We all have moods and mood swings, but when you find yourself in a relationship with someone who seems to react so intensely and unpredictably to various triggers in life that you can’t seem to identify or avoid, how can your relationship survive? How can you keep your own emotional balance when a family member or partner seems emotionally volatile or frequently violates your boundaries?
When you or your partner or family member have an intense reaction to something, chances are very good that one of your triggers or “hot buttons” has been pushed. These triggers come from stored-up resentments, regrets, anger, fears, and insecurities that hurt when touched and cause an automatic emotional response. Each individual has their own set of vulnerabilities that can cause a strong emotional reaction, but sometimes we find ourselves in situations with loved ones where we can’t seem to predict or avoid what will set them off. How can you anticipate where the land minds are?
Many family members find that keeping a daily log of their loved one’s patterns of behavior helps them understand and depersonalize the person’s actions. Parents of reactive children especially find this helpful, but partners and spouses may find this beneficial as well. Keep in mind, the intention here is not to make judgements, but to simply observe the moods, behaviors, and circumstances occurring in the environment over a period of time to learn from the synergy of these forces.
For example, by jotting down observations on your loved one’s behaviors, you can determine what factors are contributing to the intense, emotional reactions. If there appears to be little relationship between your actions and those of your loved one, you will be able to see more clearly that the outburst in not about you. If it looks like an environmental or external factor triggers the behavior, try to look a bit deeper and note things such as:
The person’s overall mood
The person’s stress level/responsibilities
The time of day
The presence of alcohol or other drugs
The physical factors of hunger, fatigue, etc.
The immediate environment
This is a good place to start your observations, but don’t stop there. Take a look at your own responses to outbursts also. Some of the things that our partners say or do when triggered may sting quite a bit; and others may not bother you much at all. Rather than just reacting, examine your own responses as well. Is the criticism being hurled at you in your loved one’s tirade true or have some truth in it? You don’t have to reject or accept entire statements – look for over generalizations (“you always” or “you never”), and illogical connections (“You didn’t take me to the party because you hate me”). Sometimes our hot buttons get pushed so frequently that even the slightest touch becomes painful. Some common triggers for partners are:
Being unfairly accused
Having needs, feelings, and reactions that your partner/loved one discounts or denies
Being overly admired or adored (because it may be a set-up for later devaluation and criticism)
Just becoming aware of your own hot buttons can make coping easier with those we love. Learning about our limits and those of the important people in our lives, lets boundaries naturally flow from what we want, need, like and dislike. Keep in mind that personal limits are not about controlling other people’s behavior, but are about you and what you need to do to take care of yourself.