Why Handling Reactivity Is Essential For Healthy Romance
Values such as respect, integrity, and honor all play a role in avoiding reactivity.
Healthy romantic relationships take effort. There’s the balance of independence and intimacy, expressing and meeting needs in each other, knowing what expectations are healthy or unrealistic, and finding a way to grow together and navigate life. The process is like gardening; the effort to nurture the soil, plant the seeds of togetherness, and give the environment what it needs, allows for beauty to flourish.
Romance, more than any other relationship, has the potential to surface deep wounds, during the exploration of deeper and deeper intimacy. As wounds surface, so do painful emotions. As painful emotions surface, self-protection mechanisms can become activated in reaction, from the desire to flee, blame your partner for difficulty, or write off the relationship as dysfunctional for not matching an image of perfection.
Relationships that go the distance involve two people who work with these emotions, and their reactions, skillfully. If reactivity is out of control, things spiral, get messy and descend into immature or harmful behavior. Ideally, there should be low tolerance for this type of drama or chaos. That doesn’t mean giving up at the first sign of reactivity, but being intentional with how you handle reactivity.
In my experience, the space, forgiveness, and willingness to work together through this learning process is love in action. Here, we’ll explore the role of reactivity, and why handling it is essential for healthy romance. Before diving in, I want to thank Sanya, my partner, for all the lessons we’re co-learning. This article wouldn’t be possible without her.
What Is Reactivity?
In We, Jungian analyst Robert Johnson describes the intricate dynamic of romance through the lens of depth psychology. In particular, he explores how projecting an image of perfect love onto a romantic partner destines the relationship to suffer. Not only is it unfair to the person in front of us, but it blinds us to the nourishment of true love, that is free from unrealistic expectations.
Johnson notes that, typically, most romantic relationships are “less than friends,” not “more than friends.” The paradox at the heart of romance is that, very often, we show the person we love our most hidden shadow qualities, and through vulnerability and the exposure of emotional wounds, resort to behaviors we wouldn’t with friends. Johnson notes how most people are more patient, forgiving, kinder, more tolerant, and yes, less reactive in friendships.
When we open our hearts to deep levels of intimacy with a partner, we unconsciously give them power. They become the person we are risking with our heart and their behavior has the potential to cause immense amounts of joy or suffering. In some way, this ups the ante, making us more sensitive to their words and actions, or lack of words or actions.
That requires the commitment to being aware of such sensitivity. Reactivity is impulsive. It’s quick, often centered in trauma or fear, and leads to coping behaviors to regain balance. Without self-awareness, reactivity becomes passive aggression, name-calling, mind games, blame, or even worlds of assumption about the person’s motivations. All of which cloud the reality of what’s happening or create more pain and suffering.
When you’re reactive, you’re at the mercy of emotions. You jump to conclusions and don’t take time to pause, slow down, and consider things with more maturity. Many relationships are in a reactive space the majority of the time. To return to the gardening metaphor, reactivity acts like weeds in the soil. Those weeds have to be seen and removed.
Emotions Are Welcome, Reactivity Isn’t
Romance is an emotional exercise. You can’t cultivate intimacy without confronting your inner world. That includes love, joy, and gratitude, but also the pain, heartbreak, fear, and other wounds that have accumulated over a lifetime. Trying to cultivate intimacy without welcoming emotions is impossible. The willingness to be vulnerable, and share those emotions, is essential to growing closer together.
The opposite, suppressing emotions and pretending everything is okay, leads to levels of resentment that you want to avoid, a garden full of weeds. The challenge of romance is to develop the skill of sharing your emotional life, whilst taking full responsibility for it. The word response-ibility is relevant. Responding, not reacting, is a skill. And that starts with owning your emotions.
Owning your emotions means having the awareness of what you’re feeling, what caused the feeling, how you’re relating to that feeling and any other thoughts or desires that come from there. Most importantly, it includes the awareness of what reactions surface — the insult, the slamming of the door, the witty comeback. Not being reactive doesn’t mean not having those reactions surface in your mind. It means giving yourself enough space to see them and choosing not to act them out.
Protecting Your Loved One From Your Shadow
Another way of looking at this is that when choosing a romantic partner, part of the duty of care is to do all you can to protect them from your shadow. Loving someone isn’t enough — culture has normalized unhealthy or even abusive relationships, based on concepts around “the one” and love being some form of dependency. You have to walk the walk, and that means doing the hard miles of protecting your partner from all the mechanisms you have that can cause harm.
If you want to be right and win arguments, practice letting things go and focus on reconciliation, not winning. When you feel hurt you become tempted to make hurtful comments to get revenge, bite your tongue, calm down, and wait before talking. If you create emotional distance when things get tough, leaving your partner to feel abandoned, do the work to be able to communicate through feelings of withdrawal, so your partner is informed.
This is a process of humility, a spiritual practice in itself. It’s also highly creative and empowered. You might see yourself as compassionate or highly evolved, but the proof is in how you respond when your loved one does something that upsets you. Do you tear them apart? Or feel the pain, communicate as best you can whilst taking responsibility, and use it as an opportunity to choose differently?
Mistakes Happen, That’s Okay
As mentioned, there has to be space to mess up. Unless your parents are a hybrid of Mother Teresa and Eckhart Tolle, most of us internalize unhealthy dynamics to various degrees. Humanity-wide communication and emotional awareness is severely lacking in maturity. In fact, reactivity seems to run the world. So, working to overcome this is an act of conscious rebellion to create healthier models of relating; not only for your relationship, but for future generations.
When you become reactive, aim to recover as quickly as you can. Don’t hold onto a storyline that justifies your behavior. Be firm with yourself and set high standards. Keep the focus on you and your behavior. Apologise, from the depths of your heart, when you mess up, and listen to your partner mindfully when they communicate why what you did hurt them, and what you can do to resolve it.
Always try your best to avoid being reactive. Don’t tolerate it. But when it happens, forgive yourself and move on. Expect the same standards for your partner, too. This is a two-way path. If one person is doing all the work to be less reactive, and the other person is making little effort, then there have to be questions around the purpose for relating in a certain way.
Safety and Intimacy
Deep intimacy is scary. There’s no way to get there without courage, because it takes courage to be vulnerable enough to open your heart to that degree. Feeling so much for another living, breathing human makes us sensitive; to loss, abandonment, rejection, and betrayal. Those are human emotions, and they’re normal. The challenge is to be with them, accept their presence, and do your best to walk the walk.
All of this is to say that deep intimacy requires a level of safety. If both people or one person in a relationship is highly reactive, leading to a sense of walking on eggshells, or that you’re one comment away from an argument, it’s difficult to relax enough to open the heart. All of us have inner protectors that will do what they can to avoid unnecessary pain. You can’t be in inner protector mode and open-hearted at the same time.
Safety is created when there is trust, a mutual dedication to respect, and the commitment to avoiding behaviors that can cause unnecessary pain. It comes from healthy boundaries and respectful communication, along with two people who are taking responsibility for how they’re feeling.
The Purpose of Values
This practice is supported by shared values. If an agreement is in place to cultivate specific values, they act as guides when understanding what behavior is tolerable, and what isn’t. They also act as points of acknowledgment or celebration when new behaviors are achieved — thanking someone when you see them choose not to be reactive, and instead respond maturely, is incredibly powerful and encouraging.
Values such as respect, integrity, and honor all play a role in avoiding reactivity, because reactivity violates these values. Name-calling isn’t respectful. Deliberately avoiding a loved one is acting without integrity. Failing to apologize for doing something wrong isn’t acting with honor. Instead, being committed to upholding values makes the process more fulfilling and rewarding, a nourishing soul primed for growth.
There’s a risk of misconceptions when describing a practice like this. For clarity, there are a few things this practice isn’t: the suppression of emotions, passivity, avoiding expressing needs, the avoidance of conflict, or a concept. It should offer the opposite: space for emotions to be expressed intelligently, with self-awareness. An active desire to problem-solve, or be resourceful, rather than slip into reactive habits. A way to practice communicating needs, or resolving conflict, with respect. And, more than anything, a deep embodiment of love, not simply an idea or fantasy.
Choosing someone to share your heart, emotions, time, and energy with is no small thing. It’s an honor and a privilege and deserves to be treated that way. Yes, we all slip up now and again. But the desire to become less reactive, meet your partner’s needs, and do your best to transcend pain and reactivity, to be more compassionate, considerate, and caring, is the most poignant expression of love, the true meaning of more than friends.