Are You a Button Pusher?

Understanding the power you have in relationships

There are a lot of things I love about being a mom, but other things I could definitely do without. At the top of my list is the bickering. As the saying goes, “They fight like brothers.” Oh, how I dread the days and seasons in which my three boys are at each other constantly. They are set off by the slightest statement or incident, making it impossible to peacefully finish a meal.

“Don’t you see, Mom! He’s laughing at me,” one of them complains. “Well, he’s breathing on me! He’s doing it on purpose because he knows it makes me mad!”

During these times of discord, I notice that my kids become particularly adept at pushing each other’s “buttons.” This is a skill that all siblings seem to master. Do you remember your brothers and sisters pushing your buttons? They knew exactly what to say or do to set you off. It’s as if they had some secret knowledge to bypass normal reasoning and key into your greatest insecurities and irritations.

A casual onlooker doesn’t even know the “button” has been pushed. They don’t pick up on the fact that a seemingly innocent look or word or overly polite way of responding is actually an act of war, which is why the “button pusher” smiles triumphantly as his brother gets punished for striking back.

One thing I’ve realized through parental eyes, is that we “mature” grownups are prone to falling into the same dysfunctional habits we learned as children. Although we are better at disguising our motives, we are still prone to push each other’s buttons.

Why We Push Buttons

Our “buttons” are more than easy targets for siblings and friends to trigger. They represent our deepest vulnerabilities, the areas of our heart that are most sensitive to rejection.

Early on in marriage, I began to recognize my husband’s buttons. There were certain subjects or relational dynamics that seem to elicit an unwarranted response. I know that Mike was learning similar things about me. When he tread into sensitive areas, I quickly let him know they were “off limits” for teasing.

As a young couple, we would usually respond to these situations with a comment like, “You’re overreacting. I don’t know why you got so angry. I was just trying to help you . . .” or “You’re just too sensitive!”

What we didn’t quite understand is that our “buttons” represent a sacred trust in relationship. They tap into the most sensitive, unguarded aspect of our hearts, giving the other person an unspoken power.

Underneath a “button” is typically an insecurity, a fear, or a painful memory of failure or rejection. Or perhaps a feeling of being humiliated, dominated, or controlled as a child.

Because we sometimes treat “buttons” just as we did as children, we use them to get the upper hand and secretly relish the fact that we can say or do something that shows our superiority in times of conflict. When our friend or spouse reacts with anger or hurt, we add insult to injury with a flippant, “I don’t know why you’re acting this way. I was just having fun!”

Your spouse’s buttons give you power in your relationship. Little children learn this within the crucible of family life and know how to use it to their advantage. Even as we scold our kids for their unkindness, are we guilty of the same cruelty in marriage?

What You Do with “Buttons” Reveals Your Heart

I grew up with five siblings. There were six of us within eleven years, so I earned an advanced education in sibling rivalry and squabbles. My little sister, Angela, and I were the two youngest. When our older siblings moved out of the house, Angela and I became really close friends. We even ended up going to the same college and playing doubles on the tennis team. Rarely did we fight. Instead we often defended each other.

One day as my dad was watching Angela and I goofing off together, he said, “Watching you two love each other gives me an understanding of the joy God must feel when his children show love to each other.” Only now that I have children do I understand the significance of his statement.

Jesus continually stressed to his disciples the importance of loving each other. In fact, he stated that this would be a supernatural sign to the world that they belonged to him. “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35, NIV).

It breaks my heart to see my kids being cruel to each other. Likewise, I am filled with joy when they show kindness. I believe this is how our Lord feels as he sees us interact.

Most of us can look back on the antics of childhood and forgive our siblings for being ornery and meddlesome. Hey, we were just kids! But we are not children anymore. When we take advantage of a loved one’s vulnerability, we can no longer chalk it up to childhood foolishness.

In any intimate relationship, you have power to push a friend or husband’s button to your advantage. A huge factor in nurturing trust and intimacy in relationship is the determination to protect rather than exploit the vulnerability of the person you love, even when you’re angry.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Juli Slattery

Juli Slattery is a TCW regular contributor and blogger. A widely known clinical psychologist, author, speaker, and broadcast media professional, she co-founded Authentic Intimacy and is the co-author of Passion Pursuit: What Kind of Love Are You Making?

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