“Partners in intimate relationships can become masters of pushing each other’s buttons,” according to Susan Orenstein, Ph.D, a licensed psychologist and relationship expert in Cary, N.C.

Of course, this pushing is far from positive. For instance, partners might make personal attacks in subtle, sarcastic or passive-aggressive ways, she said. They might psychoanalyze their partner: “You’re just like your mother!” or “Your family was so screwed up!”

They might undermine their partner in front of others “by sharing something embarrassing or very personal about them.” Or they may annoy, aggravate or inconvenience them, she said.

We push each other’s buttons for many reasons. According to Orenstein, it may be because:

  • We want revenge: “I want to hurt you so you’ll know how much pain you’ve caused me.”
  • We want attention: “Hey, it beats being neglected; at least he or she will notice me or take me seriously.”
  • We are desperate: “What else can I do? Nothing else has worked, so I’ll stir things up.”
  • We don’t have another way. For some couples pushing each other’s buttons is the only way they know how to share feedback and work through conflict.

Pushing our partner’s buttons only backfires, Orenstein said. This hurts them and takes away from building a loving relationship, she said.

Of course, sometimes, we don’t even realize we’re behaving in a destructive or passive-aggressive way, she said.

For instance, do you see yourself in these examples which Orenstein shared?

  • Playing the victim
  • Giving dirty looks
  • Rolling your eyes
  • Being manipulative
  • Saying “nothing is wrong” when something is wrong
  • “Saying the opposite of what you mean, expecting your partner to read your mind, and then being angry when he or she can’t.”

We also can push our partner’s buttons in a positive way. This means that we help them to “feel safe, secure and loved,” Orenstein said. She shared these suggestions:

  • Consider the small gestures you can do to help your partner feel good. This might be anything from touching them to writing a note to sending a text.
  • Become an expert on your partner by paying closer attention and getting curious about them, such as the things they like.
  • Ask your partner directly about their preferences.
  • Offer emotional support and comfort. This may include small gestures. For instance, a husband knows that his wife gets stressed out by a certain family member, so he checks to see how she’s doing after her phone call with them. A wife knows that her husband “gets nervous at parties, so she walks over to him and puts her arm around his waist and gives him a loving squeeze.” Or it might include bigger gestures: Your spouse tells you they got a promotion, and you prepare a special dinner and give them a card, she said.

Pushing our partner’s buttons — in a destructive way — doesn’t work. It only chips away at a good relationship. Instead, consider all the ways you can positively push your partner’s buttons. Notice and ask them directly about what helps them to feel safe, secure and loved.