It’s a typical Saturday afternoon, and you’re wrapped in up in cleaning the house, watching a pot of soup on the stove, and attempting to keep your kids entertained. Your spouse walks in the door to see Legos scattered around the floor, the debris left over from one of your many attempts at distraction. Your spouse gives you a look that communicates, “did a bomb go off in here?”
You immediately feel a flood of anger coursing through your veins. You snap at your spouse, irritated with their nonverbal insensitivity and criticism. You start defending yourself, and meanwhile your spouse looks completely bewildered and caught off guard, like a deer in the headlights.
Little did you know in that moment, but that particular look on your spouse’s face was exactly the same as the look your father used to give you before he launched into a tirade about your irresponsibility and immaturity. For a moment, your father’s face flashed before your eyes, not your spouse’s, and you were brought right back to the feeling of being a chastised child.
What is a trigger?
You’ve likely experienced moments like these in your life, where you’ve had an intense and strong emotional reaction to something that didn’t make sense. These moments, referred to as triggers, are moments when you experience an intense and extreme emotional reaction that is disproportionate to the event that occurred. Typically, these are brought on by memories of past experiences where you felt hurt, ashamed, guilty, or a range of other negative emotions. Most often, triggers differ from person to person and are not easily predicted, and therefore can lead to arguments or miscommunication in marriage.
Talking about triggers is an integral part of learning to communicate more effectively in your relationships and have arguments that lead you to become more intimately connected with one another.
Wait a second – arguments that cause you to become more intimately connected? That sounds like a mistake.
Guess what? It’s not.
John Gottman, marriage researcher, prefers to talk about the concept of conflict “management” rather than conflict “resolution.” Why’s that? He found that 69% of conflicts couples have in their marriage are unresolvable – meaning that conflict resolution is a myth in 69% of arguments.
Instead, couples need to come to a place of compromise in their arguments. The process of getting to compromise involves learning more about triggers in order to grow to understand your partner’s past. As you get to know your partner’s experience, you’ll become more adaptive and empathetic to their needs, and more willing to make a compromise. You’ll also feel known and understood as they learn your side of the story.
Sounds like a win-win after all!
How can I tell when I’m being triggered?
Step one to understanding triggers is understanding when you’ve been triggered. This involves becoming aware of your emotional and physical reactions. In the example above, you had no idea why you jumped from relatively neutral to raging in less than 3.6 seconds at the look on your spouse’s face.
If you were able to take a step back a little later when you had calmed your emotional arousal, you may have been able to gain more awareness of what emotion came up. In the example above, you may have felt fear or defensiveness. Triggers typically involve emotions or beliefs that are deeper under the surface, so uncovering them is a crucial process.
When you identify the emotion, ask yourself: what message does this emotion communicate to me? If I could give the emotion a voice, what would it be saying? In the example, the fear of defensiveness is saying that I’m worthless or not good enough.
Then, take a moment to ask yourself this question: when was the first time I remember feeling that way? What is a significant time in my past when I remember having those thoughts?
Alternatively, think of that emotion or that belief and rewind the tape of your life back – what moments stand out to you as times when you truly believed that thought? When that emotion was felt?
How do I communicate about triggers with my spouse?
Once you’ve calmed down enough to identify that trigger, then it’s time to communicate the trigger to your spouse. This process mirrors Gottman’s Aftermath of a Fight exercise, allowing you to name what you need.
First, talk to your spouse about how you felt in the moment about what happened. “I felt angry when you came home because it seemed as though you were judging me for the state of the house.”
Next, identify why that particular reaction was triggering to you. “The look on your face reminded me of a look my father used to give me before yelling at me about how irresponsible I was. Back then, I would feel afraid and believe that I was worthless and not good enough.”
Then, take responsibility for the disproportionate reaction: “I responded out of fear and defensiveness to you, even though you are not my father, and I don’t believe those words were what you were trying to communicate to me. I am sorry for snapping at you and criticizing you.”
Finally, communicate what you will do in the future, as well as asking your spouse for help. As an option, you can invite your spouse to suggest an idea for him or her to carry out. “In the future, I will do my best to remind myself that you are not my father and that you are not commenting on my worth or value. If you’re willing, it would be helpful for me to hear you say that you love me or offer to help. Is that something you’re willing to try?”
Notice how the interation above invites intimacy. You have to step into the risk of sharing vulnerably a difficult part of your story that allows your spouse to get to know you better. You humbly take responsibility for your fault in the matter, as none of us are without blame. And it gives a solution-focused response on how to approach those conflicts in the future.
My hope is that you’ll begin to see your arguments with your spouse not as a signal that your relationship is falling apart, but as an opportunity to grow closer to one another and connect to one another’s worlds.
Do you find yourself caught in a pattern of getting triggered every time you and your spouse have a conflict? Have you been completely unaware of where those triggers are coming from? Are you looking for help with creating intimacy with your spouse through fighting well? At Restored Hope, I believe in the power of intimacy-building in relationships through honesty, vulnerability, and open communication. I offer couples counseling at my Ann Arbor therapy offices – give me a call at 734.656.8191 or email me to set up an appointment today.