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In the current Congressional battles, each side takes positions representing the thinking of their most powerful constituents. To cast a compromising vote holds the danger of arousing the anger of these supporters and the possible future loss of power and/or re-election.

This theme of political survival is a dramatic example of the destructive power behind a refusal to compromise when compromise is appropriate. A need to not compromise, particularly when tied to beliefs of survival, can follow a specific pattern of escalation. I find a similar pattern of escalation in couples seeking marital counseling, although the survival needs are not so obvious.

For example, Mary and John have been battling over the issue of selling their home; John wanting to sell, Mary wanting not to sell. Mary, who had been an “army brat,” had moved from one base to another as a child. She had found their house and loved the stability and continuity it offered her. John’s background was quite different. His was a childhood of too much stability and order – a childhood controlled by the need of his father to be the one and only authority. Imagine what happens as the dynamics and wounds of their pasts continue to play out, with each interchange hardening their respective positions and each reaction eliciting an even stronger reaction.
This would be the moment I would choose to explain to them my metaphor of how to understand the power of reactions.
After the United States dropped the atomic bomb, a whole series of new concepts and words were introduced, words like “nuclear reaction” that the public needed to understand. The scientists came up with a creative explanation: a film that captured the essence of the phenomenon. The filmmakers filled a small room with mousetraps each holding a ping-pong ball. All was quiet. Then a single ping-pong ball was tossed into the room — theoneandonlyaction. After that action, what occurred was all reaction, with mousetraps springing their balls in response to being hit. In just a few seconds the room exploded.

reaction> to greater reaction>to even greater reaction>to


The image of mousetraps holding ping-pong balls is useful and effective because it is an immediate and dramatic image of what’s behind chronic negative interactions that continue to trap two people –in gridlock and explosions. An individual can have an unresolved issue or a childhood wound sitting inside his or her psyche, not unlike a mousetrap holding a ping-pong ball. When someone close to that individual has an internalized mousetrap/ping-pong ball as well, it takes only one action to set off an explosion. One person makes a comment that causes a reaction in the other. The other reacting, says something inreaction. The other reacts to the latest reaction, thus setting off a new round of reactions until, in a minute or two, there’s an explosion.
Using the example of Mary and John, a scene between them would play out as follows:
John throws in the first ping-pong ball with: “The market seems to be improving. We should sell.”
That comment hits Mary’s mousetrap/ping-pong ball of always needing to move and she reacts with “We don’t have to talk about that now.
That hits John’s mousetrap of being controlled and he reacts with: “Well, if I take that transfer we’d have to sell.”
That comment releases at least half a dozen more bouncing balls with both John’s and Mary’s anger and hurt clearly being expressed. It’s not hard to understand how, in a few moments of increasingly mutual negative reactions – both explode at each other with words like: “You never think of my needs” – “Your needs! What about my having to make a living to support us! ” – “and what about my sacrificing my life to establish a home for you” – and…and…and.
Avoiding “nuclear reactions” requires several steps:

  1. each party needs to begin to recognize what the hidden issue of his/her childhood is (the ping-pong ball the mousetraps might be holding);
  2. each party needs to become sensitive to the mousetraps/ ping-pong balls of the other and how each individual sets off the reaction of the other;
  3. establish agreed signals – using verbal and non verbal signs and gestures — to signal that the mousetraps are about be set off or, having been set off, are heading for an explosion;
  4. move to a “time-out” to let both parties separate and cool down.

It is important to understand that these “mousetraps” of childhood are often well hidden and do not give up their power easily. But gaining control over your automatic reactions offers the very special gift of healthy relationships free of destructive explosions.

Buy the Book! - Light Side of the Moon--Reclaiming Your Lost Potential

This blog post was written by Ditta Oliker, author of the book, Light Side of the Moon–Reclaiming Your Lost Potential.