Reacting to provocation will cost you your relationship(s).

Blaming “being provoked” for acting hastily ravages admiration and respect from any relationship.

So if our hot buttons are poked, what is one to do instead?

Living in a reactive relational stance, whether you do it more with your children, your partner, your co-workers or your constituents, etc., breeds mistrust, angst and anxiety for all involved. Dethroning that part of you calls for taking your self esteem to the mat. The reward is collective admiration, full respect-living and rich encounters. However, letting go of reactivity requires we abandon the very moves that have (seemingly) held our self esteem from shattering.

I’ve found in my own life and in my work with couples that reacting hastily acts as a buffer to internal turmoil. The caveat is how damaged or healthy one’s self esteem is. The shortcut “cure” is to dump onto others the feelings that erupt within as a way to alleviate our own rattled core.

“I had an affair because my wife was cold and distant”. No, sir, you had an affair because out of all the choices you had, to handle your feelings about that and all the choices you had, to address your contribution to the distance and whatever else you experienced in that marriage, including leaving, you chose that move. Lacking understanding on what gets stirred within us, we blame outwards, in an attempt to rid ourselves from the (uncomfortable) feelings we get AND the responsibility of our (poor) actions.

In RLT (the archetype of my practice) a key step into squashing reactivity from either partner is teaching each how to dethrone “adaptive-you” and delegate “adult-you” to gently deal with tough conversations, keep it in your pants even though you are in Vegas, be a responsible parent , get genuinely curious even when arguing, lead with not at, etc.

  • When we react immaturely and blame it on being provoked, what we are actually saying is: “I am all about me, myself and I; couldn’t tell you nor care what got kicked up in me and don’t want to exercise control over my words or actions”. What we are doing is: handing over to others, the very unripe part of us for them to handle: “Here, I am going to ignore you for 5 days, you deal with my silent tantrum”.

If we blame others for our feelings or actions, we surrender a fundamental element: choice.

  • Regardless of the situation*, the act of reacting is independent from others; if there was a time to execute individual choice, this is it. Despite having choice on what and how to respond to any given situation when out of our comfort zone, we are often tempted to defer this choice to a less “grown-up” part of us riddled with knee-jerk and adaptive moves from early years.

Have yet to meet someone whom hasn’t reacted rashly or immaturely here and there, however, if this is a mode of operation as soon as uneasy feelings creep up, it may be time to question what’d be the benefit and the cost to adult-up, which entails shutting down our first knee-jerk move. Terry Real calls it the “first whoosh… our adaptive child has everything to do with our family role and our childhood experience. It’s first consciousness in action, the repository for all our trigger points and hot buttons…the part that is only interested in self protection and wants nothing to do with intimacy”.

  • Relational reactivity (us with others and us with the damn door that won’t budge) is all about receiving a message, the message doing something inside of us and us giving it right back with no filter in either direction. We call it: being provoked and having no choice but to activate a cover-up move, like laughing when nervous, kind of thing. 

Provocation does not have a life of its own; it can only be activated if reacted to. What you do is on you, what I do is on me, kind of mantra. I remember a time when dining at a restaurant; we suggested to the waiter that the meal was subpar. A few minutes later, the owner came rushing to our table holding a whole raw rack of ribs, face matching the redness of the meat and in a fit of righteous indignation, he alluded to being “offended” by our comments and loudly attempted to make the point that we had wrongly judged the meal since he only served the best!

It’s ironic how often we take ownership and credit for an act of kindness but rarely for an act of harshness: “I felt moved when I got waved in by the car ahead of me at the drive-thru and so I paid for her coffee” vs: “Well, if he hadn’t compared me to my drunken father, I wouldn’t have called him a pig”. Translation: “I like myself when I do good so I claim that one, conversely, it must be your fault I talked back like an unruly 6 year old”.

Whose responsibility is it that we re-act negligently?

Working with couples over the years, it doesn’t get past the first session that a version of a common catch phrase fills the room: “she makes me feel…” and/or “he makes me do…Translation: “I don’t own my feelings and I don’t have control over my actions, if I’m provoked, I re-act”.

  • If there were a respect and admiration meter every time someone abandons self control, generosity, curiosity for the other and accountability, you’d see the meter needle reaching empty.

I teach couples there is no excuse to behave poorly even when “provoked”. I get some resistance often from those individuals that fear being stripped from the only move(s) that has protected them, even at the expense of their marriage or their children’s well-being.” Wait a minute, you don’t know my husband, if I don’t yell, nothing gets done around here!” Maybe so, and between the 2 of you, a nice little dance is now in motion: your weapon is roaring, his, is playing dead; quiet and passive is also reacting to provocation, just less loudly, no less damaging

Tip #1: When in distress, breathe deeply, let the first wave of emotion pass and choose a more moderate response: If you tend to make a joke out of everything, be more serious and address the issue at hand. If you tend to stay quiet, say something and bridge thoughts to words. If you tend to get bossy, get curious instead, etc.,; most of us can’t afford to act spontaneously when our self regard gets rubbed, even subtly.

A 48 year old male, financially successful client, kept having one night stands every few months despite loving his wife and family dearly. He felt guilty and rotten right after his deed and was on the verge of losing his marriage. He chose to face this pattern and in a breakthrough moment declared his allegiance to the damaging belief he had held since his youth: his dad would often say: “you are the nicest of the 3 (2 sisters) and the ugliest of the bunch”. Boy, he sure found a way to (dis)prove it!

Tip #2: Bring yourself up from down and down from up as a way to regulate your reactivity (depending on our old wounds, either we feel less than or more than).Think of it as a continuum in which we slide up or down a pole seeking to rescue our self esteem. All of our reacting and blaming it on being provoked is tied to protecting our damaged self esteem.

When guarding our self esteem, it feels counter-intuitive to pause, scan and read our bodies and minds to uncover what we feel in those critical moments; I teach couples how to access feelings or physical signs in those moments and then changing the wording: “What gets kicked up in me is anger and helplessness and what I do about that is rant, yell and call him names”. From this place, we get to work on how this mode of operation settled in, how to break its legacy and how to relate not react.

Tip #3: Choose to deactivate your own reactivity even when the other part isn’t. Hardest part of it all is to stay cool and collected when the other part is unable to regulate him/herself because there’s been an adaptive-move- hijack. (Don’t stick around if the other part won’t adult-up after offering a few chances to do so).

To shift from blaming our poor/immature actions on being provoked is a daily practice of remembering we are worth no more and no less than others and a moment to moment exercise of catching our spontaneous moves and making them conscious choices.
As you exercise self regulation you’ll see the respect and admiration meter needle, point to full; from that place, we can relax, negotiate, grow, lead, create, disagree, love and learn.



*This blog is specifically aimed at situations of relatability with oneself and others.