10 ways to improve your Relationship by Responding Reflectively and not Reflexively

Published on January 18, 2013

Imagine the following scenario. One member of a committed couple arrives home 45 min late. The other member of the couple who spent hours preparing a nice meal feels unappreciated and angrily snaps “Why are you so late?” This seems like an attack to the other mate who was laid off that day due to the financial crisis and is feeling hungry, angry, and tired, and they yell back “Why are you always nagging?” As you can well imagine, the verbal and emotional interchange between them becomes progressively more negative and stressful after this. They love each other but they both have reacted reflexively in ways that are toxic to the relationship.

Whereas the above scenario is a single incident which can be repaired, couples frequently make this kind of automatic reflexive reacting their main form of interacting. In fact, one of the most common habits detrimental to harmonious intimate relationships is saying things in the heat of an argument that you later regret. Many couples habitually, without thinking, say or do things which poison their relationships. As Jon Carlson, a seasoned couple therapist says, they are “spitting in their own soup”.

When I ask clients who come for couple therapy why they react reflexively without thinking about the consequences, they often reply “He (or she) must learn the truth about their bad behaviour.” Yet when I ask if they use this strategy with their boss at work, most will admit that they do not. But they argue that with one’s mate it is absolutely necessary to be truthful; the truth being what that person is thinking at that moment. Of course, honesty is an important ingredient in a marriage but automatically responding with whatever comes into your mind during a disagreement is not honesty, it can be a recipe for disaster!

couple quarrel

Couples, who have no serious difficulties such as infidelity or mental illness in one partner, allow their maladaptive habit of acting reflexively to destroy their relationship. Reflective responding is absolutely necessary to negotiate and resolve the many complex differences that arise in all relationships. The objective of this post is to discuss strategies to improve your ability to respond reflectively, i.e. thoughtfully, even in high stress situations, whether it be with your mate, a friend or someone at work.

Description of the 2 Basic Ways Humans Interact with Each Other

Reflexive Reacting

We are respond reflexively when our hand touched a hot stove and we quickly pull our hand back. We don’t have to think about doing it, it just happens automatically and with great speed. Such reflex actions protect us from injury or even death. However in modern complex society acting reflexively, in many situations, can get us into a lot of trouble.

Reflective responding

Humans are highly social animals and as such we have to learn how to act reflectively (thoughtfully) in our social group and in our intimate relationships. If we act automatically without reflecting on the social consequences of our actions, we are likely to be ostracized by our social group or rejected by our mate.

For a highly interdependent species, rejection is extremely dangerous not only to our happiness but to our physical health and even survival. Therefore we have evolved brain mechanisms to inhibit automatic responding if appropriate and instead respond reflectively. The brain mechanism underlying reflective responding permitted the individual to tolerate some pain or to delay immediate gratification in order to obtain longer term goals.

An example of reflective responding is a situation in which we hold on to a plate so hot it hurts us but we don’t want to drop it because it is loaded with our favorite food. In such a situation we force ourselves to hold on to the plate long enough to put it down safely. This is a much more complicated process than reflexively just dropping the plate; it requires us to inhibit the reflex response and take time to think of a more suitable response and then to actually put the decision into effect.

Like reflex reacting, reflective responding can be very helpful under certain circumstances. However, reflective responding has evolved much more recently in our evolutionary history than reflex reacting and can be superseded by it under high stress and arousal situations such as when a couple get into a heated argument. Fortunately there are ways to strengthen your potency to respond reflectively.

10 Strategies for Improving Reflective Responding

I provide a brief description of these techniques below but of course there are many books etc available which provide more details.

1. Practice Awareness, Control and Effort (ACE) during daily activities

Practice Awareness, Control and Effort (ACE). The idea here is to increase your awareness of your feelings, thoughts and behaviors so that you can exert control over them and not just let the feeling reflexively control you. Only when you become aware of your feelings can you exert control over them. Exerting such control involves effort. Practice all three (becoming aware or present, controlling your emotions or behaviors, and exerting effort to do these.

You can practice ACE during a variety of daily activities from ironing clothes to waiting in queues. Saying mentally to yourself “Awareness, Control, and Effort” (ACE) during such tasks can increase our ability to engage in reflective responding by focusing separately on awareness, control, and effort. For example when running, you can ask yourself the question "What am I doing it for?" to bring awareness to the activity. You can then ask yourself  "Is my running form correct? Is my breathing technique correct? Is my pace wide enough?" to exert control over the activity. Finally one can learn to conciously increase the effort to run faster or to increase the length of the running strides.. Doing this moves you from reflexively experiencing an event to being the observer of it.

Remember that practice is necessary to become good at any difficult task including controlling the mind by responding reflectively.

2. Yoga: Increase ACE through formal Breathing and Exercise training

Yoga, an ancient and effective discipline, provides a formal structure for you to practice the ACE technique to improve your awareness and control over the mind-body system. Yoga has the advantage of having experienced experts to assist you in the training and the social support and stimulation of a group.

Yoga teaches you how to make precise body movements to obtain precise body postures. The breathing and body movement exercises requires you to learn to become aware of the signals from your body in order to smoothly and gently carry out the breathing and muscle exercises. It can also involve learning to exert effort although I think this is taken to a too great a degree in Power Yoga for instance.

3. Meditation: e.g. Mindfulness Meditation

There are a variety of ways to meditate but one which fits naturally with the ACE approach is mindfulness meditation in which you meditates and become aware of your own thoughts and patterns of thinking. Mindfulness meditation can increase your capacity for reflective awareness if practiced regularly e.g. twice a day.


4. Use stress management techniques to maintain an optimal level of stress over the long term (eustress)

A prerequisite for effective utilization of reflective responding is that you must not be too aroused or too stressed even before entering into the possible conflict situation with your mate. Therefore it is extremely useful to include stress management strategies as part of your life style e.g. getting balance of work and rest.


5. Take care of your basic needs

It has been shown that mental control requires effort and is fatiguing. Therefore it is important not to let yourself be too tired when you are going to have an important discussion with your mate. In fact it is a good idea not too be too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (HALT used in Alanon groups) because these states increase our tendency to fall back to automatic reflex responding just out of survival motivation.


6. The “Stop, Breathe, Reflect” strategy

John Gottman, a leader in couple therapy, has studied couples engaging in arguments and found that when highly aroused the “fight or flight or freeze” response is activated which makes reflective responding difficult. As soon as you become aware that your level of arousal (stress) has increased as a result of some behavior or statement of your partner say “stop” to yourself mentally, then take a deep breath to induce relaxation. There is a natural wave of relaxation which accompanies the act of breathing out. You may have to take a series of such deep breaths. The important thing is that such deep breathing induces relaxation and permits you to engage in reflective responding. The latter allows you to take time to reflect calmly about how best to respond.


7. Use appropriate Self-Talk

What we say to ourselves when we are confronted with a stressful situation is profoundly important in determining how we will react reflectively. There are a variety of statements which can induce reflective responding such as:. “How important is it?” (from Alanon); “Don’t drop bombs and don’t respond to bombs.” (Pia Mellody); “Don’t spit in your own soup” (Jon Carlson).

If you are spiritual, you can use your favorite prayer. Millions of 12 step program people use the “Serenity Prayer” (origin debated).

“God grant me the serenity to

accept the things I cannot change

Courage to change the things I can

And wisdom to know the difference.”


8. Brain training of restraint and impulse control e.g. computer games designed for such training.

There are video games developed to help children with ADHD improve their concentration and reduce implusivity. This may help you to build your ability to react reflectively.


9. Introduce novelty or humor

A tried and true strategy to maintaining both you and your partner in the reflective state is to liberally sprinkle the relationship with novelty and humor. The latter should be of the self-deprecating kind. The novelty can be introduced into any activity you do with your mate from sex to playing games.


10. Take a “Time Out” to calm down after explaining this to your partner.

If even after taking all the above steps you find your stress level is too high, you can use the “Time Out” strategy. Be sure to explain first to your mate that you are taking about twenty minutes to go somewhere alone so that you can calm down and that you will return to discuss the issue later. However, make sure that you are not merely trying to delay addressing the issue and hope that it will go away.



1. ACE: practice awareness, control and effort in daily activities.
2. Yoga: increase ACE through formal breathing and exercise training.
3. Meditation: e.g. mindfulness meditation
4. Use stress management techniques to maintain an optimal level of stress over the long term (eustress).
5. Take care of your basic needs
6. The “Stop, breathe, reflect” strategy.
7. Use appropriate self talk eg “How important is it?”. “Don’t drop bombs and don’t respond to bombs.”
8. Brain training of restraint and impulse control e.g. computer games designed for such training.
9. Introduce novelty or humor.
10. Take Time out to calm down after explaining this to your partner.


Concluding remarks

I hope I have provided an introduction to the important and fascinating topic of reflective responding. I have described strategies for you to strengthen your ability to respond reflectively in difficult interpersonal situations. Choose the particular strategies that you find suitable for you and practice them regularly so they naturally become part of your skills in thoughtful management of social relationships. You will improve your relationships be it with your intimate other, family, friends, or work colleagues.

As mentioned a few times, reflective responding is extremely difficult under high stress conditions. However with lots of practice of the techniques described here, one can still do so. In a real life incident, a well trained airline pilot, after a bird strike, landed his plane in the Hudson river without a single loss of life. In a similar way, if you practice the strategies mentioned here you can become a competent pilot of your mind and will be able to use reflective responding so that your relationship not only survive but thrive.

Category(s):Relationships & Marriage

Written by:

Brian Scott

Dr. Scott is a clinical psychologist based in Singapore with three decades of counseling and psychotherapy experience in helping adults with many kinds of psychological difficulties. These include anxiety, depression, addictions (cybersex, love), and Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (Adult ADHD).

Brian Scott belongs to Scott Psychological Centre in Singapore

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