“Jill gets weird around her family,” he says. “It’s like she’s a different person. She picks on every little thing I say. Normally I’m a pretty tolerant guy, but a weekend with her parents is enough to make me wonder why I’m with her.”
Samantha has a different problem. Every time she brings up the possibility of her boyfriend changing jobs, he lashes out at her.
She says, “I know he hates where he’s working. I’d totally support him if he wanted to look for something else. But I can’t even bring up the topic around him. It’s like he turns on me.”
What’s going on?
Hidden deep within every single one of us are emotional tripwires, also known as triggers.
If someone stumbles across that tripwire, they’d better duck, because an emotional explosion is on its way.
Maybe you’ve noticed it in past relationships. You say something innocent, and he goes ballistic. His reaction is totally out of proportion. And to be frank, it’s kind of scary. You wouldn’t have pegged him for being so irrational.
But we all have triggers. They’re left over from the past.
For Jill, the company of her family was a trigger. She grew up in a household where fighting was the norm. Even though, as an adult, she learned better ways to handle conflict, being back home activated those old pathways. When Bryan made a light-hearted comment, she perceived it as an attack—just as her siblings used to try to get her to react.
Samantha didn’t know why her boyfriend got triggered when she suggested changing jobs, but she could guess. His father was chronically unemployed, and he grew up listening to his parents argue about money. No wonder he overreacted at the idea of leaving a secure job.
Getting to know your own triggers—and the triggers of the man you love—is an essential investment in your long-term romantic future.
It’s tough to eliminate a trigger entirely, but you can “SAP” the energy from it until it’s barely noticeable. Here’s how.
S – Spot It
The quickest way to defuse an emotional overreaction is to name it. If you realize you’re being triggered, you can step back from the feelings before they escalate.
Be on the lookout for negative emotions that swell up out of nowhere. Instead of continuing with the discussion (or whatever triggered you), stop and deal with the emotions you’re feeling. Try to put words to them, such as, “I’m feeling so much anger right now, and I have no idea why.”
It’s often easier to see when someone else is being triggered than recognizing it in yourself, so make a pact to help each other spot when emotions are coming from the past rather than the present. Keep your language gentle, e.g., “I wonder if what I said triggered you in some way.”
A – Ask This Question
Because triggers come from the past, ask yourself: “What’s the earliest memory I have of feeling this way?”
In other words, where did this association come from?
You may not come up with an answer right away. Discovering the root of your triggers can take patient excavation, and you might feel resistant to digging through the mud and muck of your past. That’s okay. Hold the question loosely in your mind, and let any answers come on their own schedule.
P – Promise Each Other This
Triggers are hard to unravel. Knowing that something triggers you is great, but it doesn’t stop the reaction from happening.
Having a supportive partner makes a huge difference.
Talk to each other about what triggers you. Share any relevant memories with your partner. Sharing childhood experiences not only helps you feel closer but also helps him understand you better.
There’s a certain danger in knowing what upsets one other. If you wanted to, you could step on his triggers deliberately. And some people do. It’s a way to punish their partner by doing something he doesn’t like.
Promise to tread gently around each other’s sore spots. Don’t use that information against one another, especially when you’re angry.
Together, you can help heal those old wounds, by creating a safe space for self-understanding.