Your Partner Was Designed to Push Your Buttons
There are days when it feels like your partner can aggravate and upset you in a way no one else on earth can. The fact is, that’s probably true...but there’s a reason for it.
"Sometimes I feel like your purpose in life is to piss me off!!"
Does this resonate with you? Did you read it and find yourself saying, “Yup! Exactly.”? Perhaps it elicited a sneer or even a low growl. (Maybe the growl thing just happens to me?)
I hear this statement—or some variation of its sentiment—in my office A LOT. Frankly, I’ve felt it in my own marriage and I know it’s something that people in intimate relationships experience with distressing frequency. The thing about having “your person” is that they can make you feel more cared for, confident, loved, protected, and cherished than anyone else in the world. They can also push your most raw, sensitive, painful buttons in a way that no one else can.
When you’re having a rough moment and your partner does this, it feels shitty and often prompts an escalation that seems to come out of nowhere. These are the arguments that start with how the dishwasher is loaded and end with screaming and talk of breaking up. If things have been tense in the relationship for a long time, these button-pushing experiences can take on an insidious meaning—e.g., your partner is doing things on purpose just to hurt you, your partner intentionally wants to break you down, your partner doesn’t care about you, is selfish, is cruel…the list goes on.
There are indeed moments where members of a couple go out of their way to intentionally hurt each other, such as in an abusive relationship or with a true narcissist. (If either of these are true, let’s chat because it needs to be a very different conversation than what follows here). However, what is most often happening, is that you and your partner’s unconscious, long-standing ways of coping with life are butting up against each other.
When we are irritated or upset with our partner, most of us focus on what that person did to you. It’s part of the way our culture does all relationships. We are constantly on the lookout for ways we’re being screwed over by other people—at work, in the checkout line, by friends, etc. I know I’m guilty of it! I regularly have to talk myself down from the belief that everyone is conspiring to ruin my day, especially my spouse. What is rarely talked about—but WAY more useful—is the reciprocal nature of relationship dynamics.
Reciprocal? Isn’t that for fractions?
Reciprocal means, that in all relationships, particularly intimate ones, one person’s ways of behaving instigates an equal and opposite reaction in their partner, and vice versa. It’s kind of Newton’s Third Law of Physics…for couples.
For example, when I am hurt, my first instinct is to push back. I use a lot of words, animated hand gestures, and can get loud (sometimes very loud). I push for answers and solutions. My husband on the other hand has a different approach to dealing with hard feelings. He gets defensive, pulls back, avoids the conflict, and withdraws. When he does this, it prompts me to up the ante and provoke more, which then causes him to further recede, and so on. Our shtick is so common it’s got its own name—the “Pursuer-Distancer” dynamic.
The overall reciprocal nature of relationships is aptly called by some theorists, “The More, The More,” as in “the more I do X, the more you do Y, and the more you do Y, the more I do X.” Other theorists call it “The Dance” because just as when you’ve done the same steps of the waltz over and over again, the moves become so automatic that neither partner even thinks about what’s happening. You default into your usual role, moving through the same ol’ steps with ease.
For a long time, I believed that the way my husband reacted to me was very intentional and very personal. I grew up in a household where, when I did something “wrong,” I was met by hours and sometimes days of icy silence from my father. I never knew when I would be forgiven and return to his good graces. As a result, ignoring me is my kryptonite. In my marriage, in moments that I was yelling, crying, and sometimes begging for answers, my husband’s blank stare and later, total avoidance of the topic, felt like the coldest, cruelest thing he could do. It never crossed my mind that a) I might in any way be prompting this reaction or b) that his response was way more about self-protection and being overwhelmed than it was about hurting me. I remember being utterly floored by the concept of reciprocal dynamics when I first learned about it. My initial thought was, “That’s bullshit. My husband’s just an asshole,” but as I dug further, it became glaringly obvious how we each provoked the exact response we did not want from each other.
Why not choose a non-button-pushing partner?
It stands to reason that, knowing all of this, one might ask, “Why on earth would anyone choose a partner that does the things we hate most? Couldn’t we all just choose someone that doesn’t piss us off?” Logic would say, “Yes, of course!” However, we all know, logic rarely plays a role in matters of the heart. Most of us actually choose someone that specifically pushes our most sensitive buttons. Is this sounding a bit sadistic? I promise, there is some method to all this madness.
There are a few different theories that make sense of this relationship foible. Two of my personal favorites are Harville Hendrix and Dr. Helen La Kelly’s, Imago Theory, and Michelle Scheinkman and Mona Fishbane’s, Vulnerability Cycle. Essentially, these theories explain that over the course of our lives, we all develop ways of getting by and/or being accepted in the world. These are usually adaptations of ourselves that arise from experiences or relationships that caused us pain. Scheinkman and Fishbane refer to the adaptations as “survival positions” and the pain/unmet needs as “vulnerabilities.”
Vulnerabilities are sensitivities brought from a person’s history or created by a current relationship that cause intense reactivity and pain. These are often things that we did not get from our caretakers such as understanding, freedom, validation, nurturing, etc. One reason I love this theory so much is they include in the vulnerabilities category the impact of issues such as gender socialization, power inequities, and sociocultural traumas (e.g., discrimination, poverty, mariginalization, violence, social dislocation, and war-related experiences). These socio-cultural factors are left out of relationship theories way too often.
Generally, our vulnerabilities create underlying belief systems that impact the way we see the world and our relationships. We usually don’t even know the beliefs are there, yet they guide every decision we make. Examples include, but are definitely not limited to: “Men will disappoint you;” “Women can’t be trusted;” “It’s weak to want or need caretaking;” “You must be pleasing to others;” “Don’t count on anyone to take care of you, always look out for yourself;” “Your worth is measured by your social status and financial success.”
Survival positions are the beliefs and strategies we adopt to manage these vulnerabilities. Scheinkman and Fishbane describe them as the “best way a person has found to protect themselves or others, and to maintain their sense of integrity and control in emotionally difficult situations.” (Scheinkman & Fishbane, 2004)
Imago Theory posits that as adults, we unconsciously choose partners who represent the characteristics of our caretakers who didn’t meet our needs and/or who have parts of ourselves that we have disowned (i.e., the parts that we believe make us harder to love). We do this because 1) we believe these people will finally give us what we didn’t have and 2) our brains are constantly on the search for what is familiar, and it doesn’t necessarily differentiate between good and bad familiar.
If I lived in a house where I got in trouble or dismissed every time I was angry, I might disown that emotion, and then later be drawn to people who were very comfortable with their own anger, but dislike mine. Early on in a relationship when it’s all rainbows and unicorns—and the decision-making part of your brain is functioning with the same capacity as if you were high on cocaine—this familiarity can mistakenly feel like finding your “missing piece.” This might sound preposterous, but we are suckers for this shit. Just look at most every rom-com plot out there. Remember that famous line from Jerry McGuire, “You complete me?” People absolutely swoon over it! Sigh…I digress…
The key is that the process is unconscious. You meet someone and your system goes to the “they are my missing piece, oh this feels so amazing, you must be my soul mate” place. It does not go to the “wow you have characteristics that remind me of my cold, emotionally withdrawn mother and I think that if I can get you to love me, all the pain I felt from her iciness will finally go away” place.
You enter into a relationship and BOOM! Here’s where the reciprocity piece comes into play. It turns out that in most couples one person’s survival skills are THE VERY THING that will activate the other person’s vulnerabilities, and vice versa. Let me say that again, the adaptions/coping mechanisms that one person has developed to be ok in the world are the EXACT triggers for the other person’s unhealed pain and reactivity. WHAT?! I know. In my clinical work, I call this “The Mindfuck Of Relationships.”
You may be feeling like your brain just cannot compute this notion. I get that. Let’s look at how this works in practice in a relationship.
Frankie and Alex
Frankie and Alex have been together for five years. They love each other deeply and are very committed to each other, but often find themselves stuck in some version of the same argument.
Frankie’s parents have been married for 35 years, but far from happily. There was always tension, mostly around finances. Frankie’s mom was extremely vocal about her belief that her husband is irresponsible and failed as a provider for the family. She repeatedly implored her children not to make the same mistakes she did by allowing herself to count on someone else to take care of her. She was often depressed and in bed for days at a time. During those times, Frankie took care of the younger children in the family and worked extremely hard at school and at home in order to be a “good kid” and avoid rocking the boat. Later in life, the scrappiness and pleasing behaviors helped Frankie achieve significant professional success.
Alex is the child of first-generation immigrants. Alex vividly remembers seeing his parents treated poorly by others and he often felt “less than” in his suburban school. Alex’s parents put immense pressure on him to succeed academically and later, professionally. They were clear that success meant being the BEST at everything. This was to be his only focus, so his social interactions and activities were almost non-existent. When they felt Alex wasn’t working hard enough, they required him to stay in his room alone for hours to study and read. At times, he would cry out of frustration and ask for help, but his parents ignored him in hopes of toughening him up. In his adult life, Alex has quickly risen the ranks at his job. With each promotion, his finances and status have increased as have his stress levels and subsequent health issues.
Can you guess Frankie and Alex’s survival skills and vulnerabilities?
Beliefs: “Your worth is measured by your status and finances.” “It is weak to desire caretaking.”
Vulnerabilities: Worthlessness, criticism, failure, abandonment
Survival Positions: Achievement, ambition, defending, withdrawal
Beliefs: “You cannot count on anyone to take care of you.” “Men will always disappoint you.”
Vulnerabilities: Perfectionism, difficulty expressing needs, overly burdened, depression
Survival Positions: Self-sufficiency, pursuit, people pleasing
Reciprocity in Action
It’s 9:00 pm. on Thursday and Alex just texted Frankie saying, “Leaving work now. Hoping to catch the last train.” Frankie starts to type, “WTF?” but erases it and sends a thumbs up emoji. Every night this week, Alex has sent a similar text and every night this week, Frankie has warmed up the long-cold dinner and smiled through gritted teeth when Alex walks through the door. Internally, Frankie is seething with resentment about the stacks of unfinished business—both household and office—left unattended in order to care for the kids, the dog, and Alex.
By the time Alex walks in, the resentment is boiling, and Frankie loses it. “Every single day this week I let myself hope you would actually come home and help out, and every single day you have disappointed me. I do so much to try to make you happy and I’m a fool for believing you would actually do the same for me.”
“What?!” Alex says, initially taken aback. His cheeks burned as he remembered thinking on the train ride home that all he really wanted was to crawl onto the couch and let Frankie hold him while he finally shared how stressed he was. He was ashamed to have even thought this. “I thought you were happy and appreciated my drive. You know, I don’t work for the fun of it. I do it for you, for our family! Half the time, I feel like I’m just in your way, like this family runs better when I’m not here. Why did I even bother coming home?” He walks past Frankie, headed straight to the home office.
Frankie quickly follows, continuing to list the numerous burdens unfairly borne alone in hopes Alex would see how overwhelming it all felt. The more Frankie talks, the more Alex shuts down until he finally says, “Apparently nothing I do is good enough,” and closes the door. Frankie walks back to the couch, sensing that familiar feeling of being alone in the world creeping in.
Mapping Out the Reciprocity
You can see in this example that throughout Frankie and Alex's brief exchange, each person’s survival position (SP) triggers the other’s vulnerability (V).
Working long hours (SP, Alex-ambition, achievement) --> Overly burdened (V, Frankie)
Handling everything at home (SP, Frankie-self-sufficiency) --> Worthlessness (V, Alex)
Hiding feelings until explosion (SP, Frankie – people pleasing) --> Criticism (V, Alex)
Walking away (SP, Alex, withdrawal) --> Loneliness (V, Frankie)
Following Alex, continuing argument (SP, Frankie-pursuit) --> Failure (V, Alex)
“Nothing I do is good enough.” (SP, Alex-defending) --> Difficulty expressing needs (V, Frankie)
Closing the door (SP, Alex-withdrawal) --> Depression (V, Frankie)
In the heat of the moment, most of us don’t see this as a reciprocal relationship dynamic at play. We only feel the pain and it feels awful.
Are we Doomed?
No, we are absolutely not doomed. While there may be unconscious processes happening in our partner choice, we have options as to what we do with our relationships once we are in them. I found learning about the theories outlined here so liberating! They helped to make sense of the VERY intense feelings I would often have with my spouse and the explanation wasn’t that I was an over-emotional spaz nor was my husband a cold-hearted snake. Such a relief! Once the awareness of what was happening was in place, I could then make different choices about how I communicated my vulnerabilities to my partner and understand how my survival skills impacted him. It is a much different conversation when I say, “Hey, when you get silent, I get the same anxious pit in my stomach that I did when my dad didn’t talk to me for days on end. Could you say something so I know you’re not ignoring me?” versus “Why are you such a selfish asshole who wants to punish me?” I won’t pretend I get it right all the time and I also won’t pretend that it’s easy, but it is 100% doable. The beauty of all of this is that, while your partner is specifically designed to piss you off, he/she/they are also uniquely designed to help you heal.