There are some things that I react to more strongly than others – my ‘hot buttons’. Don’t laugh, but some examples that trigger my irritation are Mona putting the mugs in the wrong place in the cupboard, telling me where to park the car or replacing our soap bar with liquid soap. Looking at these with some distance, I can (reluctantly) admit that my reaction is possibly an over-reaction.
I’ve learned over the years not to dismiss these situations as small or insignificant. I have also learned the importance of catching them before I react and using them to get to know myself a bit better. It is in the quirks and over-reactions that there is a treasure trove to be discovered (or a spiked pit to fall into if not careful).
Going back a few years I would have acted out and lashed out when Mona hit these ‘hot buttons’. [As a small digression, why she would continue to hit these sore spots, none of which are new to her, is a question for another time.] For the moment I want to explore a little what I can learn from my own response and, more importantly, how I can communicate with more care when I do so from a place of self-understanding. For sure, if I react unconsciously then what comes out of my mouth is far from loving and caring.
Creating a Space
What I want to be able to consistently do is create a space between stimulus and reaction so that I can make better choices in that space. This means getting familiar with my automatic, knee jerk responses such as loudly complaining when I find a misplaced mug. It takes practice and introspection. I’ve found I can usually create this space pretty quickly these days. When I first started to bring this awareness in, it would be hours or days before I could get the needed distance to make a different choice.
Sometimes I can even do it in the moment it’s happening. With things that are familiar (parking the car) and things that are objectively not important (soap). And it gets easier and faster with practice.
Keeping a journal and having a listening partner are my friends here.
There are two aspects to the automatic reaction that I want to catch and listen to in a different way.
- My thoughts – which are usually highly judgemental in these heated moments. ‘Does she think I’m blind? Is she really putting things away at random .. how inconsiderate! Nobody ever listens to me. The world is collapsing around me because I can’t find the soap.’
With distance, these thoughts take the shape of feverish fantasy. But in the heat of the triggering moment they are real and true. Clearly getting some distance helps me regain my perspective and step out of the stress of imagining my loved one is deliberately trying to make my life hell. (Of course, she may well intend that … again, another story).
- My feelings – which will usually be a combination of physical sensation (tension, closing down) and emotions (in my case irritation, anger, frustration). It is tempting to ignore these feelings and rely on logic. If only my thoughts were, in fact, logical in this moment.
The other aspect I want to resist is to believe that Mona has made me feel these things. Going there makes it more likely I will say or do something to make her stop. Guilt induction and fear are my weapons here. In the space I realise these have no place in my intimate relationship (or any relationship for that matter). I can choose a better response.
Stepping into the space between trigger and reaction I can more clearly see what is real and what is not. The distance helps turn down the intensity of my experience and allows me to see this ‘first response’ for the automatic, patterned reaction it is.
What is it that sits under my reaction? What is it about this moment that is important to me?
I like the approach of Nonviolent Communication that would see this as an aspect of my needs. The mug out of place is my need for order. The replacement soap is my need to be involved in decisions that affect me. And the parking advice is my need for trust and respect. There are other needs around mattering and being heard that show up when I’ve asked for something and it has been forgotten (the mug debate is not a new one and I’ve made clear requests).
Now. The juicy bit is that when I can see the need and I put this into the space I’ve created then it changes everything. I’m no longer complaining, criticising or acting out. Instead I’m connected to something that is important to me beyond any particular domestic incident. I’m able to communicate something I hold dear in a way that is calmer and more conscious.
Digging into my hot buttons is not an easy thing. Especially when they are automatic and deeply rooted. Yet the more I dig them out and listen to them in new ways, the more empowered I am and the more enjoyable I am as a partner.
Now … why are we even having this discussion in the first place. Surely if Mona cared about me then she wouldn’t push those buttons in the first place … check back next week.