Reacting to Reactivity

When Brendan finished talking about a situation at work, his wife Marianne started to share a story about the neighbors. Brendan was exhausted and talked about how cozy he would feel lying down on the couch. Marianne felt dismissed and was offended that he interrupted her story. Brendan reacted to Marianne’s upset feelings by saying, “You are yelling at me!” which further provoked Marianne. Brendan said she was always complaining and the conflict escalated into name-calling.

Brendan and Marianne came to the couples session reeling from this interaction and baffled how it occurred. When we analyzed the interaction, Brendan couldn’t identify any inappropriate language that Marianne used, but was reacting to her intensity. Both partners could be emotional and intense, in addition to being passionate. Their reactivity could ignite conflict, even when the words didn’t.

Marianne shared being offended by Brendan not listening to her story. She said she wouldn’t have reacted if Brendan shared how exhausted he was and needed to rest, but instead, Brendan accused her of yelling and criticized her for complaining too much.

Since Marianne’s reactivity set off Brendan’s reaction, we talked about Marianne learning to curb her reactivity and Brendan increasing his capacity to hold emotional intensity. They decided Brendan would instead say, “What are you feeling right now?” or “What did I do to upset you?” to directly deal with Marianne’s feelings, rather than reacting with inappropriate comments. As each learned how to listen differently to the other they could support each other instead of struggling.