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Your Partner's Reactivity isn't About You

The definition of reactivity in the context of relationship is that it is an immediate and conditioned behavior. This means it is based on past events.  When you are reacting you are perceiving something in the present and unconsciously assigning meaning based on a past event or events.  For deeply conditioned reactive patterns you often can't remember the past experiences in which they were born.

When your partner is in the trance of reactivity, he or she is transposing the past onto you.  Certainly when she or he is using your name with various accusations, it is hard to remember that what your partner is saying is really not about you.

When you do make it about you, typically you go into a reactive trance as well and start defending and/or accusing back. 

If you take a moment now to reflect on what your partner is like when he or she is in reactivity, you probably know quite a bit.  You can likely name the tone & volume of voice, facial expressions, body language, and particular phrases that are signs of reactivity. 

The more you mindfully track these signs in your partner, the more likely you are to catch reactivity when it first arises.  The earlier reactivity is met, the easier it is to break the trance of it and get grounded.

Bringing all this to mind now, you can practice grounding yourself in a big perspective of what's actually happening in those moments.  Which is, of course, that underneath your partner's reactivity, he or she is experiencing feelings like fear, hurt, or shame and has specific needs.  I'm guessing that if you take another moment right now, you can likely name which needs are connected to which reactive patterns (There is a feelings and needs list on my website if you want one.).  They tend to be the same ones over and over again.

Be careful here.  The purpose of learning about your partner's reactivity is not so that you can try to behave in such a way that she or he never reacts.  Not only is this impossible, it also creates a relationship that's more about avoiding and suppressing than coming together and expressing aliveness.

The purpose of learning about your partner's reactivity is so that you can choose how you would like to respond rather than react.

When you can meet your partner's reactivity in this grounded way, there are many choices you can make.  Here are a few that could be helpful:

*Set a Boundary:  If your partner is name-calling or using other language that doesn't meet your need for respect, it's helpful to set a boundary immediately by saying what you want.  For example, "I need respect, please say that differently."  If your partner doesn't respond to this, then you may set a further boundary by saying you will return at some specific time and then removing yourself physically from the environment.

*Honest Expression:  You might express what's going on for you.  For example, "As I hear you right now I feel disconnected and I really want to connect.  Can we pause in silence and take a few deep breaths?"

*Empathy Guess:  You can make an attempt to hear what's going on for your partner underneath the reactivity.  For example, "I'm hearing that when I told you how drive, it really didn't work for you."  Or  "Sounds like you're angry and hurt and want things to be fair?"

*Offer Reassurance:  Because reactivity is based on a perceived threat, reassurance about what is actually true is almost always helpful.  This can be tricky, because you may try to offer reassurance by denying the accusations you are hearing.  You might hear yourself say something like, "I am not trying to control you!"  This very different from saying, "I really want you to choose what's right for you."

If you already know the need that tends to be associated with a particular reactive pattern, your reassurance can be very specific.*

CAUTIONI am not encouraging you to point out your partner's reactivity to them or coach them out of it.  When your partner is reacting and hurting, pointing out that she or he is in a reactive trance based on past wounding is very unlikely to be helpful.  Your partner is likely to react to such a comment with a sense of shame and defensiveness.  Doing this you are likely putting yourself in a position of power over.  Neither will create connection.

The important part here is that if you can recognize reactivity for what it is, you can at the very least keep yourself from expressing reactivity back and at the very best offer a healing response.  Take time now to think about a consistent reaction your partner has.  Name its signs and the feelings and needs you guess are underneath.  Decide how you will respond the next time it shows up.

* You can simplify your guess about needs by starting getting to know these universal patterns and associated needs: 

1.  Reactive Feeling & Pattern        

Overwhelm, terror, shut down, dissociation, overanalyzing

Associated Needs  safety & belonging

2.  Reactive Feeling & Pattern        

Hopelessness, sense of abandonment, disowning needs, not accepting help

Associated Needs  support

3.  Reactive Feeling & Pattern        

Shame, humiliation, helplessness, rage, puffing up & getting tough or charming, persuading, and manipulating others

Associated Needs acceptance of vulnerability

4.  Reactive Feeling & Pattern        

Anger, resentment, passive resistance, refusing to commit, becoming immovable, having a sense of being in a hopeless bind

Associated Needs autonomy

5.  Reactive Feeling & Pattern

Anxiety, hurt, perception of being ignored or rejected, working hard to win love and attention through high drama, big sparkle, or great achievements.        

Associated Needs being seen/heard, and unconditional love.

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3 Responses

  1. Oct 27, 2011

    I read these often and while they are always very good this post is very well written and useful in helping to transform our relationship to reactions. Thank you so much for your commitment to sharing your wisdom!

  2. Oct 28, 2011
    Micheline Ronningen

    I appreciate your being able to throw some clarity on reactivity responses. Does the response to interrupt the pattern differ when it's a long distance situation or a written reactivity attack? It seems communication loses so much without physical presence and cues. Does one have to ratchet up a bit or down to compensate?

  3. Oct 29, 2011

    You know in an ideal world I strongly encourage folks not to communicate emotional content through text messages or email. Too much is lost and it often creates more difficulty. If one is compelled to write a reactive email then send that email to a neutral friend first or save it in a folder. I hope this helps.

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