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Intimacy and Reactivity

A comparison with physical phenomena will help explain what I mean by emotional reactivity. Some chemicals are highly reactive with one another, while others are only moderately reactive, and still others totally non-reactive. For example, some metals such as gold are completely non-reactive to air or water. Iron is somewhat reactive to oxygen, and it will begin to rust when left exposed to air or water.

By way of contrast, pure sodium is extremely reactive to water. When a small piece of sodium is placed in a beaker of water, it reacts with the water in a very intense and demonstrative manner.

Extreme emotional reactivity can also be illustrated by reference to the wiring in an electrical circuit. In order for an electrical appliance to work properly, all of the wires that connect it to the source of electricity must be adequately insulated from each other. If one or more wires has frayed insulation, a short circuit occurs, heat is generated, and the appliance stops working properly.

In a similar manner emotional reactivity is the tendency of a person to respond emotionally at a deep, often unconscious level, to the words or behavior of another person. Couple reactivity is the tendency of two people to feel hurt when their expected needs have not been met and to respond defensively to perceived slights or offenses of their partner.

A couple without adequate insulation on their emotional circuits will short circuit their communications, become reactive, and generate tremendously negative feelings. When the reactivity level is high, the relationship is characterized by feelings of deep hurt and anger that lead either to a cycle of unproductive arguments or cold withdrawal from each other.

These intense reactions to relatively minor misunderstandings do not make much sense to a disinterested observer. It is not as if someone’s life is at stake. Why so serious? The individuals themselves are often surprised by their reactions. The real reason for these intense reactions, which are out of proportion to the objective issue, can only be understood if the individuals involved can be helped to uncover their unconscious motivations.

Everyone has some degree of emotional reactivity. No one, except Jesus Christ, is so perfectly centered and self secure that he or she cannot be upset by another person’s behavior. However, some persons are so insecure and reactive that they find it extremely difficult to maintain any kind of positive intimate relationship.

There are various explanations why some persons are so reactive. Murray Bowen, a family therapist, believed that personal insecurity and emotional reactivity is correlated with one’s experience in his or her family of origin. If a child does not experience a secure attachment with parents who also respect the child’s unique personality and personal boundaries, as an adult he or she will be less likely to develop mature, non-reactive relationships.

Irrational emotional reactions often have a basis in a history of an emotional wound. For example, if a person is neglected or abused by a parent, he will develop a protective reaction as an adult to any perception of neglect or abuse that resembles his early wound.

There are four principles of interpersonal relationships, which must be understood and implemented in order for a couple to develop good intimacy and to avoid the conflict of intense emotional reactivity. If I want a better marriage I (me, myself—not just my spouse) must learn and apply these lessons to my intimate relationship:

(1) No human being can wholly understand me, respond to me with perfect sensitivity, or always meet my emotional needs.

(2) I am responsible for my own happiness.

(3) I accept and embrace the inevitable disappointments of an intimate relationship.

(4) I develop the skill of self soothing and the ability to own and express my emotional pain without either attacking or withdrawing from my intimate partner. I learn to be open and vulnerable without defensiveness and destructive reactivity.

Although communication and conflict resolution skills, which are taught in various workshops, do-it-yourself manuals and marriage enrichment programs, may be of some help in developing an intimate relationship, this type of skill training will not be of much help if the partners do not learn to be aware of the unconscious roots of historical wounds that lead to unrealistic and destructive reactions to perceived hurts and slights in the relationship.

Most couples with destructive emotional reactivity describe their problem as difficulty with their communication. However, my experience has led me to believe that something more than communication skills are required for a happy marital adjustment. Good marital therapy must first help a couple take responsibility for their reactivity and to be accountable for it. Then and only then is it helpful to focus upon the unconscious roots of their communication problems so that they can achieve a more healthy, non-reactive response to each other.

Positive change in a marriage occurs when the individuals learn to understand themselves at all levels including why they feel a need to protect
themselves from situations that resemble occasions of earlier wounds. By becoming aware of early emotional wounds and the pain they engendered, it is possible to make a conscious, more realistic choice of how to respond to a partner’s slights that one finds hurtful. This leads to calmer, more mature responses to tension and conflict.