We all have triggers – things that, when they happen, stir up powerful feelings that can seem really disproportionate to the reality of what has actually happened.
For me, it always used to be parking spaces(!). If someone ever parked in my space, even by accident, I instantly felt anxious and angry, as though a sacred boundary had been breached. I would also have a feeling of powerlessness. Part of me felt ridiculous for feeling that way. After all, it was just a parking space. The worst thing that happened was that I was temporarily inconvenienced. Fast forward 10 years, and with my years of experience as a Therapist and Relationship Coach, I realised that although logic told me my feelings were disproportionate, the emotions were very real. It helped me to see it for what it was – an inability to feel able to assert myself and protect my own boundaries at that time in my life.
But what about relationship triggers?
Julie’s trigger was when she was trying to talk to her partner Stuart, and he appeared to be looking at his phone instead of at her. When this happened, Stuart would notice that she would stop talking and would become very snappy with him. He felt that she would deliberately “stomp around” and generally handle items more heavily than necessary.
Stuart’s trigger, on the other hand, was when Julie would roll her eyes whenever he started to talk about work, at which point he would shut down and not speak to her for at least a couple of hours.
Both of them felt that the other was over-reacting, and therefore genuinely each believed that the other’s feelings weren’t valid. To make matters worse, they would say that to each other, which was basically like fanning the flames of a fire!
But what had been missing was an understanding of the MEANING of the feelings. In other words, WHY those particular behaviours had become triggers to such strong emotions. For Julie, she had spent an entire childhood feeling ignored by her parents. Whenever she perceived that Stuart wasn’t listening to her or being attentive enough, all of the old feelings from childhood would come up, and she would feel neglected. For Stuart, interestingly, Julie’s eye-rolling had a similar meaning. He too felt it was dismissive behaviour from Julie, and he felt particularly strongly about it because it would remind him when he was growing up, if he ever expressed an opinion, he was often told by his Father that his opinion was “wrong”. Part of our natural evolution as humans is that we have a need for attention from others – especially our partners.
After a few sessions of Relationship Coaching with me, Julie and Stuart were able to not only recognise their own triggers and the meaning behind them, they could also recognise each-other’s triggers. This meant that they had much greater empathy with each-other, became much more understanding and tolerant of each-other, and they recognised how important it was to pay attention to their own behaviour and body language in order to avoid these triggers.
Flying off the handle when you are triggered is easy. It’s often linked to that part of us that’s all about our survival instinct, to protect ourselves and our own interests. Recognising that you are triggered, or that your partner is triggered, and changing how you manage that, is more challenging. But if you pay attention to your triggers and those of your partner, you can actually learn more about each other which can enhance your relationship.
Next time your partner is triggered, try telling them you have noticed they seem upset, and ask them why. And next time you are feeling triggered, ask yourself why, and if the feelings are in any way familiar with the past.