Pushing Buttons

Couples Therapy Sterling VA

If you’ve been in a relationship for any length of time, I’m sure you can think of ways that your partner “pushes your buttons,” or activates emotional reactivity in you. Couples frequently tell me about ways that they touch a nerve, push a button, or poke at a soft spot in their interactions, and these experiences are often either part of a conflict cycle or lead to one. For example, of one partner has a propensity to take the other’s negative feelings personally–even when the target of the emotion is something else–that person is likely to have an amplified reaction to the other’s feelings (e.g., frustration) and struggle to stay productively engaged in conversation. Frustration, in this case, is “pushing a button” connected to feelings of blame, shame, and responsibility; these feelings then take over a disproportionate amount of mental bandwidth, resulting in distraction from the important interaction and potentially productive conversation taking place.

What makes these dynamics especially difficult to handle is the fact that the person whose button is getting pushed often blames the button-pusher for that negative experience, without doing the hard work of examining why that button exists or working to make it less sensitive. In the above example, the narrative might go something like this:

  • Partner A: “I’m feeling frustrated that we keep coming up against this same struggle again and again. I wish we could find a way to communicate more effectively about this issue so that we don’t have to keep having the same argument.”
  • Partner B: (Thinking) There she goes, being frustrated again. It’s like I can never do anything right! All she cares about is letting me know what I’ve done wrong and how I’ve inconvenienced her. Blah, blah, blah. “OK, you’re frustrated! Shocker. What did I do wrong this time?!”
  • Partner A: Confused, backpadaling, now focused on calming partner B down.
  • Partner B: Amped up, primed for conflict, picking apart anything Partner A says.
  • Partner A: Fatigued, gives in to the fight.

There is a better, more collaborative way to tackle these problematic patterns, and making a difference here can have hugely positive effects on the relationship. Couples who improve or overcome these dynamics successfully understand that responsibility lies on both sides of the interaction; attention must be paid to the button-pushing from both sides. The person pushing the button needs to work on becoming more aware of it, understanding where that sensitivity comes from, and taking care to push it less often and less forcefully. At the same time, the person who owns the button must attend to their own self-awareness, work on making the button less sensitive, and not rushing to unfounded conclusions–like taking things personally rather than being able to frame problems as jointly owned.

If you can identify buttons (your own or your partner’s) that get pushed in your relationship, you’re off to a good start here. The next step is to agree to work on these together, and that means being willing to be held accountable to each other when the dynamic pops up in a conversation. It’s good and healthy to be able to say to each other, “I think this is pushing a button for me, and I need a minute to get my head around it to make sure I react in a healthy way,” or “I want to talk about something that has led us to an argument in the past, so want to first make sure that you know that even though I’m feeling some tough emotions, they’re not about you — they’re just about the situation, and I need you to be my teammate in figuring them out.” Agree to tackle these conversations honestly and collaboratively, and you’ll find yourself naturally doing the work that needs to be done on those buttons–together.

What buttons get pushed in your relationship?

Lindsey Hoskins, PhD, LMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in both the Sterling and Bethesda offices. Call 703-951-6409 or email lindsey@lindseyhoskins.com to set up your first appointment or a complimentary telephone consultation today!