Setting Boundaries around Reactivity
Reactivity is perpetuated when you lack clarity about what will be helpful with it. Instead of setting a boundary with reactivity, you might unknowingly encourage it.
A student recently talked about how when his girlfriend reacted and spoke to him in ways that didn't meet his need for respect, he would walk out and then call later to try to patch things up. Rather than expressing how her behavior didn't meet needs for him, he attempted to sooth and reassure her and reconnect the two of them.
He didn't wait for her to claim responsibility for her reactivity nor did he ask her to do so. In this way the two of them began to set a norm in their relationship in which not only is reactivity okay, but it also leads to extra warmth and reassurance. Under the surface this creates piled up resentment and hurt.
Setting a boundary around reactivity means knowing what really helps with handling difficulty and asking for that. In the example above, he might set a boundary by saying, "I want to hear how my behavior has affected you and get connected about it without hearing your opinions of me. Please call me when you are willing to do that."
When they talk later and she is able to express her experience without including opinions of him, he might further set a boundary, by letting her know that this approach to communicating works for him and asking that when reactivity is present that they take a time out until they both can communicate an internal experience rather judgments of each other.
Reactive patterns persist when you practice them. Some part of you believes that expressing yourself in this way will be effective in meeting your needs. Of course, your reactive behavior has been partially effective at one time or another or you wouldn't do it. It is your equal or greater awareness of the cost of your behavior that helps you interrupt reactive patterns and move toward what you want.
In the example above, each person in the couple will likely fall into a reactive pattern again before they are able to access a different way of relating. The important difference is that each time one of them is able to interrupt the argument earlier and disengage. Then, when they talk later, it will be essential in building a new norm in their relationship that they revisit the fact that the boundary was crossed, acknowledge the cost of that, how it happened, and what they need to do differently to support the new way of interacting in the midst of difficulty.
Take a moment now to reflect on a reactive pattern you have. Write down what it costs you and what needs you are hoping to meet with that behavior. Give yourself one simple replacement behavior that you can clearly connect to meeting a need. Practice this behavior before the reactive behavior comes up again.