The Process of Emotional Reactivity

By Michael Semon

March 11, 2018

communication, relationships
Individual Counseling Therapist Birmingham AL

“We just can’t communicate.” The problem is as common as the common cold, and as mystifying as an unexpected sneeze. This “communication” problem is actually a symptom of each person’s emotional reactivity. Couple’s communicate in a narrow range of predictable actions and reactions increasing each person’s resentment and contempt for the other person.

Color and Intensity

Emotional reactivity can be thought of as a light with two primary characteristics: color and intensity. The color or the reasons for each person’s reactions comes from their unique history and expectations. The level of intensity of their reactions is exactly the same for both people. In other words, a one hundred watt person bonds with a one hundred watt person in terms of intensity. A sixty-watt person will not bond with a one hundred-watt person. The level of their intensity is different and as a result they will not attach.

While the reasons for their connection are always different, the intensity of their attachment is at the same level. A man who avoids conflict at all cost may find himself attracted to a woman who is equally compelled to tell him why he does what he does attempting to understand him. Their emotional reactions, why he avoids conflict and why she needs to understand him are different, but the level of their intensity is the same. While their emotional reactions are different, they occur in a predictable pattern because of the intensity.

The Process

1. The Trigger. The trigger can be any look, gesture or even silence that results in the other person reacting too personally, too seriously and too literally. Almost anything can and does act as a trigger. One person’s sensitivity uniquely reinforces the other person’s sensitivity reducing communication to accusation.

2. Closing Down. Self-protection drives detaching, distancing, blaming and emotionally withdrawing to prevent more hurt and disappointment from the trigger. A parting sarcastic jab may even punctuate closing down. Often the reaction of the person closing down is greater than the look, gesture or comment that triggered closing down in the first place.

3. Pulling Away. Pulling away creates physical and emotional distance reducing the chances of more hurt and disappointment from each other. Protecting one’s self from more emotional reactivity, this distance may last several hours, days or weeks. Silent treatment, limited eye contact, no affection, and short or curt answers usually characterize pulling away.

4. Re-Opening. After pulling away, lines of communication begin to reopen signaling that the distance is no longer necessary. This occurs in small ways with eye contact, a word or two, a look, a smile, the use of humor, a little more time together, answering questions more pleasantly, or some limited affection.
Sometimes one person signals that he or she is ready to reopen, but the other person is not. This results in another, less intense, pulling away that can last a little while longer. Eventually, both people start re-opening to each other, re-establishing their connection, but nothing is resolved.

5. Re-Connecting. Exhausted from the emotional drain the process of reactivity has taken, both people gravitate back toward each other. Familiar feelings return as they re-connect, but the intensity of their reactions remains the same. At the same time, the content of their attempted conversation is lost to the emotional reaction and as a result nothing is resolved. While emotional stability returns to their relationship, the emotional intensity increases each time the process of emotional reactivity reoccurs.

6. Repeating. Predictably the process begins again triggered by any look, gesture or comment. Couples seem to be at the mercy of their own emotional reactivity, when in fact, they have the ability to reduce their reactions to each other by assuming responsibility for themselves and their emotional maturity.

7. Polarization. Couples may go through this process so many times that they no longer reconnect. They remain disconnected living at an emotional and physical distance maintaining their self-protection. Their emotional standoff is most easily characterized by the couple sitting across the table from each other who have nothing to say. In fact, when couples protect themselves completely from each other they may continue living together but be wholly cut-off from each other.


John and Carol are in the pattern of trigger, closing down, pulling away, reopening, reconnecting and repeating. Over the years, John tries to be a better husband doing more chores, assuming greater responsibility, and trying to take the pressure off his wife. The fatal flaw in John is that his wife is the one who determines whether all of his effort is good enough or not. Moving toward her, he has never been good enough and the cycle of disappointment results in closing down, pulling away, reopening, reconnecting and trying harder … all to no avail. He continually looks for the approval he did not get from his father. No matter what he does or how hard he works the process of reactivity continues.

Carol, on the other hand, is numb from John’s anger and chalks it up to his inability to get beyond himself. She believes he is self-centered and everything he does is self-serving and self-centered. She is just as embittered as John just in different ways and for different reasons. Carol’s efforts at trying to get John to understand her fall on deaf ears and she gives up trying to make their relationship better. Carol’s diagnosis of John is a reflection of her complete focus on him and her need to be protected by her husband because her father was distant and uninvolved. John and Carol have different reasons for their emotional reactions, but the intensity of their reactions keep them stuck in this predictable pattern of interaction.

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