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Knowing Your Partner’s Buttons

pushbuttonscrpdIt’s a crucial relationship commandment: Know thy partner’s buttons.  What I mean is, learn what provokes a strong reaction in your partner (even if it makes no sense to you, especially if it makes no sense to you.)

There’s an exchange between a great therapist and his client that goes something like this:

“Doc, how come my parents can still do this to me, still push my buttons?  I’m 35 years old.”

“Because,” responds the therapist, “they’re the ones who installed the buttons.”

The reality is, no matter what we do in raising our kids, we’re going to install some buttons.  It is inevitable that there will be some unmet needs, or wrongs they’ve experienced.  Those become buttons that can be pushed in later relationships.

It’s not so dire, really.  If we think of it as unavoidable (we’re all going to wind up with raw spots and sensitivities), then we can do something about it.

We can figure out what it is that  tends to prompt a strong emotional reaction, and we can communicate that to our loved ones.  It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll be able to change that in our lifetimes.  Those buttons, in my view, are permanent.

But that awareness has an important impact on our relationships.  In an unhealthy relationship, people might learn each other’s buttons (or intuit them), and then race right for them.  They’ll think, “This is the quickest way to get his attention!”  And what that’s about, really, is that person’s unmet needs, his or her own buttons.

In a health relationship, the information can be used supportively.  As in, “I know that for you lateness is a really emotional issue.  It’s not for me, but I respect that we’re different.  So I can try harder not to be late.”

I wrote in an earlier post that feelings are information, and we ignore that information at our own peril.   When it comes to relationships, we ignore the information about our partner’s emotions at our own peril.

There’s something very bonding about identifying and sharing our buttons with people we love and trust.  It’s a very intimate experience.  When we then see our partner trying to avoid hurting us in ways we’ve been hurt before–even if the effort is unsuccessful–that’s bonding, too.

It’s an exercise I’d recommend for couples: Sit down and think of times you’ve had a  strong reaction to something your partner did.  (It might be something that your partner considered unusually strong, like, “I never saw that reaction coming!”) Then think back over why that might be, based on your earlier history.  And then each partner can share that with the other.  Hopefully, it’s information you can use.

Pushing buttons photo available from Shutterstock

Knowing Your Partner’s Buttons

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2013). Knowing Your Partner’s Buttons. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 5, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Mar 2013
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