communication, communicating, couples, relationship, relationships, couples

Responding is harder to do because it is more complicated than simply defensively reacting. This episode will help you think about how to respond to your partner. Respecting your partner is all about responding & reacting is only all about you. Communication improves dramatically when there is a higher percentage of responding instead of reacting. Everyone tilts towards reacting & leaps into defense mode. Emotions are what lies beneath all reactions. Usually the more difficult emotions of fear, hurt & anger are doing most of the contamination in everyone’s reactions.

Responding Instead of Reacting When Communicating

Responding is harder to do because it is more complicated than just defensively reacting. Respecting your partner is all about responding & reacting is only all about you. This episode will help you think about how to  improve responding to your partner. 

We all need more imagination about our partner’s perspective in order to respond instead of react. Couples need to embrace the complexity of valuing two points of view instead of just trying to win. Juggling 2 points of view is a rare talent because we all love the simplicity of winning & getting our way.

Emotions fuel expectations, believing things should be a certain way. Expectations are then the perfect fuel for reactions. Try recognizing that your emotionally charged expectations may be unfair to your partner. People have so many ideas of how loving should be that are completely unrealistic because in every couple each person is wired differently. Responding requires embracing two points of view.

Often I have watched as a woman will “kitchen sink” dump all her complaints for the last x number of years & I see the man start to sink under this pile as he is overwhelmed by all the emotions headed his way. In this example the dump is a problem & the overwhelmed is also a problem. It’s also an ordinary pattern that couples routinely get stuck in.

My favorite adjective to apply to men is overwhelmed. I know this from observation. My advice is to pick one issue & give two specific examples which provides context & greater understanding. So often couples just aim vague generalizations at each other. Remember the goal is to make yourself understood by being thoughtful in responding, not letting our emotions hijack us into self righteousness. Too many of us, indulge in emotional dumping because we’ve been swallowing our grievances.

If you have been stashing resentments for awhile than you feel entitled to dump. The problem with this is that problem solving is not possible & absolutely nothing new is going to happen. As I’ve said many times resentments that are unspoken or dumped easily destroy relationships.

Men tend to be doers. Just like Woody Harrison in the 1992 movie White Men Can’t Jump when he starts to leave the bed of Rosie Perez who said she is thirsty & she asks him where are you going? & he says “To get you a glass of water.” & Rosie shouts “Why can’t you just be with me in my thirstiness?” Ron Shelton wrote the script & clearly he gets that men love to do.

Men have to learn how to be a witness. Sometimes with all the terrible tragedies I listen to that are impossible to fix, I still know that being a witness to someone else’s pain still matters. So even though a man begins to feel flooded, stop & think this is about learning what matters to someone you love & respond by paying attention. So to respond is to pay attention, instead of getting lost in your own experience of being flooded. Reconsider listening as what you can do.

Asking questions that are geared to helping your partner define what matters can also help. Like what’s the hardest part for you? Also mirroring (not like a robot) which means feeding back a small piece “It must be terrible to feel so alone with this.” The question & mirroring are about demonstrating you are paying attention which is responding. When you are overwhelmed, you just are not there, you are in your own world which is infuriating to your partner.

Trouble is always in the extremes. So neither dumping out a tidal wave of complaints or avoiding discussions works. Those who get overwhelmed tend to avoid & deflect. This is how issues end up sticking around literally for years. “You weren’t there for me with my miscarriage” never gets dealt with….it’s left unfinished & lingering. 

Unfinished business can haunt a relationship. My favorite illustration of this is from many years ago, I used to take my son to the zoo on a constant basis as we lived nearby. On one visit we had to leave early & he missed out on the gorillas. For 1 1/2 years every time we drove by the zoo my son would shout “Remember the time we missed the gorillas.” No matter, how many times we saw them later. Do not underestimate the power & impact of unfinished business on relationships.

Defensiveness & blame are also very much about adding to the failure of reactions. Blame & defensiveness is all about making ourselves feel better, about pushing away things we don’t want to face. One of the key ways to turn reactiveness into responding is to be willing to examine your part in the problems. This is a very hard thing to do, blame & defending are so easy to leap into.

So let’s take the miscarriage example & demonstrate how to accept your part in a problem. This would mean acknowledging “You’re right I dropped the ball because I was so lost in my own despair & didn’t know how to talk about it.” It’s that step of courage to validate the truth that can slowly build on restoring trust in the relationship because you are taking the time to respond.

Emotions are indeed messy & many of us avoid dealing with someone else when fear, hurt or sadness are lurching around like a kid wearing Dad’s workbooks that he can hardly lift. When things are messy we want to run away from them. We need to be like firefighters running towards the flames and practice how to navigate our feelings, wants & needs.

We are not born with an innate sense of what to do with messy feelings. Relationships require exploring the messy feelings in order to learn how to share & be vulnerable. Connections build on a willingness to be vulnerable. Remember how close you feel when someone shares something that is hard, scary or painful.

Responding is about making real contact with someone else. There are so many ways to interrupt contact with your partner. Contact is about real connection, that you are open to being influenced by someone else. Contact is all about being vulnerable & authentic which are the infrastructure of responding.

So reactions close down connection and responding opens up the possibility of more connections. The goal is to be open even when it’s hard. Open to listening & open to saying true things instead of swallowing & staying silent.

When things are messy we all struggle because messy means uncertainty. Too often we avoid uncertainty. Just think of all the two sided conversations you’ve kept safely in your head, never to be spoken out loud. We imagine the other person’s reaction & run away. Our anxiety & fears abhor uncertainty. We all crave certainty which is why conspiracy theories are so popular. Responding means embracing the uncertainty of what the other person really has to say.

Religion offers the comfort of certainty. While only having 10 commandments can create a lot of uncertainty. Strong either/or, right/wrong viewpoints offer the comfort of certainty. The uncertainty of losing a job can throw people into a tailspin. People will stay in bad jobs because of the certainty. The uncertainty of retirement can be difficult to sort out. 

Responding is to wander around in the uncertainty, to risk not knowing what will happen between the two of you. Reacting is all about the certainty of winning & being right.

Responding means revealing more to your partner, what’s underneath the anger? Feeling hurt, feeling diminished? Does it remind you of another time where you struggled? Responding means giving up control & allowing the power to be shared. by both of you. It takes a lot of strength to be vulnerable.

Reacting with GIANT SIZED ANGER can keep your beliefs & ideas first & foremost so they are certain to take up all the space.Instead try to grab onto the idea of tolerating frustration & fighting clean.

Think about & make the distinction that fighting to get what you want is

different than fighting to hurt the other person. Ugliness is anger aimed at your partner to score pain & paralyzation. Your partner can’t breathe & they blink the hurt away & then you win…..When the fighting is ugly it’s the US that loses. You must develop a capacity for living with problems. There will always be problems as your differences bang into each other.

Let’s talk about apologies…..Reacting is saying “I’m sorry” over & over & nothing changes. Reacting is never saying “I’m sorry”. Responding is genuine & taking the time to be specific about what you are sorry for…then doing the work of not repeating your mistakes as often.


In your next disagreement I want you to use your imagination about your partner’s point of view. In your most recent disagreement honestly evaluate what percentage were you being reactive. Do you remember some of the meanest things you’ve said aimed at your partner? Feel that squirm of discomfort that knows you were ugly & went too far. Let the shame pinch you to not repeat that level of disrespect. In your next disagreement: First ask yourself what do you get out of it then Second make a serious attempt to share a more vulnerable messy feeling that is buried in your bluster.

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About the Rhoda Mills Sommer

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