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Go Away but Don’t Leave Me

What causes people to act in emotionally reactive ways?

RANDI GUNTHER Clinical Psychologist & Marriage Counselor

There are people who are able to stay calm under stress. When their partners react to them with anger and blame, they are less likely to take those attacks personally and more able to successfully resolve the situation.

But the capability to stay centered and non-reactive when emotionally distressed is not easy for everyone. If a person is emotionally fragile, he or she may have more difficulty holding on to mental balance when triggered.

Everyone can have occasional, irrational outbursts if facing multiple stressors or overwhelming life events. Most relationship partners are able to reconcile those events once the negative interactions cease. But if one or both partners exhibit repeated, prolonged, and intense reactivity, the relationship may eventually crumble under that weight.

Emotionally reactive people rarely intend the harm and confusion they cause. When their discomfort ceases, they are often remorseful and sincere in their desires to make things better. Their partners are usually very forgiving in the early stages of the relationship, but wear down over time. They tell me that they feel, during an episode, simultaneously pulled in and pushed away. When they try to help, they are rejected. If they disconnect, they are accused of abandonment, unable to stop the emotional cascade, no matter what they do.

It is far too easy to lay all of the blame for these sad encounters on the emotional reactors. But when they repeat over and over again, it is important to remember that there are two people involved, and both must be ready to recognize and understand the part they each play in order to stop the downward spiral.

What Causes People to Act in Emotionally Reactive Ways?

Some emotionally reactive behavior is caused by a lifelong personality disorder. People who suffer such a malady are at the mercy of their responses to the fear of rejection or abandonment. They may need special treatment outside of their relationships.

However, when we investigate beyond that diagnosis, we often find many other crucial factors that drive people to react in exaggerated ways when they are under stress.

Are You an Emotional Reactor?

If you are the person who loves your partner deeply but pushes him or her away when you are fighting, err in the direction of self-compassion rather than seeing yourself as a terrible person. Unless you are in the small percentage of emotional reactors who want to hurt others, you are suffering both your own distress and the pain you are causing to your partner.

You can learn to anticipate and change your emotional reactivity when you understand and heal what may be driving it. You can hold onto your ability to feel deeply without pushing your partner away when you most need to be close.

Most emotionally reactive people are driven by one or more of the following internal thoughts and feelings. As you go through them, you may be more able to get in touch with what you are feeling when your emotional reactions get the best of you.

1. Insecurity and Self-Doubt

  • “I know you’re going to leave me someday. Everyone does. Maybe I’m just pushing you away because, at least, I’ll be in control of when it happens.”

  • “What if I’m just not lovable?”

  • “You’ll never be able to love me enough.”

  • “When I’m angry at you, I don’t care, and I don’t feel so worthless.”

  • “You probably don’t think I’m worth it.”

2. Injustice

  • “It’s not fair that you get what you want out of our relationship and I never do.”

  • “You’re like everyone who just wants to use me.”

  • “How come you get to be mad or mean or push me away, but, if I do, you’ll dump me.”

  • “No matter how much I try, you’re never going to be fair.”

  • “Just because I lose it once in a while, you should love me for the good parts and let the rest just go.”

3. Justification

  • “I do everything I can to make things work and finally I just can’t hold it in anymore.”

  • “It’s my chance to get back at you for everything you’ve done to hurt me.”

  • “If you cared for me the way I deserve, I’d never be this mad at you.”

  • “What do you expect me to do, never complain or blame you for anything?

  • “You’re the one who gets me to do this. It’s not my fault. You push me until I have to get back at you.”

4. Internal Anguish

  • “I hurt so much inside, all the time. I try to open up, but I know I’ll be hurt again.”

  • “I can’t seem to let go of the past. I just know nothing is ever going to work out.”

  • “I know I’m self-sabotaging, but I can’t help it.”

  • “I just want to be loved. Is that too much to ask?”

  • “No one understands how afraid I am. I’ve been so hurt, so many times. No one will ever understand.”

5. Self-Righteousness

  • “If someone hurts me, I double-down. That’s the only way I can be.”

  • “I’m just a person who is passionate about everything. If you want the good side of that, then get ready for the hard parts. They go together.”

  • “If you don’t like what comes out of me when I’m mad, then you need to work on your reaction. I’m worth every bit of it.”

  • “I’m an easy person to get along with if you’d just learn how to handle me.”

  • “When I’m losing it, I’m losing it, period. Just get it that it’s legitimate.”

6. Self-fulfilling prophecies

  • “I know it’s only a matter of time that my temper will push you away. Might as well get it over with.”

  • “You only remember the times I can’t control my anger. So, just say it. I’m not worth it. It’s always going to be that way.”

  • “People like me always lose out. It will never matter how much I bring to the table because it will never be enough.”

  • “Relationships just cost more than I can afford. I’ll never fit or do it right.”

  • “Pain and love always go together for me. It’s only a matter of time when the bad stuff wins.”

The Partners of Emotionally Reactive People

It is crucial that the partners of emotionally reactive people identify and understand what part they may play in these destructive interactions. A relationship cannot heal without both partners changing their own behaviors.

Those whom I’ve worked with fall along a wide spectrum. Some still love their partners deeply and don’t want to leave them. Some may be consciously or unconsciously pushing the triggers, perhaps to avoid their own issues. Others feel responsible, as if they are the ones causing the outbursts, and come to deeply doubt themselves. Some have their own childhood traumas that leave them believing that love and pain go together, and find them both again in these painful dramas.

If you are in love with an emotional reactor, and want to heal your relationship, please understand that it is easier for you to be yourself than it would be to be your partner. That will help you maintain compassion as you do your part to change your side of the interaction.

Here are some guidelines for both of you to follow. They are over-simplifications but may help you get started in a new direction:

  1. Learn what triggers your emotionally-reactive partner so that you can learn different ways to approach situations.

  2. Make a plan together as to what your partner needs you to do at those times that might help calm the situation down.

  3. Do not try to suppress or calm a person in the middle of an emotional reaction. Instead, try to listen without taking his or her behavior personally or becoming defensive.

  4. Gently remind them of the plans you’ve made together early in the interaction.

  5. When things calm down, debrief together as to how both of you could have handled it differently and will in the future.

Occasional dramatic interactions that are painful to one or both partners can be offset by healing and positive moments in between. But if they are continuous and prolonged, they will undermine and potentially destroy any relationship.

Both partners caught up in these exchanges must look at themselves and whether or not they have been in these kinds of relationships before, or if this is the first time they have experienced these anguishing interactions in a relationship. They must be accountable for whatever part they play in them, and do whatever they can to stop their ends of the repeated heartbreaks.

Also, there are times when both partners can be equally emotionally reactive. Though not as common, those relationships are intensely volatile, can do much harm to both partners, and typically end with emotional or physical damage.

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