Are You Controlling Your Reactions or Are Your Reactions Controlling You?

I was listening to this podcast this week, where life coach Jody Moore is coaching a woman who is frustrated with all the demands her husband makes of her.

He thrives on order and structure and they devised a family schedule that should provide order and structure- when the kids get home from school, they do their homework, practice their instruments and complete their chores.

The family tries to have dinner at the same time every night so they can get the kids in bed on time so everyone is well-rested, well-adjusted and happy.

Sounds great. Sounds like a good plan.

Only it was making the wife miserable. She is more laid back and schedules feel more restrictive than freeing to her.

When her husband would come home and the schedule was disregarded, he would become visibly stressed. “Have you practiced your violin yet?” “Why is this room such a mess?” “Why isn’t dinner ready?

This would in turn raise the wife’s stress levels. “Why are you so demanding?” “Why are you taking your anger out on the kids?”

I’ll be honest, listening to this podcast, I could feel my own anxiety rising.

That good-for-nothing husband! I thought. Doesn’t he know how hard it is to be at home all day with 5 kids?! The exhausting work it entails just to keep them fed, dressed and not killing each other? Not to mention to complete chores and practicing AND homework?! AND DINNER?!

What is your wife, some sort of wizard?

Clearly he needs to take his wife’s place for a month or so. See if he gets dinner out on time.

These were the thoughts my lower brain was spewing out. Granted, I know neither this wife or husband or anything about them really, but I could feel myself taking on the wife’s frustrations.

Thankfully, we had Jody to steer us into more helpful, less reactive thoughts.

Jody points out that the husband gets to be upset whenever he wants to be upset. We are not our spouses emotional gate keepers. In fact, the more we do what we do in order to regulate our spouse’s emotions, the more we are setting ourselves up for anxiety and failure.

We are not in charge of regulating our spouse’s emotions, we are in charge of regulating OUR OWN emotions- of controlling our own reactivity.

Certainly this couple needs to have some conversations to understand each other. Certainly the wife should clearly and lovingly state exactly how these situations make her feel and make requests of her husband accordingly.

However, even after these understanding conversations and requests, he still may be choose to be upset. If the wife makes it her end goal for him not to be upset, she is going to head down a road that ends in resentment and more often than not, failure.

The wife’s definition of success should not be dependent on whether or not her husband is upset, but whether or not SHE is able to emote exactly how she wants to. If she wants to remain calm (even when her husband is not) and she does so . . . SUCCESS! If she wants to be in a good mood (even if her husband is in a bad one) and she does so . . . SUCCESS!

Anytime we equate success with something outside our control (like our spouse’s behaviors and emotions) we are setting ourselves up for failure. Our vision of success needs to be based on things that are within our control . . . like our own reactivity!

How your emotional reactivity is limiting your relationship. Click through to find out how.

Controlling Our Own Reactivity- the what

The theme of this month’s posts is all about self-soothing. We’ve discussed that regulating our anxiety is the most loving thing we can do for our spouse, and we’ve provided the most useful tool I’ve come across for regulating anxiety.

Today we’re going to talk about controlling our reactivity and how to do that, but first what does that mean and why is it important?

Our reactivity is how we react to different situations. So, controlling our reactivity is the ability to remain in control of our reactions when we are faced with stressful situations.

An example of poor reactive control would be a toddler. When faced with a stressful situation where they do not get their way, what do they do? They scream, they cry, they kick, they throw or hit. They blame others, and put the responsibility to take care of their emotions onto someone else. And if you were my first born (as a toddler), peeing your pants would also often be involved (a situation where I always exerted optimal amounts of control over my reactions I assure you . . . .)

via fatherly

Adult tantrums are far less cute.

An example of controlled reactivity would be a situation where we WANT to act like a toddler and kick and scream and maybe pee, but instead we take deep breaths and react to the situation with respect for ourselves and others.

Controlling Our Own Reactivity- the why

Dr. David Schnarch says this is SUCH a crucial skill in any relationship because if we are unable to control our own reactions, we are going to be dependent on those around us to do it for us (which causes extra damage in the mean time).

“If you can’t regulate your own emotional temperature, you’ll regulate everyone around you to keep yourself comfortable.”    – Dr. David Schnarch

He also says that we are able to get close to each other only to the degree that we are able to not react to each other. The more people can regulate themselves, the closer they are able to get to others. Otherwise, uncontrolled and unbridled reactivity act as a roadblock to intimacy.

Now, many people THINK they have figured out a solution to this reactivity problem . . . and they do that by withdrawing.

If I don’t care, then I don’t react. If I disinvest and retreat, we won’t fight. But true intimacy is not about becoming indifferent to each other, rather it is about being able to care deeply about our partners and their desires AND ourselves and our desires. It looks like being able to calm ourselves, take care of ourselves and stay clear about who we are even when our partner challenges that.

If we are unable to calm ourselves and take care of ourselves, we will never be able to stay clear about who we are when we are challenged. Instead we’ll be reacting all over the place. We have to be able to modulate our reactions instead of being run by them in order to be close to our partner.

Another example likening your spouse to a toddler

Let’s take the toddler example again.

The strength of your relationship with your toddler is by a large degree dictated by your ability to be non-reactive in the midst of the stressful situations they cause. If, when your toddler is throwing a huge fit over, say, you pouring milk over his cereal when he wants it dry even though he said he wanted milk on his cereal only two minutes ago . . . . . (a purely hypothetical example . . . ) and you completely loose your marbles, “Um, you just told me you WANTED the milk!! NOW YOU MUST DRINK THE MILK!!”

Sad, but true.

These types of reactions are going to impact the strength of your relationship. Particularly if you are throwing your own fit every time your toddler throws one.

You will be able to be much closer if you learn to control your reactivity and react calmly even when your toddler is a mess.

(Don’t think I don’t know how much more difficult this is than it sounds.)

Does this mean we let them hit us and kick us and yell at us with no consequences? No.
Does this mean we don’t set boundaries over what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior? No.
Does this mean that we force a fake smile and shakily sing out “that’s okaaayyy” when our toddler is chucking his bowl across the room? No.

Does this mean we try to calm ourselves down and not blame our toddler for our feelings? Yes.
Does this mean we own up to our own reactions to stressful situations? Yes.

Does this mean we later have loving conversations about what is inappropriate behavior and what the consequences are? Yes.

Hopefully your spouse is not dumping their Cheerios and milk on the floor whenever they are upset with you, but I’m guessing your spouse is in a bad mood from time to time and causes you stress.

Happens to the best of us.

The amount of control you are able to exert over your reactions in a healthy way (not stuffing them down) may be dictating how close you are able to get to your spouse.

Let’s close this thing off with another quote from Dr. David Schnarch, shall we?

We shall.

“As partners become better able to self-confront and self-soothe, they have less need to control each other. They can maintain their own emotional stability and worry less about what their partner is doing. They stop expecting their partner to understand them and focus more on understanding themselves, which, in turn, reduces defensiveness and combativeness, and encourages good will and growth rather than resistance and stagnation.”

If you need more resources on self-soothing and controlling reactivity, never fear, next week’s post is going to be all about helpful resources on this topic.

But if you really can’t wait, check out this article called Emotional Reactivity–The Bane of Intimate Communication by Dr. Randi Gunther, who gives 5 helpful tips to reign in the reactivity.

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