How to Identify a Relationship Trigger Before It Hurts

How to Identify and Heal A Relationship Trigger

Jen comes home to a messy house. Her partner has been at home all day with the kids hoping to catch up on some work.

Jen is furious and yells, “You expect me to do everything! Why can't you just do what needs to be done? It's your house too!"

On the other hand, Jen's partner, Marty, feels like she can't get a break. Nothing she does is ever good enough so she thinks to herself, why bother? They stay in silence for the rest of the evening and both feel disconnected and alone.

How does a messy house become a silent war?

When the reaction is bigger than the situation, it's probably a trigger! The intensity of emotion indicates that something more important is happening.

In Jen’s case the messy house wasn’t the culprit. What caused the argument was the assumption that Marty didn’t care about what she needed. Underneath Jen's hurt was the pain of not having her needs validated as a child. That pain triggered her to feel more upset than the situation warranted. 

So how do you keep those negative reactions from causing major problems? This blog shows how to handle a trigger before it wrecks you or your relationship.

What is a Trigger? 

A trigger is an intense, emotional reaction to a present behavior that reminds you of something painful from your past. The trigger itself can be anything; a look, a tone of voice or a seemingly unintentional behavior that causes you to react more intensely than you normally would.

Triggers are situations that represent painful reminders of your past - often linked to childhood - that impact how you react today. 

Common relationship triggers happen when someone you love: 

  • Is late or doesn't show up for you.

  • Doesn't return texts or phone calls.

  • Has opposite sex friendships.

  • Goes to bars or strip clubs.

  • Forgets something important to you.

  • Hears from their ex-partner.

  • Feels criticized or dismissed.

What Happens During a Trigger

Being triggered feels overwhelming. Within seconds, the body gets flooded with stress hormones causing a more intense reaction. Increased heart-rate, sweating and muscle tightness make listening virtually impossible. Often this leads to blaming your partner which intensifies the argument. Both of you end up feeling misunderstood and baffled at how a simple comment turns into a war.

For example, if you experienced neglect or abandonment in childhood, you might anticipate the same happening in your relationships. Maybe you hear criticism where there is none, or assume that something bad will happen even though there is no obvious cause for concern. Your partner tells you that you're crazy but you're not. You're triggered!

When you can't manage these feelings you might:

  • Prevent your partner from leaving the room during an argument.

  • Obsess about them leaving or cheating on you.

  • Struggle with insecurity and self-doubt.

  • Send repeated text messages that get increasing irrational.

  • Spend hours searching for them online or driving around.

  • Break into their social media accounts to check up on them.

So what should you do? Identify the source of the trigger so you begin to heal it.

How to Identify a Trigger

The first clue that you're dealing with a trigger is the intensity of your reaction. When your reaction doesn’t match the situation, you’re probably triggered. For example, someone you love is running late or doesn't respond to your texts. You assume they're going to leave you which is an over-reaction. But it's really FEAR False Evidence Appearing Real - that makes you assume the worst.  

Here are some examples of what a trigger looks like.

Your boss critiques you and it feels like a personal attack. Or, your partner seems distracted, and you think that they don't care about you. It's the negative assumption you make about what's happening that creates your upset, not what's really being said.

Find the Meaning of the Trigger  

After recognizing the trigger, the next step is to find the meaning behind it. Significant childhood experiences often provide the missing link. Any unresolved issues of abuse, neglect or trauma will create emotional triggers. Underneath every trigger is a core fear that gets activated. 

Some common fears are:

  • Feeling like you're not enough or unworthy

  • Not feeling safe emotionally or physically

  • Feeling left out or abandoned

  • Feeling misunderstood or invalidated

  • Feeling disrespected or criticized

It is important to separate the current situation from the past in order to get control of your reaction. Once you find where the reaction is coming from, you can see the present situation in a more neutral way. Journal writing is a great tool to increase your awareness around the trigger.

Here are some guidelines to get you started.

  • What are the situations that trigger intense reactions?

  • Notice any assumptions or significant meaning that you are assigning to those situations.

  • How has your assumption hurt you and your relationships?

  • Is the assumption False Evidence Appearing Real?

  • How can you take care of yourself when you are feeling triggered?

What You Need to Do When Triggered

The most important tool to practice is good self-care. When you're triggered, it's not the time to convince your partner to see that they've hurt you. Because of the intense emotions, separating yourself from the situation is your best option. You need to get some space to get control of your reaction. Do something that feels nurturing instead of re-engaging in the fight. For more tips on self-care click read to 3 Secrets for Self-care Made Easy.

Some self-care ideas include:

  • Go for a walk in nature.

  • Do some journal writing.

  • Call or text a friend for support.

  • Practice some form of meditation.

  • Get some vigorous exercise.

  • Attend a 12 step support group like Al-Anon.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Handling Triggers

While you’re trying to practice these tools, remember these things when you're triggered:

  • Don’t try to talk things out when you’re upset.

  • Don’t expect your partner to take all the blame.

  • Don’t let your emotions continue to escalate.

  • Do remember that fixing the trigger is your responsibility.

  • Do focus on the issue at hand, rather than going into the past.

  • Do remove yourself from the situation to calm down.

  • Do a reality check to see your fear is supported by evidence.

Final Thoughts 

Triggers can be problematic when they aren't handled with care. They are meant to get your attention and heal unresolved issues. Confronting triggers helps to confront past hurts without letting them dictate your present.

Remove yourself from the situation to get some perspective. The goal is to manage those emotions when so they don't cause more problems. Your relationships will thank you in the long-run.


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