How to deal with emotional triggers in your relationship

August 29, 2019

We’ve all been there. Our spouse or child says or does something that sets us off and in an instant something inside of us snaps. Our muscles tense, our gut tightens, and our blood pressure rises. We get angry. Defensive. We may yell, be sarcastic, slam doors. Or, we may be overcome with sadness or depression. We pout, withdraw, and bury ourselves in shame. Why?

Emotional triggers

Every single one of us has emotional triggers. They can be actions, conversations, people, topics, situations, smells, or words – you name it – that bring up intense, and often excessive, feelings and responses in us.

When we are triggered, our mood, behavior, and motivation all change. We make choices and behave in ways that are very different than if we hadn’t been, and often these choices aren’t healthy. We don’t think clearly, and we lose objectivity. We make assumptions and are reactive.

Why we get triggered

Emotional triggers originate deep within our brain. They are protection mechanisms designed to defend us from a threat. The threat doesn’t even have to real. It simply reminds us of something painful, causing a heightened sensitivity and a fear we won’t get our needs or desires met. Needs and desires could include among others, the need to be loved, accepted, noticed, safe, in control, or valued.

I’ve found that most people get triggered by one of the following circumstances:

Prior trauma/injury– Sensory plays a large part in our memory. During a traumatic event our brain records sensory stimuli that are recalled when they are encountered again. For example, a sexual assault victim may be triggered by the smell of a certain cologne while walking through a department store.

Different values or beliefs – Our values are fundamental beliefs that guide our lives and influence our attitudes or actions. When someone disagrees or questions our beliefs, we are easily triggered. If you want to see emotional triggers firing off left and right, try talking politics or religion on Facebook.

Perceived attack on our ego – So much of what we believe about ourselves comes from our childhood where we established attachments with those closest to us. This is also when we developed a critical inner voice that reinforces how we see ourselves and distorts or skews how we experience others. For example, someone raised by an overly critical parent may get angry and defensive any time their spouse so much as questions them, because their inner voice is laying it on thick…She thinks she’s so much better than you. She must think you’re stupid. A person who felt ignored or dismissed as a child, may be the parent or spouse who yells whenever they feel they aren’t being heard. He’s intentionally ignoring you. He doesn’t care about what you have to say. When we listen to our inner critic and believe our sense of self is under attack, we can be extremely reactive, resorting to saying and doing outrageous, unreasonable and irritational things.

Reactive relationships

Nothing triggers us like our closest relationships do. Our inner critic infers extra significance with our partner’s tone of voice and every word or facial expression. Some of us may even find ourselves in a continuously triggered state, hiding behind angry outbursts or withdrawing into a protective cocoon.

If you have an emotional reaction every time your spouse says or does something you don’t like, you are destined to be stuck in your relationship. STUCK. I see couples in this unhealthy pattern in my office every single week.

Taking control

If that is your pattern too, here is what you should to be working on with your therapist. If you don’t have a marriage therapist or a coach, contact us. We can help.

Taking responsibility for your reactivity – “If he/she hadn’t said ‘X’, then I wouldn’t have done ‘Y’. When we are in a reactive state, our brains try to rationalize or justify our behavior. While recognizing your triggers will help you understand why you responded in a particular way, it doesn’t excuse unhealthy behavior. You are in control of you. Your choices. Your responses. Your behavior.

Silencing your inner critic – The reason your inner critic is so destructive to a relationship is because it’s not telling you to take a deep breath, be vulnerable, and calmly tell your spouse how their actions or words made you feel. It’s embellishing the story and adding potentially false motives, thereby sending you into a reactive tailspin that in turn can trigger your partner.

Extending grace and compassion – Not only to yourself for your own short-comings (silencing that inner critic), but also for your spouse who has triggers of his/her own and may not have a clue his/her words or actions have just activated one of yours. Give your spouse and yourself the benefit of the doubt!

Identifying your triggers and what underlying needs aren’t being met – When you are able to identify what triggered you, you’ll also need to consider the feelings behind it. Did you feel judged? Unsafe? Powerless? Unloved? Lonely? Being able to recognize why you feel the way you do in reaction to a stimulus is a very important first step in changing your response to a healthier alternative – one that nurtures, invites, and encourages intimacy in your relationship.

None of this is easy. It requires a level of self-awareness and vulnerability that can be difficult and scary. But we can help you do this very important work. Being willing to take a closer look at yourself and explore what you do and why you do it can pay huge dividends for you and your relationship.

Until next time,


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