How many times have you gone off the handle when your partner rolled his eyes at you, shrugged his shoulder, or said something in that tone of voice? When that happens, we literally lose our emotional balance. We get triggered. Often, when you learn your triggers and really understand them, you can improve your relationship with your partner.
Dr. Sue Johnson in her book “Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love” calls triggers “raw spots.” She defines them as hypersensitivity to something that caused our needs to be neglected, ignored, or dismissed. As a result, we are left “emotionally deprived or deserted.”
Let’s say that your spouse looks at his phone while you are talking to him about how stressful your day was. You get mad even though, logically, you know that he just told you that he is waiting for a very important email from his boss! Why do you still get upset? Well, it is because, emotionally, you feel abandonment in that split second. In that moment, you needed his attention on you. That would further implicitly send you a message that he cares about your stress and, ultimately, he cares about you.
No wonder that you might “lose it” when you interpret the message as “he doesn’t care about me.” If you were to interpret the message that he is simply caught up in his day and, just as you, needs help co-burdening the work stress, your response to him might be a little softer.
Looking back, it is always beneficial to do an “internal check-in” and see if your trigger is a reminder of your past wounds. For example, if you were consistently ignored by your parents and your emotional needs were not met, your husband looking at his phone while you are talking sends you the very same message that you grew up with—something along the lines of, “I am not important enough to be listened to.” You will react quicker to that incident than a person who felt, and continues to feel, “important enough.”
Triggers can get activated even quicker if you haven’t felt good about your relationship—if you have been fighting a lot, or not spending time together, or if there was a trust violation. If that is the case, him looking at his phone is just one more confirmation that your relationship is suffering.
Here is what you can do:
One of the most important things that we can do in these moments of being triggered is to notice it, and share it with your partner. You can say: “Something is happening, I am feeling off, I wonder if I am getting triggered.”
If you share it and bring it up as a complaint: “You never listen to me, just like my parents!”, you can imagine that your partner will feel attacked and might fight back.
If you share it in a passive aggressive way and say: “Fine, you don’t want to hear me, I will just stop talking now”, you might get similar results.
If you share from a vulnerable place, notice that you are triggered and how that may impact your partner, you might get a different response. You might say: “Gosh, I am feeling so stressed right now, and I know that you have to check your emails because work for you has been stressful too, but I am getting triggered and I don’t want to explode and blame you. I know that when I explode you shut down or get angry. I don’t want to explode, but I am also going to that place where I think that you don’t care about me. Can we start from the beginning here?”
This is not easy to do, but it is doable! If you need help with either seeing your triggers or talking about them in a way that would pull your partner closer, please give me a call.