“We just can’t communicate.” The problem is as common as the common cold, and as surprising 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 words, actions and reactions. This pattern increasingly limits their responses to each other over time.
Emotional reactivity can be thought of as a light with two primary characteristics: color and intensity. The color or the reasons for a person’s reactions is because of their unique growing-up experiences. The intensity of their reactions is the result of their expectations. In other words, a one hundred watt person connects with a one hundred watt person. A sixty watt person will not attach or bond with a one hundred watt person. The level of their emotional intensity is different and as a result they won’t end up together.
While the reasons for their connection are different, the intensity of their attachment is at the same level of intensity. For example, a man who avoids conflict at all cost may find himself attracted to a woman who is equally driven to criticize him. Their emotional reactions are different, but the level of intensity is the same. This creates a predictable pattern as they attempt to communicate.
- 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 reinforces the other person’s sensitivity reducing communication to accusation.
- Closing Down. Self-protection drives detaching, distancing, blaming and emotionally withdrawing to prevent more hurt from the trigger. Often the reaction of the person closing down is greater than the look, gesture or comment that triggered closing down in the first place.
- 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.
- 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 longer. Eventually, both people start re-opening to each other, re-establishing their connection, but nothing is resolved.
- Re-Connecting. Exhausted from the emotional drain the process of reactivity has taken, both people move 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.
- 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.
- 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. The couple sitting across the table from each other who have nothing to say are polarized.
Example: John and Carol are in this pattern driven by their emotional reactions. 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. John’s goal in communication is agreement rather than connection. John can’t seem to be good enough and the cycle of her disappointment results in closing down, pulling away, reopening, reconnecting and trying harder. He continually looks for the approval he did not get from his father. No matter what he does or how hard he tries, he just can’t seem to communicate to Carol.
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. She is just as embittered as John just in different ways and different reasons. Carol tries to get John to understand her but nothing she does works either. 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 preventing them from being able to communicate.