Reactive and responsive relationships

Our couple relationship, probably more than any other type of relationship, is the single relationship that expresses the tension between great love and great need and, at times, the exact opposite. We may love our children at times more than our partners, but our couple relationships carry with it, and in it, a very different kind of emotional investment.

Because we find in our couple relationships what we have been (often unconsciously) looking for in our lives we can more easily become threatened and react (badly) when confronted or challenged by our partner’s behaviour. We react more in couple relationships that in any others.

This is why some couples fight all the time: the mixture of an unprocessed past, defensive manoeuvres, shame and secrets - a sense that the relationship is at times running right out of control and it’s only the powerplay that is keeping it together prevails in conflict ridden attention seeking when reactive relationships are activated.

The problem is that although we might be 42 and parents of 17 year olds, our whole fight or flight system is about as sophisticated as it was when we were two; this is a system that very quickly becomes adrenaline fuelled when our most intimate security seems in danger. At times, we can be locked into it and feel we have our foot on the emotional brake and the accelerator at the same time.

Luckily, there is more to us that this threat-drive (fight/flight) system.

We have a soothing system, that whole front of the brain part of us in the neocortex, which can respond rather than react, and it can learn to respond more quickly over time: it’s not stuck as a two-year-old!

Responsive, mindful and good, close relationships are sure fire factors in positively contributing to our robust mental and physical well-being. But responsive relationships begin with settling reactivity, then moving into the dynamics of the relationship itself.

The hallmark of responsive relationships are not that the couple won’t argue (that would not make it a human relationship) or have disagreements, but will involve the following:

  • Pausing: stopping, breathing and soothing your angry or unsettled mind (and body).
  • Reflection: thinking about what the argument was about and why.
  • Exploring what’s happening; are you always having the same argument?
  • Taking a bigger view e.g. we’ve had a big argument, but the first in months.
  • Acknowledging and taking responsibility for your part in things.
  • Stretching your empathy out, to explore how it is for the other person in all this.
  • Negotiation.
  • Compromising.
  • Overt and explicit caring and compassion i.e. not hiding your love.
  • Expressing your vulnerability.
  • Apologising.
  • Letting go: we’re often velcro for all the bad things that happen, when in fact there are usually more good things in our life and love.

At the very centre of all this might be a sense of mindful compassion, both for self and for other.

Self-compassionate people are people who feel safer and less reactive. Couples who are compassionate with one another and themselves will therefore have more joy and understanding and less reactivity in their relationships.

Compassion, which is a combination of empathy, concern, kindness and consideration and a wish to alleviate suffering, is a cornerstone and a capstone for those wanting a robust, nourishing and growthful couple relationship.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Newcastle Upon Tyne NE2 & NE3
Written by Graeme Armstrong, MBACP
Newcastle Upon Tyne NE2 & NE3

BACK TO WORKING FACE TO FACE Unsure about the next step in your life? Feeling depressed, alone or stuck in a relationship that's seems to be going nowhere? Step family issues? Need some support getting through? Hi. I'm Graeme Armstrong, and I offer counselling in a confidential, nonjudgmental, sa...

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