Why Your Partner Brings Out Your Worst

Ever wonder why the person you love provokes the personal qualities you hate?

Or why the people who ignite your passions are the same ones who ignite your temper?

Or why the one you’ve promised your best seems to bring out your worst?

It’s no secret that meaningful relationships trigger intense emotions, both positive and negative, but for many couples, the question remains: How do we stack the deck so we max out our best days and minimize our worst?

Before we can tackle this question, we have to understand what we are dealing with. When we say that our partners “bring out our worst,” what we really mean is that we are being prompted to act through attack and defense.  When attack and defense are present, we are not interacting authentically because it doesn’t feel safe to do so. As a result, loving connection is squeezed out by our attempts to protect ourselves.

Relationships characterized by attack and defense are more about survival than intimacy.

Because most of us feel some measure of unease when in this combative state, it’s only natural to look for a way out. Unfortunately, we tend to place this responsibility squarely on our partners. (“If he/she would only ____, then I would  ____!”)  We blame them for “making” us this way. We reminisce about “who we were” when we first started dating and then resent them for turning us into something we don’t like.

The reality is that the feelings and behaviors we find so aversive have very little to do with our partners themselves. Instead, it has to do with the pattern that develops between the two of us. The power of therapy is that this interactional pattern can be held with both love and limits such that each partner can find their own way out of the bad deal they have co-created.

Understanding Your Attacks and Defenses

Attack and defense is all about perceived threat. Understanding what threatens you in your relationship — and how you react to it — is crucial for stopping the psychological violence between you and your partner. I have yet to find a dysfunctional behavior that doesn’t fit into one of these three categories:

Fight

  • Becoming retaliatory
  • Yelling and screaming
  • Unbridled self-expression
  • Blaming
  • Self-righteous indignation
  • “Pushing buttons”
  • Criticizing
  • Ordering and demanding
  • Shaming and humiliating

Flight

  • Withdrawal
  • Avoidance
  • Stonewalling
  • Irresponsible distance-taking
  • Using drugs, alcohol, work, exercise, sex, etc. to self-medicate

Fix

  • Needing to improve the situation to feel ok
  • Sounds reasonable, but is driven by anxiety
  • Controlling, directly or indirectly
  • Placating
  • Peace-keeping
  • Martyrdom
  • Not authentic repair

If we stopped here, these behaviors would be destructive enough, but in many relationships the perception of threat only escalates after it has been established. Partners become more on edge, reacting with increasing rapidity and intensity. If we withdraw, we do so more readily and hold out for longer. If we scream, we do so sooner and louder. As we get to know our partners so well, we anticipate their reactions and become further primed for defense and attack.

Suffering in relationships is maintained largely through this process of mutual triggering. In mutual triggering, Partner A becomes threatened and enters fight, flight, or fix. Far from being helpful, that response actually triggers Partner B, prompting their own prefered threat response which, of course, re-triggers Partner A. And on and on and on. The cycle of mutual triggering can take on a life of its own bringing out the worst of both partners.

Why do we seek out people who trigger us?

We are drawn to our unfinished business. We are attracted to people who remind us of old relationship patterns from childhood but who are different enough to offer us hope for redemption. We look at them with a sense of familiarity and think to ourselves: “this is the  person who will give me what I did not get.” We are surprised to later find that not only do our partners not give us what we believe we are missing, they seem exquisitely designed to rub salt on all of our wounds.

Every day we must pass a hundred people who don’t trigger these implicit memories, and they don’t so much as blip on our radar. We “hire” our partners to bring out our unfinished business so that it can be dealt with. This is the mysticism of marriage.

A Way Out

Sometimes, we can “arrange” a relationship in such away so as to avoid confronting our unfinished business. We learn to circumvent conflict by settling for increasing distance, a consolation often referred to as “compromise.” We tiptoe around certain issues, walk on eggshells, or simply lead secret lives. While these relationships often feel “good enough,” they don’t really offer us the intimacy we crave.

In a truly great relationship, our unfinished business is dealt with openly. It is confronted and healed, but not in the way we expect. Intimacy is full of paradoxes, and our healing comes not when we are finally able to “make” our partners give us what we think we need, but when we finally let go of it.

Hoping your best is yet to come,

Hayden