Befriending the Dragon: Decreasing Relationship Reactivity
In attempting to help clients figure out how to decrease relationship reactivity during their relationships, I’ve come up with a metaphor that helps people begin practicing a more confident and peaceful responses. Before I get to that, I’ll describe high reactivity through the same metaphor. Imagine that your partner has started a conversation with a bit of a barb in it. Maybe they walk into the kitchen while you are about your business and say, “Why are you doing that?” The extra emphasis on “that” belies contempt for the way you are doing it beneath the seemingly innocuous question. Maybe just to add a bit of flair to this description, we can even imagine that your partner has added that particular quirk to their head that you know suggests a degree of insult to the question. This partner of yours, having lobbed the opening salvo has just breathed fire in your direction and you are the armor-clad knight in the line of fire.
High Reactivity: Fighting the Dragon
Some people will take the dragon’s singeing assault as an invitation to begin the conflict and reply with an equally snide, “What do you mean, what am I doing? I’m making dinner! If you don’t like the way I’m doing it, you can do it yourself!” Maybe your reactivity isn’t that extreme. Maybe you just reply in a tight clipped tone, “I’m making dinner. Why?” The dragon, being in their own mind a knight just like you, hears that defensive “why?” as your first flaming breath weapon and this sets them on defense. Maybe the conflict escalates from there by small measures until, by the time you are eating the dinner and she asks how your mother is doing, the conflict opens up into full scale competitive volcanic eruptions.
High Reactivity: Running Away from the Dragon
The fair knight so burned, retreats from the field of battle. Maybe after your partner asks you why you are doing it “that” way you avoid the conflict by internalizing the criticism you hear. The wound is just another of those small wounds that leaves you seething beneath the surface. You might think to yourself, “What would I say back to the them anyway?” and your thoughts might continue, “They’re always going on like that.” So you decide that there’s nothing I can do about them. you’ll just nurse these third-degree emotional burns for later passive-aggressive eye-rolling at a later date. Even though you didn’t openly create a conflict, you have engaged in high reactivity. You withdrew and fostered resentments [LINK] which decrease intimacy and increase the risk for future conflict
How to Befriend the Dragon
There are two steps to befriending the dragon, protecting yourself with a fire-proof tower shield and asking to be friends with the dragon.
Lower Reactivity: Fire-Proof Shield
That first moment of criticism, blame, or dismissal must be met with some method of protecting one’s self from the flame. Here are a couple of my favorites with a specific example of how it would apply in the example of the partner who comes into the kitchen asking about why you are doing it like “that”.
- Confidence in your good nature: Your internal dialogue might deflect the implied criticism by just reminding yourself, “I’m doing good work here and I’m pretty sure that I know how to do it.”
- Confidence in your partner’s good nature: You might deflect your partner’s irritating tone by reminding yourself that “They love me and that whatever the source of that tone, it probably isn’t my kitchen skills.”
- Contextualizing this issue in a larger frame of reference: Sometimes, especially if fire-breathing is rare in your relationship, you can remember that in the grand scheme of your lives together this moment of criticism is relatively minor and infrequent.
One way or another, if you can avoid personalizing the criticism and demonizing your partner, you can keep cool despite the fire breathing dragon and then ask for a parley.
Lower Reactivity: Asking to be Friends
So, your partner breathed fire at you for a second. Your next response helps determine whether the nascent conflict escalates or deescalates. Here are some of my favorite ways to make friends out of dragons, again with illustrative examples from the kitchen:
- Curiosity: With a gentle tone you reply, “Just making dinner. Why do you ask?”
- Empathy: With a gentle tone you reply, “I’m just making dinner. What’s going on for you?”
- Naming the Challenge: With a gentle tone, “I’m just making dinner. Is there something wrong? It sounded like you might be critical of something I’m doing?”
- Take off your armor: Without anger but with vulnerability you say, “Hey, I’m a little vulnerable today and I’m not sure if you meant to but it sounded like you were being critical of me. Can you be gentle with me?”
- Name the burn: Gently you say, “I’m trying to make dinner but when you come in and use that tone, I feel deflated because my need for encouragement isn’t met. Can you say that again a little softer?” [Bonus points to you dear reader if you recognize this as an example of non-violent communication]
- Identify the impulse to fight: Gently you say, “When you come in and ask me what I’m doing with that tone, I find myself inclined to be defensive or to fight back. I don’t want to fight because I love you. Could you ask that question in a way that helps me be more gentle with you in response?”
- Do over: Playfully you say, :That tone was a little heated. Want a do over?”
There are probably an infinite number of other ways to befriend the dragon and sometimes using the metaphor helps you find a new. So rather than simply ending this entry I’m going to leave you with some work. Below is a bullet list of concepts from within the metaphor, try to imagine yourself what that metaphor might look like if applied to real life:
- Bring the dragon flowers.
- We all know dragons can’t breath fire when they laugh or smile right? How could you make your dragon smile?
- Give the dragon a glass of water to douse the flames.
- Remove a thorn from the dragon’s paw.