Recent research on the brain reminds us that all communications, regardless how they are delivered, are attempts to emotionally connect. As it turns out, we are wired for love and empathic connection.
What does it mean when you or your partner react defensively? For one, it means your brains are working the way they’re designed to work.
In Hold Me Tight, research expert on intimacy, Dr. Susan Johnson, states it makes sense scientifically that couples fight over silly things. Beneath the content of what partners say to one another in fights, each wants to be assured of their value in relation to the other.
Partners are asking three core questions that connect to both our deepest yearnings and our deepest fears as human beings:
Are you accessible when I try to reach out to you?
Will you be responsive to my needs?
Are you engaged in this relationship?
In other words, beneath the content of words spoken in fights, partners are looking for answers to questions of: Are you there for me? Are you emotionally present? Do you see, value and love me?
What does reactivity mean?
1. Reactivity is an automatic response controlled by the subconscious mind — the “non-thinking” part of the brain that controls all of the autonomic functions of the brain and body.
It means some event or action has shaken our sense of self-worth or value in relation to our partner. And, in response, our body’s automatic protective system activated our, very own, customized neural pattern to give us a quick-fix way of lowering the anxious feelings.
In short, it means we do not know how to create our own inner sense of safety in situations that most challenge us, so that we can better deal with a “perceived” threat to our connection to the other.
Do you ever wonder why you say things you wouldn’t normally say when you get triggered or respond reactively to your partner or certain situations? It’s because the part of your mind we call the subconscious, or unconscious, automatically triggers a “fight or flight” reaction in response to something you, consciously or subconsciously, perceive as a threat.
- When this happens, your thinking ability is automatically turned off, thus, your intelligence quotient drops several levels. Literally, you are “out” of your mind — your thinking mind — and, if your partner gets triggered, so are they.
- When this system is alerted, it hijacks your ability to think, since the entire mind-body is preparing to protect itself from a perceived threat — or “enemy” attack.
- Situations such as these can harm your couple relationship, placing you in roles of combatants on opposing sides.
- The person you fear the most, in these moments, is often your life partner.
After all, who has the ability to hurt you the most? And, when both you and your partner get triggered and defensive at the same time, no one is around to steer your ship to safe waters. Now, both of you talk to each other without your thinking brains engaged. Since neither one of you is listening or has the capacity to really “hear” or “learn” from your exchange, your chances of getting stuck in stormy seas and rocky coastlines are high.
2. Reactivity also means that unless you acquire the ability to regulate inner reactivity during challenging interactions with your partner (or disappointments in general), your life and relationships will overall remain controlled by this non-thinking part of your brain, ever on the alert to trigger “fight or flight” reactivity — and come to your “rescue” — or so it thinks.
Your subconscious mind, having no ability to do its own thinking, does not realize that its rescue efforts are serious interference! Yet defensiveness greatly interferes with rapport and connection. Even a well meaning defensive response can quickly escalate into an intense battle in which the only shared experience is a competitive compulsion to prove one another wrong, or prove self right ( … about how unreasonable, hurtful or impossible the other is!).
In other words, in protective mode you are each inclined to say and do things that — guess what — merely create more distance.
- When you do not feel safe in relation to the other, automatically your body’s primary goal is to restore your sense of safety and security.
- Your subconscious mind is hardwired to give primacy to your drive to survive — and pushes aside your higher purpose drives to love and be loved.
- When your subconscious mind senses danger, distance is a solution that spells safety.
- Yet distance poses a threat of a different kind, as it blocks you from meeting your higher strivings for love and connection.
As a result, the brain remains on guard against possible “threats” to your emotional well being — and the cycle repeats itself.
3. Reactivity indicates a blame pattern of thinking. A mindset of blame renders us feeling “powerless” as it causes us to “think” that we cannot be happy, or feel loved, valued, or deserving, etc., unless so and so, or such and such, does x, y or z.
What can make your brain perceive a loved one as a threat to your survival? What can shift the brain from its natural “learning mode” to a “protective mode” automatically? What can keep the brain stuck in this “protective” state of mind, where a lot of energy is wasted on ensuring survival?
In one word, fear. More specifically, a belief system of blame that underlies a lot of the reactivity in intimate relationships.
This is the most limiting of all mindsets as it produces thinking patterns that literally predispose the brain to go into endless cycles of fight or flight — and when the intensity is too great, paralyzing freeze.
Thinking patterns of blame can cause needless inner suffering because:
- They spawn fear-based illusions that lead us to believe our emotional needs for safety and connection rest firmly in the hands of other people or certain events.
- This in turn leads us to put most of our efforts into thoughts, plans, actions geared on how we can change (control) the thoughts, feelings, actions of others.
Naturally, as it is impossible to control others (even children), these thought patterns produce feelings of powerlessness accompanied by a host of other emotions related to unfulfilled expectations, among others, helplessness, inadequacy, depression, rage, retribution, perhaps even hatred and bitterness. It makes sense that blame would produce such intense feelings of powerlessness inside. When we blame others or events, we literally give our power to make choices away, and along with it our responsibility to take decisive action as agents of our lives.
In order to develop our capacity for emotional mastery, we must necessarily let go of and replace any mindset, of which blame is foundational, that blocks us from connection and causes reactivity.
4. Defensive behaviors can be a sign that you and your partner need more effective skills of engaging and attuning to one another. Most partners do.
As Dr. Johnson explains, you need the courage to remain emotionally present and engaged to feel accessible to loved ones, and this is especially important in moments when one or both of you feel vulnerable. You also need a certain mindset, one that relationship-focused.
To your brain, like it or not (and most of us do not), your relationships with your self and life and others around you are your world.
- They are your school.
- They are your life work.
- They are your joy, and the possibility for “finding” happiness, meaning and fulfillment in life.
Essentially, life is all about relationships from cradle to grave, as founder of attachment theory John Bowlby would say. You are hardwired with driving impulses to both survive and thrive, and in relational contexts both of these depend on your ability to safely navigate the stormy seas of emotional vulnerability — an inherent aspect of intimacy in relationships.
Why safety first? When you create safety for your partner in conversational contexts, you increase the likelihood that both of you can engage authentically in a way that you remain empathically connected to your compassion. In the words of one of the most inspiring poets of our time:
“There’s no conversation without vulnerability.” ~ DAVID WHYTE
In other words, rather than your subconscious mind, you need to be in charge of handling any of your deepest fears.
To do so, you need to know how to stay in the present moment to feel any survival fears that surface along the way, such as fear of being judged, dismissed, rejected, and simultaneously, not let fear activate your body’s survival response.
5. In situations where defensiveness is regularly triggered, the ensuing power struggle indicates partner’s childhood protective patterns are being triggered.
Neuroscience tells us that these protective patterns were formed in the first years of life, birth to five years. You bring to your relationship what you learned from some of your earliest experiences in childhood.
Even though you may have read several books or taken a couple of couples workshops or leadership trainings at work on effective communications, your brain is designed to respond in certain ways.
These neural patterns are held in place by intense pockets of fear imprinted in cellular memory. Contextually, your subconscious mind goes by what core beliefs you hold surrounding your self-concept, and other core beliefs, such as what it means to be a man, a woman, what conflict means, what love means one “should” do or not do, and so on.
- This distinctive way of defending yourself in certain contexts, or with certain people, speaks to a learned pattern of behaviors you developed in childhood that helped you, at the time, cope with the stress of getting your needs met for love, recognition and acceptance.
- These defenses at the time were not only useful to you, in many cases, they literally helped you survive these formative years, a time when, emotionally, you were most vulnerable.
- These strategies, however, are of little use to you now. In fact, this set of behaviors is what now blocks you from staying engaged to your partner in moments when you most need to build a strong intimate connection, a resiliency to fears.
From how were parented, for example, early experiences may have taught us to instill others with fear, shame or guilt whenever we want to express our disappointment or to get others to cooperate or love us in the way we want to be loved. Since judgments are so prevalent in our culture, most of us are sensitive to criticism, however, and have learned to defend ourselves or avoid confrontation because, deep down inside, we’ve also learned to associate this with beliefs that we are “undeserving” or that something is “wrong” with us.
There is good news.
The bottom line is: our experiences in key relationships wire our brains. The good news is that this wiring is not hardwired, thus can be rewired. As a result of the brain’s built-in plasticity, if we choose to do so, we can literally rewire our brains throughout life.
There’s good news for partners too. The couple relationship seems ideally suited to be a top-notch school in which now, as an adult, you can complete the unfinished business of childhood.
The key to replacing defensive behaviors with relationship enriching ones is to consciously seek to connect to what you share in common — such as your yearnings for safety, love and connection — in ways that keep survival fears at bay.
It’s paradoxical, yet true. You can only truly understand what makes you strong and grounded in your experience of authentic love to the extent that you are willing to go deeper, and deeper, into your own fears and vulnerability.
It is in the stormy seas of your key relationships that you grow and strengthen the muscles of courage around your heart, and where you learn that you can love and give to self and others, shine and create, and so on — just because it is in your highest interest to do so — based upon your biological, mental and emotional (spiritual?) design!
It’s an inside job.
Relationships are like a baby mobile. If you tug on one side, everything changes.
It is amazing how much power you have to create miracles just by making small changes inside you. Small inner changes produce huge differences in the felt ways you respond or engage with your self or your partner.
As you nurture your relationship through conscious actions and presence of mind, it frees your partner to do the same. Though change can seem uncomfortable at first, or even overwhelming at times, once you experience the benefits and rewards of creating safety, you will likely find it empowering and rewarding, as many partners do.
Since neither of you is likely feel safe in your relationship as long as either of you resort to defensive behaviors as ways of restoring your sense of safety, what do you have to lose by taking a chance, stretching yourself to do what feels uncomfortable?
It’s safe to say, no pun intended, that the formula for making your relationship a safe haven to grow your love, passion and friendship is:
An openness to vulnerability together with a determination to remain empathically connected equals a strong, healthy, mutually enriching intimacy in relationships.
Letting go of the training wheels of childhood is not easy. Yet a relationship in which you are engaged, accessible and responsive to one another is well worth the time and effort!