By Dr. Richard Nicastro
It is extremely distressing to feel as if your words and actions have no impact (or no longer matter) to your spouse/partner—to think that someone whom you love deeply is no longer engaged fully in the relationship or interested in what’s important to you can be extremely painful.
When you feel like your spouse/partner is not being responsive to you (and to your needs), two outcomes become likely:
1. Initially, you may “up the ante” in order to have some kind of impact on your spouse/partner– this might involve yelling, becoming more provocative, elevating your emotional responses, acting in ways that are uncharacteristic for you (in attachment literature these types of reactions are called “protest” behaviors—your protests are a reflection of losing something extremely important to you; this can be the love of your partner, the security of your relationship, or both).
Is it fair to say that at some point most of us would react negatively (protest) if we perceived our spouse/partner to be unavailable and unresponsive to our needs?
2. When you feel ignored for extended periods of time, your sense of despair can turn into feelings of hopelessness—you give up on trying to engage your spouse/partner and begin to retreat (this is a self-protective behavior—in essence, you’re cutting your loses). This may take the form of indifference, withdrawal behaviors, and disengaging from the relationship in general (and the responsibilities that are a part of the relationship).
Typically a protest reaction isn’t random: Protest behaviors (getting really upset when your partner isn’t responding in predictable ways that make you feel secure in the relationship) occur in a particular context; and the triggering event is usually feeling anxious about losing the security of your relationship.
Relationship Help: Let’s break down this reaction:
An unresponsive/disengaged/uninterested partner =>
triggers increased anxiety and worry in the other partner, who then =>
attempts to reengage the unresponsive partner (for example, “We need to talk,” or “What’s wrong?”) =>
and if the other partner is still not responsive, protest behaviors are triggered.
Your protest behaviors (whether your protest behaviors are perceived as nagging, pestering, yelling, or some kind of increased emotionality like anger) are in effect attempts to try and correct the problem—ideally it’s an attention-grabbing reaction that will let your spouse know that something is wrong that needs fixing.
Think of protest behaviors as an alarm sounding in an effort to grab your partner’s attention to what needs to be addressed.
Marital/relationship problems can arise when these temporary reactions (feeling one’s spouse/partner is unconcerned and unresponsive) are not addressed and become ingrained patterns.
I hope this sheds some light on why you seem to get so upset with your spouse (or why we all get upset with our spouse/partner at times). Whenever we allow a loved one special access to our hearts, feeling ignored by this person is going to feel like a major deal.
Richard Nicastro, Ph.D. is a psychologist and relationship coach with over fifteen years experience helping individuals and couples live more fulfilling lives.