Perhaps everyone who has been married long enough to face an inexplicable argument has been in the position of provocateur, yet the experience can feel like the spouse is the one who’s doing the attacking. We unconsciously provoke our spouse and then hope for a certain response, which would allegedly satisfy an internal need or desire.
Of course social psychologists have had a hard time conceptualizing the mechanisms that cause us to behave in this way. While social psychological research on emotions has picked up in the last 30 years, most using a social constructivist approach, only a limited number of articles have tried to deal with the experience for the individual.
In the New York Times Magazine, Elizabeth Weil describes her frustrating experience of seeking therapy for her “happy” marriage. Not surprisingly, a host of therapy sessions were meant to unearth tension between her and her husband, in hopes of building intimacy by discussing and eventually accepting the other’s feelings and emotions. “Marital therapy,” Weil recounts, “seemed akin to chemo: helpful but toxic.”
To know why we sometimes act spiteful when we want our spouse to show their love is something social psychologists may never know. Yet the experience of emotion and the way we end up behaving during the tense times is unforgettable.