emotional lens which may involve exaggerated fears, and they are constantly asking for their attachment needs to be met.
Disorganized Style – People who use this coping style essentially have no coping style at all. This is primarily determined by past traumas. They struggle to tolerate emotional closeness and cannot tolerate emotional distance either.
When too close to their partner they feel intruded upon, and when too distant, they feel rejected and abandoned. They often blame others for their feelings and lack the ability to regulate their emotions. They can quickly become upset by past traumatic memories and treat the current situation as if it was in the past.
How to Be Less Emotionally Reactive
In learning how to be less emotionally reactive to your partner, it is important to retrain the brain to slow down when it starts trying to send off alarm bells.
This will allow the area of the brain that is used for empathy and problem solving to stay active longer and help you evaluate an appropriate response rather than automatically reacting.
Below are some techniques for teaching your brain to slow down and manage your emotional responses:
Yoga or Mediation – These activities are showing real promise in linking the mind with the body. This is not a quick solution, but over the long haul it can be effective in retraining your reactive alarm bells to calm down enough to keep you from sliding into a defensive stance.
Mindfulness – This involves developing the ability to slow down and notice what you are feeling. Being aware of your emotions, labeling them, and wondering without judgement where they are coming from also retrains your brain.
Empathic Listening and Validation – If you find your partner is automatically reactive to something you have said or done, try empathic listening and validation. This will ensure they are feeling heard and understood by you, assist in slowing their alarm bells, and hopefully keep them open to a more positive frame of reference.
Showing empathy doesn’t mean you have to give up your perspective. In means you are able to see the problem through your partner’s eyes, as well. Moreover, offering validation doesn’t mean you always agree. It means you are communicating to your partner that you understand their perspective.
Time Outs – Sometimes when couples reach an impasse or feelings of distress begin to escalate, it is helpful to take a time out. It generally takes about 20 minutes or so for your body to calm down from anger. The important point here is to come back together and resume talks once you have both calmed down. Never addressing or repairing the rupture only makes partners feel stuck and as though they can never resolve any issues.
The good news is that being emotionally reactive to your partner means that you are firmly attached. Learning how to manage your coping style when you feel insecure allows you to be less emotionally reactive and more safe and secure in your relationship.
- Tom Philp, LPC, CEO Stonebridge Couples Therapy