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Understanding “Pressure Points” in our Relationships

As a therapist who often works with couples or individuals with relationship issues, it is fascinating to see the patterns that emerge. We all have them. It seems in every relationship we are in, varieties of the same issues come into play. Of course, depending on the intensity of the relationship the trait can vary from annoying to extremely painful. For example, it may be a slight annoyance if it seems like the sales person is not really listening to us. But when it seems like our significant other is not listening to us, it can become painful and isolating. The point of this article is not to take the blame for others insensitivity, but to better understand what “pressure points” are and how we can protect ourselves when it feels like ours are being pushed.

What is a “pressure point”?

According to the dictionary, one definition of a pressure point is “an area of the body that is sensitive to touch”. If someone has a sore back, when that specific area is touched that person may wince in pain. The same spot can be touched on someone else and they will not even feel it. When it comes to interpersonal relationships it can be helpful to apply this physiological concept of pressure points to emotional aches as well.
Consider our example of feeling like people don’t listen. One person may be able to laugh it off as the other person being a space cadette, while another person will feel deeply pained by it. What is fascinating, is that that same person who feels pained by being unheard might be totally ok with something like harsh insults. The point is, it cannot be concluded that someone is just hypersensitive. It seems that there are specific emotional pressure points that can be pushed by those we are in relationships with.

How Can we Identify Our Own Pressure Points?

Think back to your earliest relationships– your parents, your siblings, family members, childhood friends. Can you identify some of the conflicts you have had with them? It could be something extreme like childhood abuse or substance abuse issues. Or it could be more subtle like slight criticism or just a vague feeling of being uncared for emotionally. Our earliest relationships often create the patterns we are forced to understand and compensate for later on in adulthood. The intention is not to blame our parents for our issues, but to understand where our pressure points may be. Here are some common examples of pressure points and understanding their origin:
  1. A woman gets mad at her husband for drinking too much alcohol, even just occasionally. It turns out, she had to deal with her alcoholic father as child and felt quite embarrassed by it. When her husband drinks (even responsibly) that pressure point is pushed.
  2.  A man has a very hard time at his job. He was reprimanded by his boss that he is unable to accept criticism, even when it is simply just constructive criticism. It turns out, as a child he was very harshly criticized by his father. Criticism (even constructive) is his pressure point.
  3.  A woman is struggling to be in a long term relationship. She notices her past boyfriends report she can be “too needy” or “clingy”. It turns out, many years ago this woman’s father left her mother and went on to start a different family with a different woman. The woman on a conscious level feels that she has moved forward from this. However, the fear of people leaving has become her pressure point.

How Can We Use This Idea to Improve Our Relationships 

We cannot possibly expect our significant others to never push our pressure points. However, it can definitely be helpful to sit down and have a conversation about this concept. In the first example above, the woman can sit down and explain to her husband: “I know you are not an alcoholic. But I just want to explain to you why I react the way I do when you drink too much, even occasionally.” By doing this, you make it more about you and your own struggle and less about criticizing the other person. You are not ignoring or suppressing your feelings. Rather, you are addressing them in an open, honest and non confrontational way. Sometimes, just the understanding of one’s pressure points can diffuse the conflict.
One last idea that could be helpful:  It’s important to try to figure out what our partners’s pressure points may be. Some people may be less capable of expressing and exploring this concept than others. If we can try to figure it out and avoid pushing it when able, the whole relationship could dramatically improve.

About the Author

Heidi Kalman, LCSW is a therapist at our Edison Park and Sauganash locations. Heidi works with adults, couples, and families. Heidi’s specialties include EMDR, anxiety, depression, and somatic symptoms. If you are interested in working with Heidi, send an email today!


  1. This was such a wonderful article. A very strong and important concept has been written in a plain and beautiful manner. Our childhood influences our adult lives in so many ways, and we are mostly ignorant of that fact. The importance of counseling is precisely to understand these factors, in order to repair relationships.

    1. Urban Wellness says:

      Thanks for the feedback! Couldn’t agree more!