Be Active Not Reactive
It has taken me almost three weeks to write this blog post. I’ve typed the post three times and each time I deleted it. I’m currently struggling with self-blame. I’ve been working with my therapist on it. She tells me that I need to learn to have self-compassion. She keeps telling me that there’s nothing wrong with me. I asked her if that was something that Therapists said to all their patients? I asked her, if my husband was the one speaking to her and he asked if something was wrong with him, what would she say? She told me that if she were treating both my husband and I, she would tell him that he needed to be more patient and kind with me and if he was unable to do that, he would need to rethink whether or not he should be in this relationship. That made me feel better. You see, my biggest regret in our 14 -year relationship was the way I reacted to my husband’s behavior. Because, even though he did things and said things that were hurtful to me, I should have set better boundaries, I should not have allowed him to treat me the way that he did. I should not have allowed him to affect my emotions to the point that I would became reactive.
This is my life. And sharing it with others makes me feel vulnerable and it opens up the door to judgment and criticism. This could either be helpful of devastating to my already damaged self- esteem. But I’m doing it anyway. I’m sharing my story so that others out there experiencing the same situation will not feel alone. This post is about Emotional Reactivity and not giving others power over you. If only I understood this earlier. It probably still would not have saved my marriage, but it would have saved me the shame I feel for my own actions.
What is Emotional Reactivity? It is an impulsive reaction to when we feel stressed, angry, or hurt. Your body goes into a fight-or-flight state that can cause you to overreact emotionally. It’s something that happens to all of us. However, some struggle more than others (ie. Those with mental health disorders like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Panic Disorder, and Personality Disorders). These disorders also make it harder to control these reactions. Some people may argue that people react this way to try to control other people. I disagree. At last in my experience, I felt like I was losing control and tried hard to regain control of my life that was being torn from me by the person I trusted the most. I explained to her that sometimes my husband would say to me, “you can’t make me do anything”. I would tell him, I don’t want to make you do anything, I just don’t understand why you say you want to be in this relationship but you don’t want to do any of the things that married people do. I offered her my example of what I was feeling when I was “being controlling”.
Let’s say you’re driving in a car with someone and they are speeding and driving recklessly. You ask them why they are driving so fast. They don’t answer you. So, you ask them nicely to please slow down. They refuse. You now assertively tell them to stop the car and let you out. They tell you that it’s their car and you can’t “make them do anything”. You know that you have no control over this situation, because they are the one driving the car. But you want to get out of the car. You are trying to re-gain control of your environment by not allowing the other person to hurt you. So, now you react. You yell, scream, fight.
I know what you’re thinking. If someone made you feel this way, why on earth would you stay for 14 years? Well, here’s a couple of reasons:
- It wasn’t always this way. There were happy times. Sometimes they lasted days, weeks, months, years. But they never lasted.
- You have a strong religious faith and you believe in the vows that you took. You don’t just give up on a marriage. You fight for your marriage. You do everything you can to make it work. Even if it kills you.
- You’re embarrassed. This is not your first marriage. It’s your second. If this fails, that means that something is wrong with you. So, you go to therapy and you work on yourself. You know that you can do better. You are determined to be the best person, mother, wife you can be.
- Your first husband left you. While you were pregnant at that. You didn’t even have a say so in the situation. You know what it’s like for someone to give up on you and not even give you the chance to work it out.
- Your significant other says things to you like, “I can’t believe you’re doing this to our family” or “I can’t believe your giving up on us”. They make you question the reasons you feel like they have hurt you and tell you that they are insignificant. They make you doubt yourself and feel as if you’re going crazy. And you start to believe it.
- It’s not easy to separate overnight. You have a home, children, furniture, bills, bank accounts, cars, animals, etc. It’s difficult to just up and leave an unhealthy relationship. How do you decide who leaves and who stays? Who takes what or whom? Plus, the few times you did ask him to leave, he refused. He could care less about displacing his wife and three children, as long as he isn’t inconvenienced. And what are you going to do, call the Police on the Father of your child?
14 years later and no amount of medication, therapy, self help books, bible study, or podcasts have made a difference in the relationship. You are becoming more emotionally reactive. You flip flop between extreme anger, uncontrollable crying out of frustration, caretaking (excessive pleasing and giving to keep the peace) and avoiding your significant other. It’s trial and error. You even flat out ask the him to just tell you how you can talk to them when you’re in a disagreement, but they are unwilling to navigate that either. That’s when you realize, your Therapist is right. There’s nothing wrong with you. Yes, you are flawed but you realize it. You are trying to correct it, you are doing the work and making positive changes. The problem is that you can’t argue with yourself and you can’t learn to affectively argue with someone who is not willing to also learn and do the work. Both people have to sacrifice, do the work, and make the changes.
Now the pain, shame, and blame are settling in. I realize now that by arguing and fighting with my husband, I was allowing him to continue his behavior. I remember when I was a child, my Mom used to yell at my brother and I when she was angry. We never took her seriously, because she just made threats but she never actually followed through. However, we listened to my Father. He never raised his voice. He told us to stop one time and if we did it again, he would get the switch and whoop us. It’s the same concept. It’s like a parent who just keeps yelling at their child instead of giving them consequences for their behavior. The child will never take them seriously because the parent only threatens, they never actually do anything about it. I had no problems setting boundaries, but I would cave when my husband tested my boundaries. I should have stuck to my boundaries and followed up with consequences when he violated them. If he continued to violate them, I should have separated myself from him and if that didn’t work, end the relationship. Instead I suffered for years. It not only affected me but also my children. I should have lead by example and taught my children that it’s not healthy to stay in a toxic relationship. It’s been a hard lesson to learn. All I can do is continue to work on healing. I don’t want to bring this into my my next relationship. I just pray that I haven’t caused my children any permanent damage.