Learning to regulate emotional triggers in a relationship
Just a moment ago everything was fine, you were planning a cozy evening with your partner, cooking together, but suddenly the mood is ruined. One comment from your partner, and all of a sudden you realize how your stomach tightens and you get angry. All of a sudden, you find yourself in the middle of a big argument. How did this happen so fast?" you may ask yourself. And, "How do I get out of here quickly?"
In this article, I'll explain how to manage your emotional triggers during conflict. To do that, I'll explain what happens when you get triggered. Then, in simple steps, I explain how you can use the breakwater method to get out of conflict, process your emotions, and return to a conversation. This way you can use triggered moments to learn more about yourself and your relationship!
Where do the feelings come from? Triggers activate your brain's danger mode
Everyone has emotional triggers that work like buttons, and when they are pressed, you respond with an emotion, such as anger, sadness, etc. If you want to learn more about triggers and how to deal with them in relationships, also feel free to read my blog article on triggers here.
When a comment from your partner feels like a trigger to you, your brain registers that comment as a threat. In response, your brain goes into "flight, fight or freeze" mode. In short, at the level of your brain, it's all about survival. When this reaction is set in motion, you will find it very difficult to show understanding and listen to your partner. If you don't learn to get out of it, then your discussion will likely continue to escalate without coming to a resolution.
Therefore, it is important that you learn how you and you as a couple can deal with these reactions.
Why should I learn to regulate my emotions in conflict?
You may be wondering what benefits you can expect to gain by learning to manage your feelings differently in conflict. Listed here are results I have observed in my clients. You can expect these results if you practice dealing with conflict differently on a regular basis:
- Faster resolution of conflicts because they are dealt with directly
- Increased relationship satisfaction because conflicts are less destabilizing - the hurts are repaired faster, you can work on reconnecting with your partner faster.
- Increased self-efficacy because you know how to get out of conflicts and self-regulate your feelings.
Learning to deal with emotional triggers in conflicts
Here's what you can do before conflict situations
It's best to discuss with your partner before conflicts arise how you will handle your emotional triggers. These points may be important in a conversation:
- Make up a safe-word. This word reminds you that you are stuck in the argument right now, and that this is not the way to move forward. This word gives you an easy way to remember to take a break.
- In a calm situation, discuss that this kind of conflict is not good for your relationship. Discuss why a time-out is important. You can think about how previous discussions went when you didn't take a time-out. How satisfied were you with the outcome?
- Also explain to your partner that it's not about punishing him or her. It's just about getting out of such discussions as quickly as possible for both of you.
Regulating emotional triggers in conflict: The breakwater method
The breakwater method is divided into six steps. These steps are: Notice - Breathe - Pause - Process - Understand - Return.
1. Noticing your reaction
The first step is to become aware that you are reacting in a triggered way, e.g. with a lot of anger, and catch yourself doing it. Ask yourself how you notice this. Can you particularly notice your physical reaction? Or is it a feeling that you notice? Find out exactly how it feels to you. Then write down what those warning signs are for you and how your body feels when you do.
2. Take a break - breathe
The next step is to take a break. Because your brain is in danger mode and constructive discussion is not possible that way. Therefore, you must first learn how to get out of this danger mode. To do this, you can first take a few breaths.
3. Announce the break & be concrete
It's important not to just leave the room, but to announce the break so your partner knows. It's important to say approximately when you're ready to talk, and to talk about yourself rather than accusing your partner. You can do this by saying to your partner something like, "I realize I'm very angry/sad right now. I need a break, and we can talk more in half an hour." If you announce the break calmly, then you also make it easier for a partner who wants to sort everything out right away. That way, the other person may be more likely to understand that the break is not meant as punishment, but as an important step in being able to effectively resolve the conflict.
4. Process emotions or distract yourself
The third step is to take the break and do something that relaxes or distracts you. It's important that you don't engage with the content of the discussion, but with something else, such as reading, or listening to a podcast, taking a walk, or exercising. It may also work well for you to actively process the emotion. Self-compassion is also a good way to actively process your emotion by showing yourself compassion and understanding. For this you can check in with yourself, or do a guided meditation. When you check in with yourself, you can ask yourself, for example, how exactly the emotion feels in your body, what you can feel where, where the boundaries of the feeling are, whether your body feels heavy, etc.
5. Understand triggers
Think about what exactly triggered your reaction the way you did. Is it an issue you already know well about yourself? What triggered it for you? What did you interpret? If you want, you can write about it, too.
6. Return to the conversation
When you don't feel so angry or sad anymore, it's the right time to go back to your partner and discuss what happened. How can you do that? Roughly speaking, by talking about what happened for you, what you felt and what you actually needed. Additionally, you can learn even more about couple communication here.
How my clients learn how to deal with emotional triggers
Case Study: How my clients learn to get out of their triggers
Laura and Luis* came to couples counseling to get out of their frequent, heated conflicts. They often got into negative spirals and arguments regularly escalated, which hurt both of them a lot. In couples counseling, we practiced the breakwater method. The following week, Laura shares the following: "When I noticed in the conversation with Luis how I suddenly became very sad and had to cry, I initially recognized this as a triggered reaction. I took three deep breaths, and said I needed a short break. During the break, I did a self-compassion meditation to be kind to myself. Then I thought about what triggered me, and it suddenly became clear to me: When Luis talks about having reserved tickets for movie night with his friends, I feel small and unimportant. I can then hear old hurts coming up with the tenor of "you're not important." Because actually we had agreed to spend the evening as a couple. With this understanding I went back to Luis and we could talk calmly about how I felt and why it is so important for me that we also spend time as a couple. He was able to understand that well, and he was able to reschedule movie night with his friends."
Here's what you can do after the situation to regulate your emotions
Discuss with your partner what was a trigger for you and why you reacted the way you did. Also discuss how you felt about the conversation and whether you want to change anything or have conflict conversations the same way in the future.
What to do if your partner has trouble accepting the break?
There are couples in which one of you needs a break in heated conflicts, but the other would prefer to discuss everything immediately. What can you do then? First, it is important to recognize both needs.
Ask yourselves then:
- Is one of you using the break to hurt the other?
- Are you using the break in a constructive way to get closer?
- Why is the break difficult for your partner? Does he or she feel rejected or abandoned?
- How can you reconcile both needs? How can you support your partner in your relationship if, for example, he feels rejected?
- If it is very difficult for your partner to endure the time of the break, psychological counseling to look deeper can also be helpful.
It is also important to set a time for the break and stick to it. This way, you can make sure that the other person does not feel that he or she is being "put on the rack" for an unnecessarily long time. After the break, it is also important to actually have the conversation.
This is what you can do after a conflict situation
In the conversation afterwards, discuss with your partner what happened for you. These questions can help you:
- What did you each feel?
- What was your need?
- How did you interpret your partner's behavior? What does it say about yourselves? (e.g., If you are late, I think you don't care about me).
- How did you behave?
- How did you deal with the conflict?
- How satisfied are you with how you handled the conflict?
Summary on how to deal with emotional triggers in conflicts
If you often react with strong feelings towards your partner, you can work on this situation together with your partner. To do this, you can have different conversations with your partner to prepare you for such situations. The breakwater method can help you learn to deal with emotions better in the situation.
Would you like to work on navigating triggers in your relationship?
Atkin, S. (2012). Wired for Love. How Understanding Your Partner's Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build a Secure Relationship. New Harbinger Publications.
*Names changed for anonymity