Do You Provoke Your Partner?

5 habits you may not realize are creating conflict in your relationship.

I often tell couples I work with to avoid playing the blame game. It tends to be pretty easy for many of us to list off the things our partner is doing wrong or to describe how they provoke us. However, few of us take as much time to examine the patterns we engage in that provoke our partner. 

Investigating the patterns that may be pushing our partner away or creating conflict is a worthy endeavor. While this is not about blaming or turning against ourselves, it is about taking 100 percent power over our half of the dynamic. When we do, our interactions with our partner may shift for the better a lot more than we expect.

Exploring the ways we provoke actually offers us a tremendous amount of insight into ourselves. Many of our relationship patterns are learned from our personal history. From our earliest relationships, past experiences and hurtful ways we were treated influence how we expect relationships to work and others to behave. We may not realize it, but we actually engage in behaviors that help to recreate old, familiar scenarios, even if they were unpleasant or painful.

I often ask people who are describing something that annoyed them about their partner what they did right before their partner reacted. Once again, this isn’t about taking the blame for our partner’s actions. It’s about getting to know the sneaky self-sabotaging patterns we engage in that may be perpetuating problems in our relationships. Here are some of the common behaviors people have caught on to that have helped them change their ways of relating for the better.

  1. Withholding Things Your Partner Appreciates

While it may not feel obvious to us at first, upon digging deeper, we can start to catch on to ways we withhold from our partner in daily life. Whether it’s an act of affection, a moment of eye contact, or our full attention while they tell us a story, there are many ways we can overlook our partner and deny them the small acts of warmth that make them feel seen or acknowledged.

We may not notice this withholding, or we may feel justified in it. For instance, many people use stonewalling or withholding to punish their partner for things that have bothered them. “He’s been so distracted lately. Why should I get off my phone and ask about his day?” “All she wants to talk about are practical things. I’m just going to steer clear of her for a while.” This tit-for-tat way of relating winds up leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy of each person pushing their partner away. Both people feel denied by the other, and no one is willing to put their guard down and simply be kind to the other.

When we first get together, we take notice of the things we do that light our partner up. We delight in taking these actions and are generous with ourselves. As we lock into more negative behavior patterns with our partner, we tend to let these things fall by the wayside. We then wonder where all those sweet, loving feelings went. In reality, it often takes very little to soften our partner and ignite feelings of love and appreciation. A small act of warmth and recognition goes a long way. If we notice a resistance in ourselves to do something that brings our partner joy, that could be a sign we’re afraid or resisting closeness for reasons that have more to do with us than our partner.

2. Complaining About or Criticizing Your Partner

When we catch ourselves voicing a lot of complaints, corrections, and criticisms about our partner, it’s a sign that we’ve lost touch with them as a separate person. We may be distorting them by focusing on their worst traits. At these times, we fail to realize how our comments may be hurting or undermining our partner, and ultimately, provoking them to retaliate. When couples start relating as a “we” rather than as two autonomous individuals, they often cross lines they normally wouldn’t and treat their partner in the same disrespectful ways they treat themselves. We may be hard on our partner, tallying their mistakes, and building a case against them.

Once again, this process does us a great disservice as it undermines our feelings for our partner. We may say we love them, but we are not showing we love them by treating them with a level of care or respect or showing them as much interest or empathy. This will very likely trigger our partner to push back. They may feel defensive or angry, or they may shut down and retreat. Either way, we are taking an action that provokes emotional distance. 

The point here is not to hate ourselves for being critical. Most people struggle with having critical or attacking thoughts toward themselves and their partner. The interesting thing is to explore the themes of these thoughts and identify why they may be coming up. Do they echo dynamics of our past? Ways our parents treated or spoke to each other? Ways we often get hurt or feel mistreated? For example, a partner not helping around the house may make us feel isolated and overwhelmed. A partner forgetting something we asked them may make us feel invisible or unimportant. These triggered feelings often resonate with pieces of our past. Getting ahold of them can help us be less reactive in the present.

3. Saying Things You Know Will Trigger Your Partner

In addition to getting triggered ourselves, we all know the buttons we can push to provoke our partner. We may fall into using certain tones, looks, and language to which our partner is particularly sensitive. We may even use these things as weapons when we are feeling off within ourselves. 

This type of provocation may not always be completely conscious or malicious, but it’s important to get to know our partner’s triggers and understand that they also likely come from an old and painful place. If we heighten our awareness and up our sensitivity, we can seek out more collaborative and compassionate ways to communicate with our partner. If, for instance, we notice they feel easily hurt or criticized when we use a certain term with them like “lazy” or “dramatic,” we may consider that these words are triggering their own self-attacks. 

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give our partner honest feedback, but we can find ways to do so without getting heated or defining them. We can even share that we notice their sensitivity to certain things, and they may have insight into why that is. It makes a huge difference to come from a place of caring and wanting to understand them rather than wanting to punish or change the other person, which is often what we communicate when we’re looking to provoke.

4. Getting Them to Voice Your Self-critical Thoughts

We are often both our own worst critic and worst enemy. When we’re close to someone whose positive way of seeing us differs from the negative ways we see ourselves, we should be on the lookout for walls we put up and how we may be intolerant of this acknowledgment. When we see ourselves in a certain light, we expect others to do the same. We may interpret (or misinterpret) things our partner says to us to fit this expectation. We may read between the lines of what they’re saying, or we may even finally provoke them to say the very things we’re afraid to hear.

For example, one man I worked with couldn’t stand his wife always reminding him to do things, because it made him feel like she thought he was stupid. However, he’d often forget to do the exact things she’d remind him about. He didn’t realize it, but he was taking a tangible action to perpetuate the idea that she thought of him as stupid. When he finally opened up to her about his reaction, he was surprised by how sad he felt. He realized how much he was criticized for being “absentminded” and “irresponsible” when he was growing up. As he started to understand where his heightened reaction came from, he could accept that his wife didn’t feel critical of his intelligence, and he even stopped forgetting things. This is a very common pattern among couples. We project a lot of ideas we have about ourselves from our past, and we provoke our partners to reinforce these ideas.

5. Provoking Them to Treat Us in Ways We Were Treated

In the same way that we may provoke our partner to voice our self-critical thoughts, we may also act in ways that provoke a certain reaction that we’ve come to expect based on our history. For example, if we grew up in a house where people blew up and got into a lot of loud arguments, we may start yelling at our partner when we feel frustrated. When our partner yells back, however, we may feel triggered and terrible, because it stirs up all the old feelings of being in a chaotic household.

If we grew up in a house where no one opened up and people were withdrawn, and we often felt isolated or rejected, we may find ourselves fearing rejection from our partner as adults. However, we may engage in behaviors such as excessively seeking reassurance, acting clingy, or being jealous in ways that push our partner away and lead to the rejection we have come to expect. We’ve then created the exact scenario we feared. Once again, it doesn’t feel good, but it fits our old, painful model of what makes sense to us and how relationships work.

Understanding the ways we provoke our partner is a process that’s valuable, because it helps us uncover the working models we hold and the behavior patterns we’ve created to reinforce them. It’s really an exercise in self-exploration that can improve any relationship we have with anyone. Engaging in this process empowers us to create the relationships we truly want by giving up provoking behaviors and taking a chance on letting someone get emotionally close to us. It can be scary in part, because it means letting go of an old, negative self-image we have incorporated early in our lives. But it is worth it to truly get to know ourselves and our partner and to have the pleasure of an emotionally close relationship.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012). Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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