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The Basics of Working with Reactivity

The thing I value most about intimate partnership is the opportunity it provides for healing and transformation.  Most reactivity comes from a wound around belonging, intimacy, autonomy, and/or security.  An intimate partnership inevitably touches these wounds and reactivity is the symptom.  Two partners who are dedicated to transformation and have adequate resources can support each other in dissolving these reactive patterns.

Imagine your partner gets home later than anticipated and it triggers past pain for you.  You feel your heart race and anger rise.  You want to lash out with an accusation.  "Where were you?!"  "Who were you with?!"  All your experiences of hurt and betrayal rush to the forefront with fear and anger in the lead.  It feels like a tidal wave and it's hard to stop. 

Here's the first thing to know.  Don't try to stop the tidal wave.  This only makes things worse.  Much better to grab your surf board and ride it.  You do that by knowing its effects, naming it, and getting help.

Know the effects of acting from reactivity by taking time to reflect in an intentional way. This means noticing how you feel after expressing reactivity, how it affects your body, energy level, and mind state for the minutes, hours, and days to follow.  Track your partner and your relationship in the same way.  How long does it take for the two of you to feel close again?  What are the effects on your partner?  Ask him or her about physical, mental, and emotional effects s/he experiences.  Noticing all of this helps you to appreciate the costs of expressing reactivity as well as knowing it more intimately.

Being able to name your reactivity both in the moment and when you are not reactive is also important. Naming reactivity might sound like this, "I am so triggered right now!  My mistrust stuff is up.  Can you sit with me while I take a few breaths?"

Naming your reactions to yourself and your partner when you are not in it is also helpful.  Articulating the thoughts, sensations, feelings, and impulses that are a part of that state and how you are working with them makes it easier for you and your partner to stay in a grounded, compassionate, and supportive place around it. 

As you work with your reactivity in this way, you learn what helps you to detach from it and locate in your center.  Knowing this you can ask your partner to do or say particular things that might help.  Here are some examples of what I have heard people request their partner do or say when they are reactive:

-Physical touch:  hold my hand, stroke my hair, hug me

-Affirmations:  Say things like - It's okay to react.  I am here and I want to connect.  I'm with you.  I love you and I am not leaving.  You're important to me.  I'm not mad at you.  I want you to be yourself.  

-Empathy:  Guess feelings and needs - Yea, you're feeling really angry.  This hit you hard.  You want trust (or whatever need is alive).  Feeling panicky (or whatever feeling is present)?

-Code words or signs:  I have also heard couples come up with code words or signs that identify the reactive state and remind them of their intention to connect.  For example, putting a hand on your heart, saying "let's breath", howling like a jackal, using a prop like a funny hat, etc.

What is almost never helpful in de-escalating reactivity is:

-Immediately explaining your side of things

-Rationalizing:  Trying to explain how there is no reason to react. Or, conversely, if you are the one reacting, trying to explain how you have every reason to react.

-Minimizing:  saying it wasn't a big deal and how others wouldn't react that way.

-Shaming:  saying things to yourself or your partner like, "You're being oversentive."  "Don't be such a child."  "Toughen up you're an adult now."  "You are being ridiculous."

This week, practice with little reactions like impatience in traffic or irritation at a long line.  Use the steps listed above (knowing the effects of reactivity, naming it, and asking for help) to reflect on your reactivity. Remember, practicing with reactivity doesn't mean you are trying to shut yourself down and will yourself not to react.  It's about being in conscious relationship with it so you are surfing the wave rather than drowning in it.

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5 Responses

  1. Oct 13, 2011
    Ed Braun

    This is great stuff. I just love the simple, yet profound, language.

    As I was reading, I remembered a quote about the importance of awareness I read in an old children's book I read a long time ago: "You can't change what you don't realize. And what you don't realize tends to run the show."

    I have a need for a clarification about the role of free will in this. It makes sense that I can't "will myself not to react." (After all, reactions are not intentions.) However, it does seem to me that my awareness of, and response to, reactivity (as well as the realization that I do have a choice) are all matters of the will. At some point, I must willfully choose to get on the surfboard. Is this correct?

  2. Oct 14, 2011

    Yea, will is a difficult word because it has so much religious connotation. But yes, there is some "you" in there that, when aware, has the opportunity to make a choice, even if that choice is just to notice what's happening.

    And of course that choice takes less and less "will power" when the detrimental effects of acting out of reactivity become more and more clear.

  3. Oct 15, 2011

    This is a powerful post - I like the concrete ideas that would help me move into my reactivity - on a journey to transformation and healing. I needed to reread the sentence in the first paragraph - with partners dedicated to transformation that have adequate resources... I am wondering how to get to this first step ---

  4. Oct 17, 2011

    I find that the toughest part of managing reactivity with couples is that one person has difficulty accepting or allowing reactivity. It's a lot of work to tolerate the anxiety that often happens when your partner gets triggered!

  5. Oct 18, 2011

    Yea, adequate resources... that's a complicated thing, I guess simply it's about having basic needs for health, security, and self-connection/love met consistently so that there is enough emotional and psychological room for healing work.

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