3 Ways That 'Reaction Formation' Can Ruin A Relationship

Faking it 'till you make it is not conducive for a healthy relationship. Here's why authenticity is key.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 08, 2024

Many people come to therapy with complaints about their relationships, often unaware of the underlying psychological mechanisms at play. They may say things like:

  • "I don't understand why I'm always so nice to my partner when deep down, I feel so angry and resentful. I keep telling myself that I love them, but my actions seem over the top and fake."
  • "My partner constantly puts me down, yet I find myself praising them and trying to win their approval. Why do I go out of my way to support someone who treats me so poorly?"
  • "I get really critical of my partner, but then I feel guilty and start showering them with compliments. This cycle is exhausting and I don't know how to break free from it."

These complaints often point to a deeper issue known as reaction formation. Reaction formation is a defense mechanism that occurs when an individual feels an unacceptable impulse or emotion but responds by exhibiting the opposite behavior. For example, a person who feels deep-seated hostility toward a partner might exhibit exaggerated affection and devotion. This mechanism serves to protect the individual from the anxiety associated with their true feelings.

Four ways reaction formation manifestations in a relationship are:

  • Exaggerated affection. Partners may show excessive affection or kindness, masking feelings of resentment, anger, or frustration. This over-the-top affection serves as a defense mechanism against acknowledging negative emotions, both to themselves and their partner.
  • Overzealous support. A partner might go out of their way to support and praise the other, even when unwarranted. This is common in relationships with emotional abuse or manipulation, where supportive behavior is an unconscious attempt to counteract underlying feelings of inadequacy or hostility.
  • Hyper-criticism turning into praise. Criticism and disapproval can morph into unwarranted praise and validation. This confuses the partner and destabilizes the relationship, creating a cycle of dependency and emotional turmoil.
  • Control disguised as care. Control and possessiveness can be disguised as concern and care. One partner might impose strict boundaries or exhibit controlling behaviors under the guise of wanting to protect the other, masking underlying insecurities or fears of abandonment.

Reaction formation deeply affects both individuals, leading to complex and damaging emotional dynamics. Here are specific ways it impacts those entangled in such relationships.

1. Emotional Disconnection

When individuals consistently hide their true feelings, they risk losing touch with their authentic selves, leading to a fragmented self-identity and increased psychological distress.

This disconnect arises from living a double life: one governed by suppressed emotions and another by artificially constructed opposite feelings. Over time, this internal conflict can be draining and bewildering, undermining one's sense of identity. It may even lead to what researchers describe as existential loneliness—characterized by feelings of emptiness, alienation and a sense of not belonging, even in the presence of others.

To effectively manage emotional disconnection and reconnect with your true selves, try these following strategies:

  • Art therapy. Consider enrolling in a structured art therapy program or workshop led by a licensed therapist. These programs are designed to help participants explore and express their suppressed emotions through various forms of art, such as painting, drawing or sculpting. The therapeutic environment provides professional guidance and support, making it easier to delve into and process hidden emotions.
  • Reflective writing. Adopt a regular practice of reflective writing, such as journaling or creative writing. Set aside time each day or week to write about your thoughts and feelings. This structured approach can help you gain clarity and insight into your emotional experiences, promoting a deeper understanding of your true self. You can even use prompts or guided writing exercises to facilitate this process.

2. Perpetuation Of Toxic Dynamics

Maintaining a façade of positivity often blocks you from addressing underlying issues, perpetuating toxicity. This false positivity hinders conflict resolution, allowing problems to fester and undermine the relationship.

Avoidance creates fragile harmony that may collapse under stress, leading to explosive confrontations. Additionally, oscillating between displays of false affection and suppressed resentment creates a destructive cycle of emotional dependency.

This dynamic is further complicated by the correlation between emotional dependence and impulsive behavior, as highlighted in recent studies. Individuals driven by emotional dependence often seek immediate reassurance and fear abandonment, making hasty decisions without considering long-term consequences.

For instance, during disagreements or when feeling insecure, a person might impulsively shower their partner with exaggerated affection and unwavering support to alleviate their fear of rejection and maintain a sense of closeness.

Here are two strategies to help create a more transparent, respectful and emotionally stable relationship environment:

  • Integrate mind-body awareness technique. Tune into your body's responses during conflicts. Notice physical sensations like tension or discomfort. Practices such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation or gentle yoga can help you address genuine feelings rather than masking them with false positivity.
  • Identify patterns together. Spend time with your partner identifying recurring patterns in your relationship. Note how arguments start, what triggers them and how you each respond. Discussing your family backgrounds can also provide insights into how past experiences shape your current behavior. Understanding these patterns helps break the cycle of reaction formation by addressing underlying causes.

3. Impact On Self-Esteem

Inconsistent behaviors not only foster emotional dependency but also inflict damage on self-esteem. Mixed signals can induce confusion, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. Excessive praise despite mistreatment distorts one's sense of self-worth and competence.

The individual may internalize their partner's negative behavior, assuming blame for relationship problems. Diminished self-esteem complicates leaving toxic relationships, perpetuating cycles of abuse and dependency.

Two practical ways to manage the impact on self-esteem are:

  • Develop self-worth practices. This involves embracing mindfulness exercises to observe and understand emotions without judgment. When confronted with triggers that might otherwise lead to impulsive reactions, practicing mindfulness enables individuals to pause, take a deep breath and respond clearly rather than becoming immediately entangled in their emotions. Alternatively, engaging in creative outlets, such as playing music that resonates with one's emotions, as highlighted in a 2016 study, provides a healthy avenue for self-expression and introspection. This approach creates a safe environment for emotional expression, facilitating the easing of accumulated sadness.
  • Set boundaries and stick to them. Clearly define your boundaries in the relationship regarding how you expect to be treated and what behaviors are unacceptable. Communicate these boundaries calmly and assertively to your partner, emphasizing your need for respect and consistency. Once you've defined your boundaries, consistently uphold your boundaries by taking action when they are crossed. This might involve calmly expressing your discomfort, taking a break from the interaction or seeking support from a trusted friend or therapist. Enforcing boundaries reinforces your self-respect and signals to your partner the importance of treating you with care.

Is your relationship suffering because of reaction formation? Take the Authenticity In Relationships Scale to learn more.

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