As a couples counselor, if there was one class I would make mandatory in high schools across the country it would be Reacting vs. Responding 101.
I meet so many people who love their partners and have the best intentions… but their habit of reacting rather than responding gets in the way of having a healthy relationship with positive, productive communication. They struggle with not leading with anger when they’re feeling upset. They focus on their own story about what’s happening, rather than remaining open to their partner’s point of view. They often wish they could just stop doing this but they genuinely don’t know how.
If you get a little reactive sometimes, welcome to the Human Being Club. Emotionally-fueled reactions are totally normal, especially in conflict, but it’s also an important area for personal growth. We could all benefit from building self-awareness about our reactions, where they really come from, and most importantly, how we can become responsive rather than reactive in relationships with the people we love.
This article will help you do that. If you would prefer to listen, I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on reacting versus responding. You can find it in the player below, or on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Why We React vs Respond
We all have a hard-wired impulse to react quickly to anything that feels like a threat. Thinking takes time, and when a bear is charging at you, you don’t have time to ponder how the bear might be feeling or why exactly you feel so afraid. You just leap to your feet and run to safety, thanks to the finely-tuned threat sensors that are baked into the machinery of your brain.
In the modern world, we are rarely charged by bears. Instead, we mostly react to the “threats” that we detect in our relationships. Things that make you feel hurt, or bad about yourself, or afraid of losing something, or like your needs and desires are being thwarted by the other person.
Your reactions aren’t just the natural consequences of what’s happening, even though it can feel that way because they happen so fast. They are triggered by your unique inner world, and they are a window into the things that feel threatening or hurtful to you. One person may barely notice if someone cuts them in line at the bank, while another could feel deeply disrespected and then stew in anger for the rest of the day. Reactions are fed by your expectations for relationships, your past, the way you feel about yourself, the meaning you make out of your experiences, your anxieties, and many other factors. Noticing your reactions and getting curious about where they really come from is the first step in learning to respond rather than react.
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Why Responding Not Reacting Matters in Relationships
In your relationship, “reacting” might look like shutting down in a conflict with your partner, rather than approaching the conversation with an authentic desire to understand their perspective. It could also look like being quick to defend yourself against anything that feels like criticism, or feeling hurt, angry, or resentful because of unmet expectations.
Reactions like these are normal and understandable, but unfortunately, they can ruin relationships. If you tend to react with anger, that can damage the emotional safety in your relationship and make your partner feel invalidated. They may start avoiding conflict with you, and leaving resentments to brew. In some relationships, both partners react automatically to each other, creating a reactive cycle that causes minor conflicts to escalate into horrible fights. Eventually, relationships like these often fail if the couple doesn’t get support with changing their reactive dynamic.
How to Have a Response vs React
As you probably know, the opposite of reacting is responding. But in couples counselor lingo, we like to call it “responsiveness.”
In a nutshell, being responsive in a relationship means being sensitive, understanding, and supportive of the emotions, desires, and concerns expressed by your partner. It means considering other possible interpretations for what’s going on when you’re feeling upset, and being open to ones that give your partner the benefit of the doubt.
Here’s an extreme example of what it looks like to react instead of respond: If Mark calls Katie to cancel a date, she could react by screaming “You don’t care about me at all!” and hanging up on him.
Or, she could respond by expressing how she feels, and getting curious about Mark’s experience. “I’m sad to hear that, I was really looking forward to seeing you tonight. Is everything okay?” she might say. Meanwhile, she could be talking to herself like this: I’m feeling a little hurt, and I’m telling myself a story about how he doesn’t care about me. But that may not be what’s going on here. I’m going to check in with Mark and get more information.
Obviously, the second response is going to do a much better job of nurturing the relationship. It expresses a vulnerable feeling rather than hostility, giving Mark an opportunity to connect with Katie emotionally rather than pushing him away. It acknowledges that Katie doesn’t have all the information about why Mark is canceling their plans, rather than rushing to a negative judgment that he will feel the need to defend himself against. Katie is also expressing an interest in what’s going on in Mark’s life, rather than making the whole situation about herself.
That last point is key: When you react, you turn the focus to your own experience — how you feel, how you see things, and what you think should be happening or not happening. When you respond, you’re opening the door and allowing your partner space to share their feelings, perspective, needs, and expectations. Responding allows both of you to bring your stuff to the table and sort through it together with empathy and understanding. That is what nurtures relationships and allows them to grow.
Tools for Responding, Not Reacting
So, what can you actually do with this information? How can you put it into practice in your relationship?
I’m glad you asked! There are a few important tools you need in order to override the impulse to react so you can respond with intention. These are fundamental emotional intelligence skills, and they are at the core of so much personal growth work:
When we go into reactive mode, we think we’re reacting to what the other person is doing, but we’re really reacting to our own thoughts and feelings about what the other person is doing. Anger especially is a secondary emotion; there are always other feelings underneath it, and you might miss them entirely if you don’t slow down and pay attention to the internal process that transforms hurt or fear into anger.
It takes a lot of self-awareness to identify the deeper feelings that are fueling your reactions, especially when you’re feeling emotionally flooded. Without self-awareness about where your feelings are coming from, it will feel like the other person is simply making you feel bad — which is 1) untrue, and 2) takes away all of your power.
Once you’re more aware of your feelings, it’s easier to regulate them. That might mean taking a few deep breaths, taking a break from the conversation, talking to yourself in a way that is soothing, or trying to shift into a more helpful mindset. All of this is easier said than done when you’re upset. If you struggle to regulate big feelings, working with a good therapist can help you become more empowered to manage your own emotions.
- Accurate empathy
Once your feelings are managed, you can try to understand where the other person is coming from. Maybe the lady who cut you off in traffic is stressed out because she’s running late. Maybe she’s making careless mistakes because she didn’t sleep last night. Other people are just as complex internally as you are, and recognizing that requires empathy. When you let that complexity in, it’s easier to respond rather than react.
- Relationship management
Finally, being able to respond rather than react requires relationship management skills. Like, being able to validate your partner emotionally, even if you don’t share their feelings or perspective. Or, using empathy to understand where they’re coming from, and to see the noble intentions behind their actions, rather than vilifying them when they do something you don’t like.
If these “noble intentions” aren’t obvious, or you can’t understand what led them to do or say what they did or said, that’s okay — it just means you need to ask some questions. When you approach your partner with vulnerability, curiosity, and openness, they will have no need to react to you in a negative way. Everyone will feel calmer and then a constructive conversation that brings you closer together can ensue.
Support for Responsive Relationships
It is one thing to read an article or listen to a podcast about “how to be less reactive” in your relationship, and another thing to put these skills into practice. Especially if you and your partner have a long history of reacting to each other automatically, it can take time, intention, and often, professional support to increase your self-awareness and change these patterns together.
This work is an opportunity for deeply rewarding growth, for you and for your relationship. If you would like support on this journey from a couples therapist on my team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.
P.S. — For more advice creating healthy, constructive communication in your relationship, see my “communication that connects” collection of articles and podcasts. I made it for you!
Music in this episode is by Cass McCombs with their song “Sleeping Volcanoes.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: https://cassmccombs.bandcamp.com/album/heartmind. Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.
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Reacting vs. Responding: Communication 101
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
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Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby is the founder and clinical director of Growing Self. She is a licensed psychologist, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and a board-certified coach, as well as the author of “Exaholics: Breaking Your Addiction to Your Ex Love,” and the host of The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast.
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