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My partner made me do it

People are often convinced that their partner made them do or feel something, particularly when they say or do things that they consider to be inconsistent with their view of themselves. You see a pile of dirty dishes in the sink, and the next thing you know you are screaming at your partner, reciting every inconsiderate thing they have ever done, or sobbing in the corner. Your partner’s actions made you react that way, right?

Well, no. Rather, what happened is that your brain interpreted something that your partner said or did as being so threatening that it went into fight/flight/freeze mode, and when you are in that mode, a more primitive part of your brain, a part that reacts quickly and automatically, gets put in charge.  That part of your brain runs whatever get-me-out-of-danger tape it thinks is most appropriate to the circumstances, usually some variation on fight, run away, or freeze.

“Danger” and “threat” seem like extreme words to use when talking about an average domestic squabble. But threat and danger are what your brain evolved to look for.

When your brain becomes activated into fight/flight/freeze mode, it amplifies your perception of threat so much and so well that you absolutely believe the danger is real. You are flooded with adrenaline and other physiological messages telling your body and brain to act – NOW!

When your higher brain gets back in control, it tries to make sense of what happened. Unfortunately, it starts from the assumption that the threat that your primitive brain was trying to act on was real. It looks for the source of the danger instead of questioning whether there was any danger in the first place.

If you are very feeling-oriented, you may just accept that the danger was real because the feeling was so strong. If you are very thinking-oriented, you are more likely to rationalize feeling threatened. The net result is usually the same: coming to the conclusion that someone else did something wrong and you reacted reasonably.

Part of the motivation for justifying your reaction is that most of us believe that only crazy people lose control of themselves. You know (or at least hope) that you aren’t crazy, so what you did must have made sense. But your brain evolved to prioritize staying alive over making sense. Your brain is designed to go into fight/flight/freeze mode because when you are in danger your best chance for survival is to react instantaneously and extremely. That is really effective when a tiger jumps out of the forest at you, but less so when your partner criticizes you.

Your sensitivity to perceived threat, and even your brain’s determination of what constitutes a threat, is unique to your brain. The way your brain evaluates and processes danger is a combination of your genes and your past experiences, particularly experiences you had when you were young.

As a human, you have little conscious control over either your sensitivity to threat or the criteria by which your brain evaluates danger. This is why arguing with your partner about whether they “should have” gotten upset about something, or whether their reaction was appropriate, never accomplishes much.

Instead, try to empathize with how intense feelings get when you are triggered. You can do that even if you don’t have the same exact reaction to the same circumstances. You can have compassion for everyone with a human brain, even if yours gets triggered differently than theirs does.

How do you reduce your own reactivity? Click here to find out.

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