“I just don’t get why everything has to be a fight with you…”
When one of our Calgary Counselling Services clients utters those words to their partner, they usually see them as simple complaining. Few see them as meaning much about the marriage, and even fewer of them see those words as a measurement of relational health.
In contrast, most Calgary Counsellors didn’t make it past the first semester of graduate school without being taught to see those words as a rare but critical indicator of impending relationship chaos, which is precisely what they are. When Ros and I opened our Calgary counselling centre here in 1998, we would hear those words uttered so rarely that they would be a topic of conversation.
The problem is, they’re no longer rare.
As COVID-19 has rocked our society, we and other Calgary therapists have seen a distinct shift in the types and severity of conflicts that are coming through our doors. Most conflicts used to be about issues internal to the relationship; disputes about external matters like safety, vaccination, wearing masks and protecting others are new and shockingly severe. The credibility-free media sources, conspiracy theories, science denialism, anti-masker rallies, the willingness to disrupt entire family gatherings or funerals and disown family members are all increasing in frequency and intensity for members of so many otherwise normal couples or families.
It would be easy to write those conflicts off as related to a changed situation and simple stress, but simple answers can’t fully explain why otherwise stable relationships are so suddenly near disintegration.
Couple and family conflict, of course, is as old as the human race, but something unique and extreme is happening here.
In his work, Interpretations, Bruce M. Morgan states that:
“You can always tell more about a person when they are dealing with an emotional crisis. The veils are lowered…they become more transparent…and they reveal the true essence of who they are……”
It’s an apt description of the internal crisis so many people are experiencing as COVID-19 causes certain freedoms to be restricted:
They never knew a side of a family member or the partner they married decades ago.
Calgary Counselling Services: Why must everything be a fight?
In 1966, J. W. Brehm published his groundbreaking study of the extreme degree of resistance some people exhibit when they perceive that their freedoms are being restricted. In his book, A theory of psychological reactance, he detailed how this personality trait causes people to become convinced they possess the right to engage in so-called “free-behaviors,” intensely resist the social influence of others and aggressively fight to regain perceived freedom.
He described how the trait of Reactance leads people to manufacture internal or self-imposed threats via internal narratives about being forced to choose and then channel that internal distress onto external interpersonal or legal barriers to their perceived rights.
And, most importantly, he noted how little self-awareness most people displaying this trait possess as they rail against the injustice they see in their worlds.
Reactance is somewhat unique among general psychological problems in how incredibly situational it is. People often will fall in love with and marry a person with this personality trait while laughing off the few signs they see as “A rebellious streak,” “Getting over teenage rebellion,” or being “A rebel without a cause.”
People possessing a high degree of psychological reactance will often choose self-employment, create their own highly controlled worlds and only occasionally rant at authority figures or pick fights with their partners over control issues.
In other words, they appear to be relatively normal and even high functioning people – until something like COVID-19 related restrictions begin to impinge upon their freedom to determine how and when to conduct their behaviours.
Suddenly, some of our Calgary marriage counselling clients have found themselves dealing with a person awash in a sea of negative thoughts and beliefs about a situation. Those ideas usually orbit the conspiratorial evil of others and how they are scheming to control and harm him, her or the world. They generate a disproportionate anger response, intense physiological arousal, aggressive stances of resistance and a vehement outrage that is instantly directed towards anyone who would attempt to moderate either the irrational beliefs or responses to them.
Usually, it’s a confused and overwhelmed intimate partner or family member trying to moderate those beliefs…
Calgary Counselling Services: What creates Reactant Traits?
In 2003, three researchers by the names of Buboltz, Johnson and Woller set out to study what sort of family issues generate the phenomenon of Psychological Reactance. Their paper, Psychological Reactance in College Students: Family-of-Origin Predictors, is an eye-opening depiction of how no one should raise children.
Their research focused on a handful of core dimensions of family system function. It revealed a complex interplay between those elements that appears far more extensive than the sum of their parts:
Most studies of family relationships very clearly suggest that highly conflicted and abusive homes create significant harm to their children. Given that the opposite of that conflicted relationships is defined as a cohesive family, it may be surprising to learn that family cohesion is associated with the development of reactance. However, the devil is in the details of this finding.
What the researchers really discovered is that family relationships exist on a continuum. While conflicted and fragmented homes damage children, it is also possible to have a home that is so cohesive that children cannot develop their own identities. Children need to build their own identities and require some degree of autonomy from their caregivers to explore who they are. While every child needs security and structure, problems occur when that protection prevents minor rebellions, social exploration in a school environment, teenage stupidity and trying anything other than what the parents approve of.
In that environment, the child never learns flexible autonomy and instead finds a sense of self in fighting rather than self-discovery.
Healthy spirituality and faith can often provide children with a rich set of traditions, internal comforts and a coherent set of organizing principles for life and decision making. This, of course, is how most homes that produce psychological reactance would represent themselves. The reality, however, is far from that.
Moral-Religious homes are built upon family systems that emphasize rules and structure over relationships. While some enforce military-style discipline without religion, most major on legalistic religious rules and science denialism while largely ignoring conversational intimacy with God.
They subject their children to fundamentalist religious organizations where the first half of the sermon is flooded with us-vs-them-elitism (and why it’s preached from the King James Bible) while the remainder is about how God hates sin. Sexual urges and longings are subjected to relentless out-of-context uses of Scripture to condemn such, and the core message of the relentless pursuit of the love of Christ is replaced with a constant fear of eternal punishment.
The relentless condemnation cancels a child’s ability to see the world in shades of grey, to accept others and value alternative perspectives.
Achievement-Oriented or Competitive Focus:
So much of our parenting lore surrounds the value of sports for children. Want to keep your children from drugs? Get them into sports. Want to prevent teen pregnancy? Give them something to do – like sports. Want to avert teenage rebellion? Show them how to function as part of a team – like a sports team. Too much of the child counselling Calgary has to offer really would be much more honestly rebranded as child performance enhancement counselling. Our schools promote honour rolls (which basically reward children for not being born with learning disabilities). Our universities continually raise the entry requirements as though high-school performance is even a remotely reliable or valid indicator of future success in life. Little wonder we are now seeing explosive growth rates in childhood mood disorders.
When a family embraces this sort of Darwinian/Survival-Of-The-Fittest focus, children rapidly learn that winning is not only the most important thing, it’s the only thing. Contrary to public opinion, this doesn’t create healthy children or protect them from drugs and promiscuity – it teaches them that life is a fight and other people are their opponents.
Every child needs to develop the ability to stand up for themselves and solve their own problems. There are, however, both healthy and unhealthy ways of teaching these skills to a child. Any Calgary child psychologist will tell you that the best learning occurs in the gap between what a child can do on their own and what they can do only with help. A child is stretched but not stressed in that gap, and growth in both skills and confidence occurs.
Assertive-assertive homes that focus on independent self-sufficiency tend to take a sink-or-swim approach instead. They are vocal opponents of so-called “Helicopter Parenting” and often claim that children just need to figure out life for themselves. And, their children do figure out one key thing: No one has my back.
This often creates a lifelong distrust of community and civic society.
How to create reactance issues in an entire province:
After over two decades of offering counselling in Calgary to individuals, couples, marriages and families, one fundamental fact has become evident: We live in a parallel universe here in Alberta. We have a particular sort of groupthink in this province that, when properly understood, immediately brings clarity to how low our compliance with public health guidelines/vaccination efforts are and how we have managed to achieve the fifth-highest COVID-19 infection rate in the world.
Family systems and localized standards of parenting eventually will shape more significant cultural norms. As a Psychologist in Calgary, I often hear people’s theories regarding how children should be parented that, too frequently, sound a lot like the above four points. And that kind of thinking and parenting has been going on for a long time.
That parenting style teaches children to avoid any critical assessment of their ideas and makes them quick to judge others. It forces them to operate from the unholy union of a perpetual sense of insecurity and an us-vs-them mentality. That combination multiplies the already existing struggles with healthy autonomy and makes the person highly susceptible to anything that offers a special status and insider information as conspiracy theories do.
And, when children subjected to the above realize that no one has their back and are forced to prioritize taking care of themselves, it’s no wonder so much of our current discourse in this province is about “fighting for my rights” and why everyone else is “stupid.”
Is fixing this mess even possible?
This is a complex problem and it’s far from easy to solve – especially via conventional means. Psychological Reactance is as much a social phenomenon as it is an internal issue. While our studies of this personality trait long predate the internet, the outrage-machine that is social media has created explosive growth in Reactance issues. Furthermore, it has also provided those suffering from it with self-validating communities that generate endless amounts of contrived supporting information that insulates them from seeing it as a problem.
While public health officials repeat a single message like: “Vaccines save lives.” Conspiracy theorists can push people’s buttons with an entire buffet of: “COVID-19 is a government plot.” “Vaccines contain dead babies.” “Vaccination will give you the virus/cancer/memory issues.” “Bill Gates is trying to implant you with microchips.” “Vaccination will make you infertile/lose your baby.” “Vaccination prevents you from believing in God.”
In 1971, your so-called “Weird Uncle” may have had one or two strange issues he ranted about at family gatherings. In 2021, he has the entire internet of Q-Anon, 911 Truthers, MAGA fanatics and other science-denying theorists to suggest grievances and fan the flames of perceived victimization.
Our society tends to focus on the conspiracy theories themselves, attempting to modify or eradicate them. But the theories are just the gasoline that gets poured on the fire. The fire itself is much more likely to be a set of family-of-origin-related wounds and unmet longings that create the elevated levels of Reactance in the first place.
Most mental health issues exist on a gradient. Early psychiatrists such as Eugen Bleuler noted that when he studied psychotic patients, their families often exhibited lower levels of the same symptoms. Subsequent theorists have postulated that environment and childhood or other experiences may play a significant role in determining if a person develops the majority of psychological disorders or merely remains “A little strange.”
That environment and those experiences are now everywhere.
A short time ago, all of North America was covered by stringent journalism laws that held journalists liable for publishing false news. Repealing those laws has not only broken trust in the media, it has also allowed the development of social media deliberately designed to spread falsehoods. Our unwillingness to regulate the outrage-based algorithms of Twitter, Facebook or political outlets pumping out alternative facts and fake news now makes exposure to those environmental variables inescapable. If a person possesses a reactant personality trait, there is now ALWAYS something that will trigger it and suck them in.
Until we develop the political will to regulate these new media monsters, little will change in the public square. But that doesn’t mean the same has to be true in the realm of marriage and family.
Counselling Services Calgary: Steps of fixing Reactance.
Honest skepticism is a rare and truly brave attribute in our society. A true skeptic comes with an open mind and a high degree of clarity about the kind of proof that would be required to change his or her mind.
A reactant stance that refuses to accept conventional understandings, on the other hand, is an expression of certainly that bears little resemblance to honest skepticism. Because reactance is unlikely to be based on the current situation and is mainly rooted in fear, it’s less about legitimate inquiry and more about a sort of religious fanaticism based on a commitment to unbridled freedom at any cost.
That path is pre-chosen and defined by feelings, cultural ideology, social connections or some narrative the person has come to believe. Those opinions are then supported by an endless supply of hearsay and contrived information on YouTube or some website. Even if you spend hours discrediting the first thirty videos, the position remains unshaken simply because no one ever has enough time to debunk all the rest of the contrived “Proof.”
Reactance is certain. It’s utterly convinced and 100% committed to a position both now – and always.
Thus, it is very challenging to work with.
However, two primary approaches have a chance of working:
- Short term: Focuses on changing behaviours alone.
- Long Term: Focuses on changing the heart.
Short term: Changing Behaviours:
Contrary to the rants of so many conspiracy theorists alleging COVID-19 to be a well-organized disinformation campaign, most of the virus-related messaging in North America has been hopelessly botched. Health authorities have relentlessly pounded the message that good people take care of others by wearing masks, maintaining social distance and getting vaccinated.
That messaging works wonderfully, but only on people who never needed to be convinced in the first place.
People whose thinking is shaped by high levels of Psychological Reactance, on the other hand, grow more and more resistant and suspicious with every new message of that nature because it sounds to them like a conspiracy of control.
Effective messaging for the highly resistant among us sounds more like:
- “You have the right to stay healthy.”
- “No one has the right to sneeze in your face.”
- “Demand your personal space back.”
- “Don’t let anyone make you sick.”
This messaging is a sort of reverse psychology that exploits Reactance itself to gain compliance. None of this fixes the problem, of course, but at least it saves lives.
Long Term: Changing Hearts:
There’s an old joke in the form of a question asking, “How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?”
The answer: “Only one, but the light bulb has to want to be changed.”
In this area, that desire for change is so difficult to come by. In my experience, highly reactant individuals seldom come to a desire for that change without first experiencing enormous relational, career or financial consequences from such – sometimes many times over. Many have attempted to comply with others or hide one set of beliefs or another without ever dealing with the deeply personal issues creating the problem.
Unfortunately, just hiding the problem never works for long.
Healing in this area is akin to cult-exit counselling and, among other areas, involves:
- Understanding and recognizing the nature of mind control.
- Grasping ideological and factual/organizational issues.
- Healing family of origin issues.
- Learning how to process emotion effectively.
- Addressing Internal conflicts.
- Replacing unhealthy cohesion with flexible autonomy.
- Developing interdependence.
- Moderating achievement-orientation.
- Replacing a moral-religious focus with healthy relational spirituality.
- Learning thought reform techniques.
- Understanding thoughtful vs. reactive decision-making.
- Reengaging critical thinking skills.
- Recognizing and developing the capacity for independent thought.
- Rebuilding shattered emotional connections.
It’s far from a brief therapy style of treatment, and it requires a significant investment of money and a far higher investment of personal time and effort. The good news is that change can happen!
Calgary Counselling Services: Find healing today!
As a psychologist in Calgary, I’m intimately acquainted with the distress so many spouses and partners of individuals with highly reactant traits experience. Our unique culture has a long and colourful history of fighting back against wise, selfless and safe remedies even long after becoming widely accepted. All Calgary therapists daily see how often we cling to the existing state of affairs solely because it is the status quo.
However, as difficult as highly reactant individuals can be, it’s essential to realize that they did not choose these traits. However misguided the approach may be, they can deeply love others and do long to make life better for the people they care about.
The combative stance they often assume usually masks a high degree of emotional sensitivity and fragility that can be leveraged to create lasting change.
The ideas our choices are based on and the impact they have matter a lot more than whatever ideas we are fighting for. Learning to see beneath the issue of the day and into the broken heart of the person is what the Calgary Counsellors or Registered Psychologists at our Calgary Counselling Services offices do every day – and we can do that for you and those you love.
Individual or Couples counselling Calgary – let’s start the process of change today!