Feb 11 / Simcha

The Art of Healthy Reactivity (B. Atkinson)

disconnectDr. Brent Atkinson is author of Emotional Intelligence in Couples Therapy and co-founder of the Couples Clinic in Geneva, Illinois. The Clinic is home to an innovative team of therapist/educators who have pioneered methods for improving relationships that are used widely by marriage counselors and educators across the United States.

Drawing upon scientific studies, Atkinson’s team has identified a distinct set of habits that are shared by almost all people who know how to get their partners to be open-minded and receptive.  I summarize here some of the main ideas culled from several of his articles.

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The ability to respond effectively when feeling upset, provoked, annoyed, ignored or mistreated is one of the most important abilities identified by researchers as predictors of satisfying relationships. It is precisely when their partners are acting in ways that seem out-of-line or off-kilter that people who are destined for satisfying relationships distinguish themselves from those who are destined for disappointing relationships.

People who are effective at these moments require that they be treated with respect, but they also have ways of making it easy for their partners to do so. They know how to stand up for themselves, but they do it without a lot of fuss. They don’t make a big deal of how awful their partners are for being selfish, inconsiderate or  controlling — they just require that their partners give their priorities and opinions equal regard.

1.  The ability to react effectively when your partner says or does things that you don’t like or agree with is not optional.  It’s a requirement for anyone who hopes to have a partner who is responsive to his or her wants, needs or opinions.

Study after study suggests that the way people react when their partners say or do things they find objectionable is a powerful predictor of the rate of future occurrences of their partners’ objectionable behaviors.

2.  Most of us are significantly biased and self-serving in our judgments about what objectionable relationship conduct is.
We’re prone to believe our partners are wrong when they really aren’t.

Beyond the serious and obviously harmful behaviors that should not be tolerated (lying, sexual unfaithfulness, failing to keep agreements, badmouthing or undermining one’s partner, violations of privacy, and making unilateral  decisions), assessment of inappropriate conduct becomes increasingly biased and self-serving.

Studies indicate that, in general, when people believe that their partners’ conduct is selfish, irrational, irresponsible, inattentive, inconsiderate, short-sighted, lazy, uncaring, or negative, most of the time their partners actually aren’t doing things that are inherently harmful to or unhealthy for relationships.

Most of the time when partners disagree, neither partner’s priorities or expectations are wrong — they’re simply at cross purposes with the other’s priorities or expectations.  The mistaken attribution of blame is no small matter when it comes to how relationships fare over time.

People who are skillful in relationships think twice before assigning blame.  They understand that they have a right to ask their partners for changes even if their partners’ current viewpoints or actions aren’t wrong, but they do so in self-affirming and non-critical ways.  Partners of skillful people tend to be more responsive to requests precisely because they don’t feel accused or criticized.

3.  Your partner’s objectionable conduct likely arises at least partly in reaction to your unhealthy relationship habits,
just as your unhealthy relationship habits likely arise at least partly in reaction to her objectionable conduct.

Researchers have identified 8 predictors of poor relationship outcomes:

  • defensiveness;
  • dismissiveness;
  • jumping to negative conclusions / failing to give one’s partner the benefit of the doubt;
  • putting your partner down;
  • unwillingness to compromise;
  • acting “high and mighty;
  • shutting down, walking away prematurely, or unwillingness to talk about an issue;
  • failing to stand up for yourself and instead acting like your partner is selfish or controlling.

These relationship offenses tend to be mutually reinforcing, creating a vicious cycle with no exit (and often leading down the slippery slope to more obvious and severe relationship offenses such as lying, cheating or becoming verbally or physically aggressive). The only way out of the vicious cycle is for at least one partner to unilaterally break the cycle by developing the ability to respond effectively when his or her partner’s viewpoint or behavior seems wrong.

4.  The single most powerful thing that you can do to get your partner to be more responsive to your wants, needs and opinions is to develop the ability to react effectively when she’s NOT being responsive. 

When people begin getting more upset about the fact that they reacted ineffectively than they are about the offensive things their partners committed, they are on the verge of good things happening in their relationships.

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See also:   The Pause that Refreshes