Get to know and understand your triggers in relationships
In this blog post, you'll learn what triggers are, how to identify your triggers in a relationship, how to deal with them yourself, and how your partner can support you in dealing with your triggers. To tell you more about triggers in relationships, I will draw on the knowledge and expertise of couples therapist Sue Johnson as well as Terrence Real. Both have developed their own therapy methods for couples, and teach their methods in trainings as well as books. I will also use the couple Laura and Jim to explain how the knowledge of triggers can be applied practically.
Laura and Jim are on their way home from a family dinner. The mood is relaxed, both are happy about the good time they had with their family. Jim jokingly says to Laura, "It was really funny how you couldn't remember what the capital of France was while we were playing." At this, Laura's facial expression changes abruptly. She is tense, getting quieter and quieter, and seems stressed. She is silent, barely speaking to Jim. Jim doesn't understand what has happened: just now the mood was so good, and suddenly Laura ignores him.
What you can see in this example of Laura and Jim is something that happens to all couples from time to time. Everyone has their own triggers, and these are especially activated in relationships. But what actually constitutes a trigger?
What does it mean to be triggered?
When you are triggered, you are reacting out of experiences in your past to a situation and your partner in the present. This means that a situation triggers a lot in you emotionally and you notice yourself getting tense/ stressed/ annoyed/ angry/ sad.
Couples therapist Sue Johnson, instead of talking about triggers, talks about our vulnerable topics, so-called "raw spots" in relationships. She defines these with a hypersensitivity to certain issues, created by moments when attachment needs were not met. This trigger usually arises in our childhood and through the relationship with our parents, but can also have arisen from past or current relationships. In these situations, the person has felt very alone emotionally. Johnson says that you can recognize the triggered action by the fact that from one moment to the next, the emotional mood changes abruptly, and the reaction is not in proportion to the situation.
So what exactly happens when you get triggered?
Couples therapist Sue Johnson has an explanation:
- A stimulus activates your attachment system, your fears. It can be a sound, a sentence, or a look that activates you. Your alarm starts, and your brain registers that something dangerous, or painful, is coming your way.
- Your body reacts with an emotion and physical reaction, e.g. tension. This is because every emotion also shows itself in a physical change.
- Your prefrontal cortex, the logical thinking part of your brain, wants to understand what is happening and what the situation means for the safety of your relationship.
- You interpret the situation and make logical conclusions about what it means for you.
- You react: with withdrawal, an attack, etc.
This all happens in a split second.
What happened with Laura is a triggered reaction. Her family always criticized her a lot when she was a child, so it is very difficult for her when she is criticized. This is because she has learned that she has to do everything right in order to meet her parents' expectations and get the security and appreciation that she desperately needs from her parents. If she is criticized, she feels inadequate and small. Because as a child, it was important for her to behave in a way that her parents fulfilled her attachment needs. So in her case, that was to be criticized as little as possible. Because she hasn't yet recognized and worked through that, she now reacts strongly emotionally to Jim's criticism.
How to recognize your triggers in relationships
To recognize your triggers in relationship, you can ask yourself a few questions. Sue Johnson recommends thinking back to an argument or situation with your partner where you felt very vulnerable.
- What was the situation? What triggered your reaction? What did your partner say or do?
- What do you feel when you think back to that moment? What did you feel at the time? (e.g., sadness, overwhelm, etc.).
- What are your thoughts? How do you explain your partner's action that is difficult for you? (E.g. he just never thinks about me).
- How are you reacting?
- Where do you know this reaction from? Think about your family or previous relationships. Where does this trigger come from?
With these questions, you can identify issues or situations that trigger you. Maybe you have one main theme that triggers you. But maybe there are also different topics that are very triggering for you.
Laura reflects for herself that especially situations where she is criticized are triggers for her. She has also noticed this at work and with friends. For example, as soon as a colleague draws her attention to a mistake, she reacts very strongly to it and feels sad and can hardly concentrate.
Triggers are part of all relationships
Above all, it is important that you realize that it is normal to be triggered in your relationship. After all, in our romantic relationships, we are inevitably confronted with our own vulnerability, and past, painful experiences. As couples therapist Terrence Real puts it:
„We all marry our unfinished business. Most of us wind up partnered with an all-too-familiar failure, limitation, or offense. We are thrown back in the soup of our relational traumas from childhood. What makes a great relationship is not avoiding that retraumatization but handling it.”
So it's not about avoiding being triggered. It's about how you can learn to handle it well. Because there are things you can do about it, and so can your partner!
How to deal with triggers
Sue Johnson's recommendations for dealing with triggers in relationships.
Couples therapist Sue Johnson recommends the following approach when couples trigger each other:
- Stop the cycle of reactive action (if you recognize that one of you has been triggered, pause and get out of the reactive action).
- Name how you both acted and how you triggered each other. What exactly triggers your response? Is it something the other person says, does?
- Talk about your immediate feelings that are easily accessible. Is there anger, defiance, defense, defensiveness on your part?
- How does your action affect your partner's feelings? Relationships are always about dynamics. For example, if you withdraw, what happens to your partner?
- Inquire about your partner's vulnerable feelings: Ask what your partner's more vulnerable feelings are. For example, is there a fear of being abandoned?
- Explore and share your more vulnerable feelings: It's important to look more closely at your emotions, too: maybe the first emotion is anger, or you feel tense. Try to look behind the facade and identify your more vulnerable feelings. (E.g., feeling unimportant, isolated, humiliated, small, hurt, unwanted, worried).
Couples therapist Terrace Real on dealing with triggers in relationships.
Psychotherapist Terrace recommends two phases for dealing with triggers.
Phase one in dealing with relationship triggers.
The first phase is to cultivate mindfulness and thereby become more and more aware of how you want to behave.
He talks about cultivating "relational mindfullness." This means pausing when you notice you are being triggered and observing your feelings, thoughts, and impulses. Next, he recommends not reacting out of this reactive pattern, but choosing a response that is good for you and your relationship.
When you get triggered, you can pause as long as you want in the process. The goal is to observe your thoughts, emotions, and impulses. When you feel that you are no longer reacting from the triggered state, then you know that enough time has passed.
Maybe you need a walk in the meantime? Or a meditation?
Ask yourself: In this triggered moment, what path do you want to take? Do you want to follow your triggered part, or act out of your wiser, more adult part? It's important that you switch to the adult part before you exchange with your partner.
Laura plans to meditate regularly to train her attention. She also makes herself aware of how her body feels when Jim criticizes her. This serves as a reminder for her in the future to recognize that she has just been triggered. Laura's becoming very quiet and withdrawing inwardly is also a sign of a trigger she has experienced. In such situations, she then wants to take a walk to get out of the emotions.
Phase two in dealing with relationship triggers
In phase two, the couples therapist recommends that you talk to your partner. Terrace talks about four steps to help "repair" your relationship with your partner when you feel hurt:
- This happened
- This is what I read into it
- This is what I felt
- This helps me feel better
Laura explains to Jim that, when he calls her out on her lack of general knowledge, she feels like she's not good enough or smart enough. Because to her, it feels like a criticism of her as a person. It reminds her of her childhood, when her parents criticized her a lot for her school performance. It made her feel sad, not valued, and alone. She tells Jim that it would help her if he told her in such situations that she is good enough and that he loves her.
Conclusion on recognizing, understanding, and working through triggers in relationships.
Triggers are present in every relationship and result from repeated past experiences where your needs were not met. It is important that you understand what triggers are for you and find ways to deal with them for yourself. It's also useful to talk to your partner and get their support.
Jim now knows that it is a trigger for Laura when he criticizes her. Therefore, he can be careful to do that only very gently now. Also, he now knows how to help her when she is triggered: she wants to be held and hear from him that he values and loves her very much. This way, they can both make sure they handle it well when Laura gets triggered.
Do you want to understand and work on your triggers in relationships? Then feel free to contact me!
- Johnson, S. (2008). Hold me tight: Seven conversations for a lifetime of love. Little, Brown Spark.
- Real, T. (2022). Us: Getting Past You and Me to Build a More Loving Relationship. Rodale Books.