I’m sure at one time or another your doctor tapped you right below your kneecap and your leg kicked up. Doctor’s refer to this as the ‘pateller jerk’ which is what you and I would call the normal ‘knee-jerk’ reflex. What’s happening is that the tapping sends an electrical impulse to our spinal cord which then sends back a message to our thigh muscles to contract resulting in our leg kicking out. Our brain is not part of this process so there’s no conscious decision on our part to kick out our leg. It’s an automatic reflex.
Partners often believe that their reaction to each other is an automatic reflex. They tell me how they ‘had’ to get defensive or critical or that it ‘just happened’. They share with me how their arguments ‘naturally’ escalated from situations. Partners share their experience of how their reaction felt like it went from zero to one hundred in no seconds flat. I often hear them say, “this is just the type of person I am”.
Partners usually don’t agree when I suggest they don’t have a type. Blood has a type. It’s either one of the common or rare blood types and very rarely changes. So even though each partner may be inclined to behave in a certain way, it doesn’t mean that they’re stuck with that type. The difference is that we have free will. Then I tap my knee, kick my leg out to demonstrate what an automatic reflex looks like. I point to my brain and suggest that our free will allows us to choose most of our feelings and behavior. Needless to say, I don’t get a lot of head nodding when I inform couples that they’re actually choosing most of their thoughts and feelings even if they don’t know it.
I suggest that automatic difficult feelings include loneliness, heartbreak and helplessness. And easier automatic feelings include joy, excitement and peacefulness. We don’t have control over having or not having these feelings. They’re our core feelings which are hardwired into our bodies. And one automatic feeling, outrage which occurs when we see an injustice, actually moves us to take action.
Other than these, our feelings are not automatic like our knee-jerk reflex because our brain has control over them and our resulting behaviors. These include feeling unworthy, shame, frustrated, depressed, anxious and anger that is controlling or punishing. Our choice behaviors including shaming, blaming, controlling, attacking, taking other’s behavior personally, withdrawing, avoiding, judging, criticizing and caretaking.
What our feelings and knee-jerk reflex do have in common is that both are initiated by a trigger. Our doctor is tapping on our leg below our kneecap while our partner is saying or doing something that pushes our buttons. However, the difference is where the message goes when our partner acts in an unloving way towards us. It goes directly to our brain which then interprets it which can cause a difficult feeling or an unloving behavior. And that’s what’s really going on when couples tell me they automatically react. They’re not aware that it’s a choice how their brain interprets their partner’s behavior. And very often it’s a misinterpretation. So rather than it’s a ‘I have to’ feeling, it’s an ‘I’m going to’ feel. And rather than it’s a “Of course I had to’ act that way, it’s an ‘I chose’ this behavior. When we misinterpret our partner’s behavior, we usually act in unloving ways to ourselves and our partners.
So, what’s the alternative? If it’s not a physical reflex and our brain directed unloving feeling and/or unloving behavior isn’t serving us positively what’s a partner to do? Respond. Consciously respond. In my next post, I’ll share with you what it looks like to consciously respond to your partner’s unloving behavior and how this creates positive opportunities for you, your partner and your relationship.