Can I change my emotional reactivity without even trying?
March 18, 2011 3:14 PM   Subscribe

Virtually all of my past relationships have had huge amounts of drama, a lot of which I have unintentionally encouraged. I have a tendency to pair up with emotionally withholding men, feel wounded and neglected, and then lash out verbally and emotionally in response. This has been my pattern for almost 20 years, yet now in my current relationship, I haven’t experienced this at all. I feel calm, collected, and content. Yet I haven’t made any conscious decisions to act differently - I just find myself behaving this way without trying. I am really happy about feeling so stable for a change, but it also seems too good to be true. Is it possible for a change like this to be legitimate and lasting?

In almost all of my relationships in the past, I’ve struggled with emotional reactiveness and volatility and a strong fear of abandonment. Usually within a month or two into a relationship, I would find myself feeling neglected or unloved, and would react to my partners’ actions either by sobbing uncontrollably or screaming and shouting, to the point where I was physically shaking with the severity of my reaction. (I was like that as a kid, too – I had regular shouting matches with my father, who is emotionally reactive in the same way.) I have been in and out of therapy for depression for about 15 years, and last year I was in a DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) group, which was geared toward learning practical skills for dealing with strong emotional reactions. I found it very helpful but very difficult – it took so much effort to recognize when I was flooded with emotion and overreacting, and even more effort to take the tiniest steps to counteract my reactiveness. But I worked hard at my distress tolerance techniques, pausing when I felt the urge to yell, and felt like I was making slow but noticeable progress.

This all fell apart when I moved abroad for my husband’s job last year. I couldn’t go to the group any more, and was a continent away from my family and friends and entire support network. I hadn’t wanted him to take the job, and was very resentful of him unilaterally deciding to apply, but moved anyway – and found myself back at square one, regularly sobbing and screaming at him at how much I hated him for bringing me there, and after a year, we both decided it wasn’t working out. I moved back to the US and not long after we mutually agreed to divorce.

So now I am rebuilding my life, got a job again, found a new place to live, and started dating again. I have been seeing someone for about six months – it started off very casually, but we enjoyed each other’s company so much that we just kept seeing each other, and are now a pretty regular item. And like I mentioned in the beginning, I am experiencing NONE of the emotional volatility I thought was so entrenched in my personality. But I haven’t made any conscious effort not to overreact – I just don’t feel the urge coming on. I think some of it is because this guy is really laid back and unflappable, yet very emotionally giving, so he doesn’t do the things that triggered me in my earlier relationships.

But I still feel like this isn’t like me at all, to not feel afraid of being abandoned, to not feel defensive and wounded, to feel really peaceful. And I’m not even in therapy! I am really enjoying it, but am afraid that this can’t be for real. I know that it’s only been six months, and that it’s not really long enough to think of it as a lasting change, but I’ve never made it this far in any relationship – or even just this far in life – feeling so grounded and stable. Can someone really just stop a lifetime of bad behavior without even trying? And what can I do to keep this up? Any advice or insight or anecdotes would be really appreciated!
posted by Neely O'Hara to Human Relations (9 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I have the experience of dating multiple people seriously at the same time, and I behave very differently in different relationships even when I'm going through the same life issues. I've never found myself flipping out with my husband or getting insecure. He's pretty much perfect in the sense that he is calm, stable, predictable, affectionate, reliable.

I do NOT always have such excellent taste in men.

So my answer is yes--you can change in the sense that you can make a good choice of partner (inadvertently or accidentally even!)
posted by the young rope-rider at 3:20 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

But I still feel like this isn’t like me at all,

It is like who you are, in part-- just not like how you define yourself..
posted by Obscure Reference at 3:27 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you're very affected by the company you keep. It sounds like you have found yourself in ideal company for your temperament!

Hopefully you can learn from and incorporate this. You know, I used to be in environments where there was a lot of bullying and put-downs, and I could coach myself all I wanted to Have More Selfesteem and all that, but what really taught me that life could be different was being among people who weren't bullies or put-down artists. Here I had living proof that life could be that good, not only because I coached myself to see it that way, but because that was what I experienced.

You are now learning through experience that good relationships are possible. So yes I do think that this is a breakthrough for you.
posted by tel3path at 3:36 PM on March 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yes you can change, and you can be different with different people too. You are not just one way. Be aware, though, that some of these patterns may still show up in different relationships in different ways in different times. You may yet need to address these issues again in the future. In the meantime, enjoy what you have, and continue to work on being the best person you can be, and that will put you in the best possible place no matter what the future brings you.
posted by sockraticpielogue at 3:48 PM on March 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

Another way to look at it is that you are trying right now to change your patterns. It sounds like you did a lot of hard work in the DBT, and now that work is paying off. I don't think you have to be consciously trying to act differently to be putting what you gained to use -- the idea was to change your instinctive patterns of reacting, right? If you think about it, maybe you will also notice that these new habits were afoot when you met your new boyfriend and moved into the new relationship. So not only are they helping you relate better now; they also helped you pick a good partner for you and slowly move into a relationship that works.

It seems like you see the pre-divorce period with your husband as a relapse, where all your work in therapy was undone? I don't think you necessarily have to see it that way. You already had established patterns with him, you may have been justifiably angry at him for moving, and you also picked him as a partner when you were still engaged in your bad patterns. So there may have been a lot of triggers their for your volatility that you're not facing now.

In short, I don't think personal growth is like a bank account, where if you slip up and spend all your money you have to build it back up again from zero. You may face new and different challenges, and you may revert back to old patterns, but overall you're still growing.
posted by yarly at 4:08 PM on March 18, 2011 [6 favorites]

I have a background similar to yours, and yet, when I read your entire question I felt like I didn't know what the hell you were talking about - in a good way!!

#1. You have been working on yourself quite a bit. Did you expect it would never pay off??

#2. The right person (or place, or job situatuation) makes ALL the difference. You know that old saying that "you can't run away from your problems"? BULLSHIT. It's called making healthier choices in life, and people start making them all the damn time!

I'm happily very angry on your behalf. Whatever loop or script you are listening to that is telling you that you are this way, or that way, or that you're never going to xyz - just stop listening!


After doing lots of self-work, cutting out all the bad relationships, patterns, and choices that "triggered" me, and then marrying an amazing guy, I eventually made the choice to get a little hypnotherapy. LOVED IT. Hypnotherapy got me over that last little hump of residual crud in my mind and in my heart.

Oh. I also did a lot of meditation and stuff before ever trying the hypnotherapy.

Do both. Focus on enjoying yourself as you are NOW.

Don't wait.
posted by jbenben at 4:43 PM on March 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

People tend to attract/be attracted to others with roughly the same level of psychological maturity. My guess is that the work you did in DBT and other therapies changed you to the point where you are now attracted to a man who is laid-back and giving. (Think back - would you have actually gone for this guy a few years ago? Probably not - he would have been boring - back then you were attracted to guys that would love you in the old familiar (cold and distant) way. Now you can enjoy and accept the love someone who can actually show their love for you and you are capable of receiving it. THAT is the change that this making it possible for you to be different in this relationship without really trying.

It must feel very odd to realize how you different you are in this relationship (even though you like this new you). Trust that you have the ability to be this person that you want to be - because you are doing it. You might slip up and start to slide into old ways but there will be two important differences - first, you know you don't want to be that way and second you know that you have the capacity to the way you want. So, if there is a slip into old ways - don't panic - just figure out how to get the support (more DBT?) to get back on the right track.

posted by metahawk at 5:21 PM on March 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Speculating wildly, I would say that progress doesn't really announce itself with tons of fanfare in a triumphant moment... I think you chip away and chip away until you notice that things have been pretty good for awhile.

The DBT work you did was likely a huge factor from how you described it. Being away from your support system may have made you self-reliant in ways you weren't before.

You also have a job and your own place, which means a problem in your relationship isn't as likely to destabilize you as much since many of the good things in your life don't depend on the relationship.

Abandonment looms large in childhood when you depend on your parents for everything, and it can be tough to separate that dependency from the intimacy that accompanies it in adulthood when you're so habituated to experiencing them together. It sounds like your life is structured in such a way now that you avoid the dangerous association between these two things.

And I should give some credit to the guy you've found, too. He sounds awesome for you.

Good luck!
posted by alphanerd at 5:30 PM on March 18, 2011

a) You have done a lot of work on this issue! It seems like it's finally paying off.

b) It's harder to cause relationship drama by yourself - if your partner doesn't escalate the situation even if you give a little provocation, it gives you time to dial back the drama too.

c) Even so, you might find that you have a little relapse at some point, probably caused by a new situation you aren't prepared for. But that's ok. You'll apologise to your partner as soon as you realise, and he'll forgive you, and you'll make it up to him by learning a better way of dealing with that particular trigger next time.

This really can be the start of a healthier way of dealing with relationships. Congratulations, and good luck :)
posted by harriet vane at 4:56 AM on March 21, 2011

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