We all know how miserable arguments can be. Do you know what to do when you and your partner hit a rough patch? Being overly reactive at such a time can complicate an already difficult situation.
James Maxwell, a therapist specializing in individual and relationship counseling, sheds light on how to recognize and better manage our emotional responses when an argument is brewing.
Reactivity Is The Challenge"You are your own worst enemy" so the saying goes and that certainly is true when it comes to becoming reactive in a conversation with your partner. In my work in marital counseling, I have studied and read about many approaches to couples' communication but none of them really address the main problem of recognizing and managing reactivity. Without this resource, no matter what technique you are trying to use or what amount of goodwill you bring to the effort, conversations will most often result in unproductive arguments. Couples become frustrated when arguments become gridlocked and their emotions often run to despair and hopelessness.
Reactivity is the psyche's reaction to a perceived or real threat and the body responds with fight or flight. This can be confusing because most often there is not an actual physical threat but rather the perceived threat of loss of connection or abandonment. Expressions of reactivity do not always have to be emotional outbursts or anger but can also be feelings of self-righteousness, unfairness, or unexpressed judgments of your partner.
Why Do We Become ReactiveWe can become reactive for many reasons -- our feelings get hurt, we feel we have been treated unfairly, we misunderstand, we make false assumptions. Once we have become reactive it is as if we have become hijacked, and we are no longer as resourceful as we are when cool, calm, and collected. Often reactivity may be stimulated by the words or events in a conversation, but the true source of reactivity is an historical event, an old trauma or memory, that has been restimulated. Most couples who have been together for some time can readily tell you how their partners' actions or traits remind them of one their parents. These unresolved issues with our parents from childhood and adolescence are restimulated, and we sometimes make assumptions about our partner's behavior that is based on old relationship wounds.
How To Recognize and Manage Reactivity
Dr. John Gottman, in his research on couples, showed that couples can become reactive -- that is, show physiological signs of reactivity -- ten minutes before they are consciously aware of their anger. Couples also are sometimes unaware of the historical hurts that are their trigger points. Your first inclination might be to talk it out or assert your side of the argument. However, Dr. Gottman's research indicates that some time of reflection usually works best. Also, research shows that a "harsh startup" (beginning a discussion abruptly with the main complaint) leads to conflict. If you are feeling reactive, there is a good probability that you will not use your communications skills to avoid conflict.
Two approaches that I use, EMDR and Eidetic Image Psychology , help clients recognize the trigger points of their reactivity and deal successfully with unresolved relationship issues from their families of origin. Following EMDR sessions, clients are better able to deal effectively and efficiently with stuck places in their attempts to resolve issues. Using Eidetic Image Psychology, I have helped them elucidate and resolve unfinished relationship issues. Combining these two approaches allows clients to better manage their reactive moments so they can utilize their best relational and communication skills.
James Maxwell is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Certified Imago Therapist. He has been in private practice serving the Austin community for over 15 years. He has additional training in couples group counseling as well as divorce mediation where he works to provide divorcing couples a reasonable alternative to divorce litigation. His website is www.hrel.net and he can be reached at 512-454-1850.
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