Proactive and reactive behavior in a relationship

Living and Learning

Submitted Ethen Gillespie
Building Strong Families

So you want things to change in your relationship. You are not happy with the way things are going.
This is a cause of much frustration and anxiety. You find yourself thinking “if my partner would do this, things would be better”. “I’m not going to be happy or things are not going to get better until my partner changes his/her behavior.” We may even find ourselves trying to change them to fit our ideal.
Sound familiar? One of the keys to being happy and content is to identify what we can and cannot control. In Franklin Covey’s Eight Habits of a Successful Marriage we learn that the only thing we have control over is ourselves – our thoughts, our feelings and our actions/behavior etc. That is our Circle of Control. We have no control over our spouse’s behavior, outside influences, past mistakes etc. That’s our Circle of No Control. We are not responsible for their action. However, we are responsible for how we respond. Taking responsibility for and focusing on our behavior is called proactive behavior. Proactive behavior means that you pause, think and choose your response based on the possible consequences of your actions on you, your spouse and/or your relationship. It’s like dealing with the rain. You cannot make it stop raining, so rather than screaming at the rain to stop; you adapt your behavior so that the rain does not stop you. You get out the umbrella, rain coat, boots and whatever else it takes and do what you need to do. That’s proactive behavior, which means you take control of you.
A good way to understand the difference between reactive behavior and proactive behavior is to take a bottle of water and a bottle of a carbonated drink. Shake them both vigorously. Even though both bottles of liquid had the same experience, the responses were different. The soda was ready to explode. This represents reactive behavior. The bottle of water remained calm. This represents proactive behavior. Two people may have the same unpleasant experience but each respond in a different way. One person may explode, curse fight, etc. That’s reactive behavior, where no thought or consideration is given to the consequences of his/her actions. When you are reactive, you act as if you have no choice, and allow no space (time) between what is happening and your response. This type of behavior tends to foster low trust, simply because of the uncertainty of how the person is going to react.
Reactive people tend to focus on their Circle of No Control – your spouse or someone else’s behavior, outside influences, past mistakes, etc. Imagine the feeling if you spent all of your time thinking about things that you can’t control. You probably would feel, frustrated, worried, and helpless. You might respond without taking the space (time) you need to take control of you and consider the consequences of your actions.
Proactive behavior means that a person thinks before they act- they pause, think and choose their response considering the consequences of their actions. When you are focused on your Circle of Control – your behavior, thoughts and feelings, you gain control and become proactive. You take control of yourself by taking the space you need to make correct choices.
To learn more about reactive and proactive behavior and ways to promote a healthy marriage contact Ethen Gillespie at the Building Strong Families office at 662-615-0033. Building Strong Families is a federally funded grant awarded to the Starkville School District’s Department of Family Centered Programs.