Pushing Buttons and Flipping Triggers

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.