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What Reactivity Has to do With Arguments in Marriage


Twenty-six years ago, my husband and I sat outside the operating room at Jules Stein Eye Institute (one of two leading eye institutes in the country) in Los Angeles, California. Our sixteen-month old daughter was having her lens removed because she was born with congenital cataracts.   

There we sat, mad at each other. Not a little, a lot. Not just this time but also a month later when her second lens was removed. 

I needed to talk; my husband didn’t need to talk. I thought he was horrible because he wouldn’t talk, and he thought I was horrible because I was pushing him to talk.

What we didn’t recognize at the time was what was going on inside of us, and how this was impacting our reactions toward each other.

We were both scared and worried. We didn’t know what the outcome would be for our daughter’s vision, but I knew that her aftercare would put me out of work for days at a time. 

My husband had a severely disabled sister, and his family didn’t talk about her problems. My family talked about everything. 

So there we sat, me needing to talk and process my feelings, and my husband  wanting to fix it. “We’ll deal with it,” he said. “You’ll manage.” Manage? That’s all he had to say to me? Not enough.

So I pressed in, and he withdrew. Argument during surgery ensued. 

Understanding Our Reactivity 

We are different as men and women. We have different needs, personalities and histories. All of these influence how we handle stress, fear and anxiety, which influence how we react and respond through communication.

Reactivity takes one of two major forms to manage the stress, fear and anxiety. Generally, we either under-react or overreact. People do some of either of these as a typical reaction style:

  1. Under-react – distance, shut-down, become dependent or incompetent, or avoid feelings by engaging in activity, pursue addictions, withdraw.
  2. Overreact – say too much, try to control, hover, talk, fix, tell others what to do, take the lead, become emotionally intense, fight, blame, push to resolve and solve, seek closeness and reassurance. 

What Reactivity Has to do With Arguments in Marriage

As you’ve probably figured out, my husband underrated and I overreacted. Until we were able to make allowances for each other with grace, we were at a stalemate and unable to support each other. Once we did, we were able to work together to meet both our needs.

We handle things very differently today. We’ve learned to understand ourselves and each other. I give him time to process things quietly. He talks to me because he knows I need it. If he can’t talk when I need it, I call a girlfriend who is always willing to listen to all my details no matter how long.

 

Wife Step: Do you and your husband overreact or under-react? How does this interfere with your being able to support each other during stressful times? What can you do differently to change your interaction pattern?

Karla Downing New

Karla Downing, the founder of ChangeMyRelationship.com, offers Christian marriage help and Christian relationship help as a speaker, author, counselor, and Bible study teacher. Karla grew up in a dysfunctional family and then found herself struggling with Christian codependency in her own difficult marriage. Through her personal struggles, she discovered biblical and practical principles, which she now teaches to others. She also trains counselors, pastors, women’s ministry leaders, church leaders, small-group leaders, non-profit ministry leaders, and individuals to minister to Christians in difficult relationships. Karla’s passion is to see individuals, marriages, and families set free from the chains of dysfunction, misunderstanding, and emotional pain through a correct understanding of what the Bible teaches about relationships.

Karla Downing is the author of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association 2004 Silver Medallion Award winner, 10 Lifesaving Principles for Women in Difficult Marriages. Her second book, When Love Hurts: 10 Principles to Transform Difficult Relationships, applies the same principles to all family members. Her third book, The Truth in the Mirror: A Guide to Healthy Self-Image, offers a unique and life-changing approach to looking at self-image. 

She holds a Master of Arts in Marriage and Family Therapy from Hope International University. Karla also holds a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts in Communicative Disorders from California State University, Fullerton. She is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a licensed Speech Language Pathologist. Karla was also the director of Friends in Recovery, a Christ-based, Twelve-Step recovery program.

Karla lives in Southern California. She has been married for over thirty years and has three adult daughters.

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