In a recent session, one of my patients said something that many of us, not just therapists, have heard many times:
“We love each other, but…”
It’s not hard to imagine the statements that follow the “but.” In my patient’s case they were:
We can’t help poking each other’s pain points…
It seems like a vicious cycle of pushing each other’s buttons…
The root of this comes from her story, in her own words:
My partner told me he lost a big client – which meant a big financial loss. I knew he felt distressed and that he needed me to be comforting and calm. But I felt just as distressed and anxious about our finances as he did at the moment. His worried tone didn’t help. It took everything I had to manage my own emotions so I could lean in and comfort him.
Situations like these make us feel less than capable to be a good partner. That’s because we tend to idealize our roles and how they look like in theoretical moments. But how we imagine we would act in the moment isn’t always going to be how we actually react when faced with it.
Our unique histories and personal experience give us equally unique emotional pressure points. We may be aware of some, but often, the task of everyday living doesn’t give us the opportunity to examine and resolve all of them, much less discuss them openly with our partner.
We realize this too late, when we’re in situations when our significant other invariably pushes on those pressure points. And just like what happened with my patient, one partner’s pain point might sometimes trigger the other.
It brings to mind another patient who spent a whole day working on her garden. She expected her husband to be overjoyed by her accomplishments, but was disappointed when he was, instead, oblivious. She had to muster up all her energy not to lash out and express her disappointment calmly instead. When thinking about the situation and her reaction, she recognized that it most likely came from her experience as a child, when her parents gave her lukewarm recognition for her achievements. Her husband’s lack of reaction for her hard work triggered these memories and pressure points.
So what can you do if this situation keeps happening in your relationship? A key step is to take time after these situations to recognize your triggers and pay attention to which actions, words, or other things seem to generate a strong emotional response in you.
You might want to list them down and then read through them, considering where and how they could have started. Ask yourself Why does this bring on an outsized reaction? It’s an empowering exercise and a helpful step in managing emotional reactions and keeping the relationship healthy.
When You’re Both Hurting
As a therapist, I’m trained to be a source of comfort and reassurance to my patients without bringing in my own emotional pressure points. More than that, I’m also uninvolved or separate from the situation. I’m not the source of pain, nor does their pain create a storm of emotions in me.
This isn’t the case with an intimate partnership. Both partners have emotions bubbling under the surface at any given time, and supporting your partner’s needs when you are feeling triggered may sometimes be overwhelming.
It’s always easier for us to see our partner’s role in relationship problems than it is to see what we contribute to the difficulties. One of the most helpful questions I bring up for my patients is: What do you know about yourself that might contribute to the conflicts that you and your partner have?
In a relationship, it’s important to remember that different situations may be call on us to fulfill different roles. When your partner is sharing, focus on your role as a listener. When they approach you with their hurt feelings, try to listen without being defensive. When your partner knows you care about them and their sensitivities, reciprocating this becomes more natural.
Tips for Giving More Space for Each Other’s Sensitivities:
Tip 1: It may not “make sense” to you, but accommodate their feelings, anyway.
Think about ways you may communicate so both of you can comfortably accommodate each other’s emotional pressure points. It’s important that this is reciprocated, so you both need to constantly calibrate your reactions and take the time to talk, even when it’s hard. Both of you have the responsibility to work on your own issues but being open and accepting of each other’s difficult emotions will be a big help.
Tip 2: Avoid Counting the Cost.
As much as possible, stick to the situation that happening in the present and resist “counting the cost,” which means counting the action or words that frustrated you as patterns or lists of offences. For example, if your partner is sensitive to feeling incompetent when expressing your frustration about their lack of initiative around the house, don’t give them a litany of all the times they didn’t help out. Instead, stick to the present, specific situation that made you feel that you’re not getting the help you need. Emphasize that you’re not interested in blame, but in expressing this clearly so that the relationship become a happier one. This is up to both of you, not just one or the other.
Tip 3: Acknowledge Your Own Sensitivities and Turn Criticisms into Requests.
Confrontation doesn’t need to turn into a highly charged conflict. A helpful first step would be to acknowledges your own sensitivities once you feel overwhelmed or frustrated. If you feel particularly insecure because you felt your partner ignored your need or request, you might say something like: “I know I sometimes need to feel loved and validated more than usual, and can easily feel abandoned. So just now I really felt frustrated that you weren’t paying enough attention to me.”
Healthy relationships involve mutual understanding, consideration, and respect for both your and your partner’s triggers. Trusting that our partner is willing to hear and acknowledge our feelings, our hurts become manageable. When couples practice sharing and listening, they grow closer over time, deepen trust and feel supported in their pain.