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What Does Reactivity Say? Finding Balance in Your Couple Relationship (Beneath the Surface)?

images-663Recent findings on the brain and intimacy remind us that all communications, regardless their delivery, are attempts to emotionally connect. We are wired for love and empathic connection.

With this in mind, let’s explore what defensive patterns in your couple relationship are saying to you and your partner. To be sure, your brains and emotions, thoughts and feelings, are doing what they’re designed to do whenever you or your partner perceive a threat, in this case, a threat to meeting a core attachment or intimacy (love) need.

What does reactivity say about what’s going on beneath the surface of your couple relationship?

1. Reactivity is an automatic response controlled by the subconscious mind — a part of the brain that controls all of the autonomic functions of the brain and body that does no real or “original” thinking.

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.

It means some event or action has shaken your sense of self-worth or value in relation to your partner. And, in response, your body’s automatic protective system activated your very own, customized emotion-command neural pattern to give you a quick-fix way of lowering the anxious feelings and restoring balance.

It may be that, for whatever reason, your experiences have not  how to create our own inner sense of safety in situations that most challenge you, so that you can better deal with a “perceived” threat to your connection to the other.

  • 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 more power to hurt you than the person you most love? 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, chances are you may get stuck in stormy seas and rocky coastlines.

2. Defensiveness means that your personal lives and relationship are overall under the direction of emotions of fear which turns on the not-real-thinking part of your brain. 

Defensiveness greatly interferes with feelings that at the top of your list as partners, such as rapport and connection. Your subconscious mind, having no ability to do its own thinking, does not realize that its rescue efforts pose serious interference in this!

Even a well meaning defensive response can quickly escalate into an intense battle in which the only “shared” experience is a compulsion to compete over who’s heard or who’s right or wrong, and so on. And as you know, in protective mode, you are each inclined to say and do things that — guess what — merely create more distance.

At any moment, 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 core emotion-drives to love and be loved, to meaningfully connect, etc.
  • When your subconscious mind senses danger signals (from what you’re telling yourself), distance is a solution that spells safety, and therefore makes sense, right?
  • 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, your mind and body remain on guard against possible “threats” to your emotional well being — and the cycle repeats itself. Unless you acquire the ability to regulate this inner reactivity in facing challenges or triggers (or disappointments in general), your life and relationship will remain under the control of a part of your mind and body that does “no real thinking” (and shuts off the part of your brain that does!), ever on the alert to trigger “fight or flight” reactivity — and come to your “rescue” — or so it thinks.

3. Defensiveness indicates you’re using blame-patterns of thinking that neutralize your brain’s amazing abilities for possibility thinking.

What can make your brain perceive a loved one as a threat to your survival? What can shift your otherwise amazing brain — mind and body — 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. Blame patterns are predictable. You can rely on them to make you feel increasingly powerless, less and less hopeful, and more and more loss of belief in yourself, the other and your relationship. If that sounds like something you “want,” then keep blaming. A mindset of blame renders you feeling “powerless” causing you to “think” that your happiness and needs to feel loving and loved are dependent on someone or something outside of you. Blame patterns block your brain’s ability for possibility thinking! If you really, really want to be happy, avoid them like a plague.

Blame 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.

So if you tell yourself, for example, that you cannot be happy, or feel loved, valued, or deserving, etc., unless so and so does x, y or z, or such and such happens, it is this pattern of thinking that is your worst or only enemy!

4. Defensiveness is a sign that you and your partner need to improve your skills of feeling uncomfortable emotions in ways that allow you to stay engaged and attuned 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 is relationship-focused.

To your brain, like it or not, 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 sources of learning how to create … joy, 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, you need to be in charge of handling any of your deepest fears and stop allowing your subconscious mind to default to old protective strategies.

You can handle others saying “No” to you, or saying “No” to others, depending on what most challenges you! You can handle that you’re never going to be perfect, and never going to be perfectly loved or appreciated! You can handle tough situations. You can handle them, you see, you just need to know and remind yourself that you are not your fears or thoughts, you are the creator and choice maker.You just need to know that you’re really in charge of how you feel much more than you can ever imagine, that you can develop better-feeling thoughts, beliefs, sensations, etc., that in effect allow you to stay in the present moment to feel any survival fears that surface along the way, such as fear of being vulnerable, judged, dismissed, rejected, and simultaneously, not to let fear activate your body’s survival response.

5. Defensiveness is power struggle that is triggered by early childhood wounds and protective patterns.

Attachment research 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 emotion-command 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.

  • The distinctive way you defend 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 the early formative years, a time when, emotionally, you were most vulnerable.
  • These strategies, however, are of little or no 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 you were parented, and especially how you respond to this parenting, early experiences may have taught you, for example, that you have to appease others and not anger or displease them — or perhaps shout and cry and instill them with fear, shame or guilt — in order to get their love, acceptance, cooperation and so on.

Since judgments are so prevalent in our culture, you have likely learned to defend yourself to the point of pushing others away — or to avoid confrontation to the point of hurting your relationship by staying disengaged. Whether your pattern is to compulsively let others know they disappointed you, or compulsiveness stew on disappointments within, deep down inside, both patterns lead to fear-activating conclusions, such as that you’re never  are “undeserving” or that something is “wrong” with us.

There is good news.

The bottom line is: your experiences in key relationships wire your brain with certain automatic response patterns. The good news is that this wiring can be rewired. As a result of the brain’s built-in plasticity, if you choose to do so, you can literally rewire your patterns 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.

In Hold Me Tight, research expert on intimacy, Dr. Susan Johnson, notes that it makes sense — scientifically — that couples fight over silly things. Beneath the content of what partners say to one another in emotional discussion, each wants to be assured of their value in relation to the other.

If you could hear what they are really saying from their inner core emotion-drives, partners are continually asking three core questions, revealing that our deepest yearnings as human beings are intricately connected to our deepest fears:

Are you accessible when I try to reach out to you?

Will you be responsive to my needs?

Are you engaged in this relationship?

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.

Beneath the content of the words you speak and exchange in reactive discussions, each of you are looking for answers to questions regarding the quality of your relationship or intimacy bond, such as:

  • When I reach for you, are you there for me?
  • Do you see, understand and still want to be with me?
  • Do you value who I am and the love I bring, as a unique and separate being?

It is in stormy seas that you and your partner have priceless opportunities to grow and strengthen the muscles of courage around your hearts, 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.

So give your self and one another a lot of compassion. A relationship in which you are engaged, accessible and responsive to one another is well worth the time and effort!

What Does Reactivity Say? Finding Balance in Your Couple Relationship (Beneath the Surface)?

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik motivates clients to break free of anxiety, emotion reactivity, and other addictive patterns, to awaken wholehearted relating to self and other. She is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

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APA Reference
Staik, A. (2014). What Does Reactivity Say? Finding Balance in Your Couple Relationship (Beneath the Surface)?. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 3, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Jun 2014
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