What are triggers in a relationship and how can we manage them?

managing triggers

Many couples experience nonstop fights and tension over seemingly small issues. Take for instance a common scenario, John and Karen are caught up in a never ending fight over John being late to their commitments. Karen says to John, “don’t you even care about being on time? You always let me down!” John says, “I got caught up on a work call. If you are going to start out by attacking me, maybe we should just go home.” They argue over who is right. She attacks and he shuts down. This patterns starts to spill over into other areas of their lives. He doesn’t want to talk about the relationship and she doesn’t want to be intimate. With this downward spiral into disconnection, partners begin to think they just don’t share the same values. When really the issue is more about managing triggers. What are triggers in a relationship and how do we manage them? Let’s talk about it.

This scenario is one which I believe is very telling. It shows a couple who doesn’t understand what is happening and do not know how to manage their triggers. Because of this, John and Karen experience further disconnection which causes them to question their relationship. For Karen, she expects her partner to demonstrate his commitment to their relationship through punctuality and concentrated attention. For John, he expects to fulfill the role of family provider and doesn’t want to have his work life questioned. However, for both John and Karen they have distinct ‘triggers’ which may often incite arguments if mishandled.

This is a problem that I see quite a bit and it is fortunately one that can be effectively managed. It simply requires a greater attention to what is happening inside of us, being able to recognize when we have a significant emotional shift and that there is something familiar about this experience with our past. Learning how to express this new awareness to our partner is a critical step to bringing our partner closer to us. 

So what are triggers in a relationship?

So let’s talk about triggers in a relationship. For many people, the word ‘trigger’ is not unfamiliar and may come attached with varying meanings. But what are triggers in a relationship? Let’s discuss.

Triggers are raw spots that let us know we are sensitive to something in the moment that reminds us of a past experience that caused our needs to be neglected, ignored or dismissed. As a result we are left feeling unimportant, feeling alone, or feeling emotionally deprived. These raw spots are triggers from the past. Either the past from our childhood and how we were treated by our parents or in a past relationship or from the current relationship during a difficult time of disconnection or injury.

We think our partner does something to us. For Karen she sees John “doing this to her”. But when we dig a little deeper we discover that her father would make plans with her and would consistently be late in picking her up and even one time forgot about her. Karen interpreted the behavior of her father as though she wasn’t important to him. So when this happened in her marriage, she was triggered and felt unimportant in her relationship. To begin to notice that a trigger is something that is happening inside of us is a big step in the right direction and allows for the opportunity to open up a dialogue. As such, the first step to managing triggers is to notice the trigger.

How do I know I’ve been triggered?

We know we have been triggered when we are having a seemingly insignificant interaction with our partner and suddenly the conversation takes a sharp turn. In an instant we are overcome by an intense emotion such as anger, sadness, hurt or fear. We see ourselves lashing out, wanting to run out of the room or just freezing up and not knowing what to do or what to say. What just happened? It doesn’t make sense. Within seconds we find ourselves in an argument with our partner and away we go down a path of disconnection. It happens daily in my office and I feel it happen inside of myself when I am interacting in my own relationships. 

What is triggering me?

But you might ask, “how do I know what my triggers are? I just find myself getting upset at my partner and can’t pinpoint my exact problems with the relationship.” If you find yourself being triggered the first step to managing triggers is to notice the trigger. What is your first clue that you are being triggered? Check in with your body. Check the list of body sensations to get you started. Do you feel your heart rate increasing? …..an urge to run out of the room? ….an urge to yell at your partner? …something happening in your stomach? These are all clues that your body is trying to give you a message. Just notice what is happening. “Oh I if feel my throat closing up and I feel myself wanting to shut down. I don’t even know what to say”. Noticing what is happening in the body is the first clue to understand what you might be feeling.

Once you recognize something is happening in your body try to figure out what you might be feeling. Identifying feelings is not easy, especially when you are in a triggered state. But the simple act of trying to name our feelings will actually begin to help us calm down and help manage the trigger. Take a look at the feelings list to get you started. 

At first it might not be very apparent what you are feeling but go down the list of feelings and see what happens. Am I happy? No. Am I sad? Maybe. Am I mad? No. Am I fearful? Yes. Afraid. But of what? It might not make sense at first. Just sit with the afraid for a bit and see what happens. Some additional clues start to surface.

Does this fear remind you of something in the past? My fear is related to not feeling important to my partner just like I felt when I was little with my father. Maybe you are feeling fearful that you have continued a pattern from the past. For example selecting a partner that is engaging in similar behavior to what you have experienced from past relationships. All of these feelings are Okay. What is important is to notice that they are happening inside of you. 

Identify specific body sensations

I have included a reference list of common body signals.

How to talk about my trigger?

Okay, we’ve answered “What are triggers in a relationship?” The next step to managing triggers would be sharing this with your partner. Sharing this from a different place. It might look something like this. “I noticed I got triggered when you were late picking me up. I started to feel my body tense up and I felt some anger and some fear. What I am aware of is that it reminds me of what used to happen with my father when he would drop me off at the mall when I was younger and forget to pick me up. It was so scary and that’s what comes up for me when I get triggered. I feel myself getting aggressive and then we get into an argument. I don’t want to keep doing that but I don’t know what to do with all of these emotions.”

Sometimes it may be hard to pinpoint exact feelings or body sensations, so to help with that I have included a short list which includes descriptive words for the way you may be feeling. It is very important to be able to verbalize our feelings to our partner, so this list may be a valuable tool to help you identify exactly what you are feeling.

When we share from a place of self understanding, we set our defenses aside and it creates a new opportunity for our partner to understand us in deeper more intimate ways. Managing our triggers is not easy, especially when it feels like we get swept away by our emotions. But when we slow things down, learn to look inward and take it step by step we can create new healthy secure patterns with our partners, our children and those who matter the most to us. If you would like additional help in learning how to manage your triggers check out The Guide to Rewire Your Relationship; practical steps to build security. This is very helpful at helping couples identify patterns that aren’t working and create new patterns that are based on your needs. Contact Dr. LeGrice for availability at 817-307-8725.