One of the most powerful ways I found to stop being a doormat in relationships was to learn emotional self-control. When you’re too reactive to your partner, he or she can easily draw you into a fight that stops you both from focusing on fixing the problem.

Self-control is not easy. In the face of your partner’s actions, it’s difficult not to react. But learning to stop and think, to respond thoughtfully and carefully rather than quickly and automatically, is hard. But learning self-control, no matter how difficult, is always worth while, because it makes every moment of your life easier.

Self-Control begins with self-awareness. If you already know what pushes your buttons, you will be less reactive to it. If you can tell when you’re stressed, you can be more cautious at those times. If you know that you and your partner tend to fight about the same things, over and over, you can learn to exercise more self-control when those things are discussed, and react differently to avoid fighting.

It is not necessary to keep tight self-control all the time. If you and your partner are relaxing and having fun, you can most likely respond spontaneously and be fine. But, if you’re in a tense situation, extra tired, frustrated, stressed, or talking about a sensitive subject, thinking about your response in advance will make the whole interaction work a lot better.

For example, if the two of you are just relaxing in the hot tub, you can probably feel free to tease your partner, joke around, and be playful. But, if you’re talking about financial problems, or jealousy, your responses need to be much more carefully considered.

Choosing Your Response

Each of us has his or her own sphere of influence, our own private space, which we can picture as a physical boundary surrounding us, like the invisible “glass wall” mimes often pretend to be trapped behind. All other people and events are outside this boundary, but visible and accessible through it. You can send messages in the form of words and deeds (and perhaps even thoughts and subtle body and facial movements) through this boundary, and others can send theirs in to you. You have little control over what people choose to send toward you, and total control over what you choose to send out. The control you do have over what people send into your world consists in how you receive it and respond to it.

For example, if your spouse or your boss or a family member sends you some crabbiness, you can’t change the fact that it’s been sent your way. Perhaps there is some other problem (having nothing to do with you) that accounts for this bad mood. There is little to be gained from attempting to mind-read or to change the other person’s attitude. However, if you remember about your own private space, and your wall, you will realize you have many options.

You can choose to believe that the crabbiness was sent to hurt you, or because the other person is your enemy, or because you somehow deserve to be treated that way. Any of the above choices will lead to a negative, hurtful response from you, and most likely to an unpleasant interaction. Or, you can choose not to worry about the reason for the crabbiness, and instead assume it is a problem the other person is having, and become helpful. “Are you upset?” “Is there anything I can do to help?” “Will you explain to me what you’re upset about?” If you choose to respond this way, you are more likely to have a good, productive talk with the other person.

When you remember that your responses have power to shape the whole interaction and eventually your whole relationship; and you take the time to control the way you respond, you will see all your relationships improve dramatically. This kind of self-control is a very powerful tool, when used correctly. By using it wisely, you gain the power to make your relationships, and therefore your life, happier, more successful, and more loving.

Using Self Talk

If learning self-control is difficult for you, one of the most powerful tools you can use to change is self-talk. We all have a running dialog in our heads, which often is negative or self-defeating. The good news is that you can choose to replace this negative monologue with something more positive. The brain tends to repeat familiar things over and over, going again and again over established neuronal pathways. Repeating a mantra, an affirmation or a choice over and over creates new pathways, which eventually become automatic. The new thoughts will run through your head like the old thoughts did, or like a popular song you've heard over and over.

If your self talk feels “naturally negative,” you may be creating a self-fulfilling identity, which saps your ability to choose your responses. One thing you can do is to monitor your self-talk: what do you say to yourself about the upcoming day, about mistakes, about your luck? If these messages are negative, changing them can indeed lift your spirits and your optimism. Know yourself: if you love silence, tend to be quiet, like quiet conversations and not big parties, this may be a genetic trait; your hearing and nervous system may be more sensitive than others, and this trait will not go away. You can, however, make the most of it, and learn that creating plenty of quiet in your life will make you a happier, calmer person. If, on the other hand, you’re a party animal: social, enjoying noise and excitement, you can also use that as an asset. Positive, happy people do have an easier time in life, and bounce back from problems faster. There are things you can do in every case to increase your level of optimism, even if you can’t change who you are.

Your thoughts affect your mood, and how you relate to yourself can either lift or dampen your spirits. Neuronal activity in the brain activates hormones which are synonymous with feelings. Constant self-criticism results in a “what's the use” attitude, which leads to depression and a cranky attitude, which doesn’t work well in your marriage. Continuous free-floating thoughts of impending doom lead to anxiety attacks. Negative self-talk creates stress; but if you listen, support and trust yourself things get better right away. Many of my clients don’t realize at first that they are responsible for their own feelings, and no one else is responsible for making them feel better. But when they catch on to that fact, their lives improve.

© 2015 Tina Tessina adapted from: The REAL 13th Step: Discovering Confidence, Self-Reliance and Independence Beyond the 12-Step Programs (Digital Parchment Services ASIN: B00VD94JO0 Kindle and POD Paperback.)

Author's Bio: 

Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D. is a licensed psychotherapist in S. California since 1978 with over 30 years experience in counseling individuals and couples and author of 13 books in 17 languages, including It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction; The Unofficial Guide to Dating Again; Money, Sex and Kids: Stop Fighting About the Three Things That Can Ruin Your Marriage, The Commuter Marriage, and her newest, Love Styles: How to Celebrate Your Differences. She writes the “Dr. Romance” blog, and the “Happiness Tips from Tina” email newsletter.

Dr. Tessina, is CRO (Chief Romance Officer) for, a website designed to strengthen relationships and guide couples through the various stages of their relationship with personalized tips, courses, and online couples counseling. Online, she’s known as “Dr. Romance” Dr. Tessina appears frequently on radio, and such TV shows as “Oprah”, “Larry King Live” and ABC News.