Allyssa, 37, and John, 40, sat on the couch in my office for their first couples counseling session and spoke about how frequently they trigger each other. When this happens, it usually sets the stage for arguments where they say hurtful things to one another. These disagreements can lead to tension and emotional distance that lasts for several hours, or even a couple of days.
Allyssa put it like this. “I love John but sometimes my mind spins out of control when he says something hurtful about my family. I know my mother is interfering and my dad is critical of him, but it’s such a trigger for me because I can’t do anything to change them.
John responds, “I thought when we got married that Mary, my mother-in-law, would back off and stop interfering but she seems to feel it’s OK to constantly give us parenting tips. Bill, my father in-law, often criticizes my occupation. I’m a civil rights lawyer who takes pride in what I do, but he says all lawyers are dishonest. When I try to talk to Allyssa about their comments, she gets defensive and we argue.
Allyssa and John have been married for ten years and have two school age children. Since Allyssa’s parents visit regularly and separately (they are divorced), they need to find a way to support one another and work on having more realistic expectations of her parents and themselves.
Why Do We Have Misunderstandings?
We all have assumptions about how relationships work based on prior experiences that can lead to unrealistic expectations, misunderstandings, and disappointment. These assumptions include how we are likely to be treated and may need to defend ourselves.
These misunderstandings can color our view of ourselves and of our partner. They can affect how we think we need to interact to preserve our sense of self in an intimate relationship. These experiences greatly influence how we interpret the behavior of our partner and how we react to him or her.
Unfortunately, this means there will be many misinterpretations as both partners have their own “lenses” from which he or she views the relationship and interpret each other’s behaviors. For instance, during our counseling sessions, I suggested that John try not to take Allyssa’s parents comments personally and adjust his expectations. I also recommended that Allyssa gain awareness about the ways she can be defensive and try harder to support John by validating his feelings.
Learn to Understand and Cope with Your Triggers
The first step in helping Allyssa and John create a more supportive relationship and minimizing their misunderstanding is to help them understand and cope with their triggers. For instance, John realized during our sessions that Allyssa’s dad’s critical comments triggered his angry feelings because his own father wanted him to become a doctor (like he was) and so often made critical comments about his profession.
Likewise, Allyssa gained awareness that John’s comments about her parents triggered her becoming defensive because she was often irritated by their behaviors. In fact, she walked on eggshells after their divorce because she felt like she had to keep the peace after listening to them bicker for years which lead to their adversarial divorce.
If your misunderstandings and arguments with your partner seem to come out of nowhere, the following list of reminders for dealing with triggers may help you.
Five Reminders for Dealing with Triggers:
- Notice whether you are being triggered by past relationships or family of origin dynamics.
We all have emotional vulnerabilities based on how we have been treated by family members and former partners. When you experience an intense emotion in response to something your partner says, stop and reflect on whether this is a “new” reaction or if you’ve experienced it previously.
- Pay attention to your bodily reactions.
Notice any tensing of muscles, increased heart rate, hot or cold flushes, tingles, or any physical change that generally indicates contraction (or physically reacting from what your partner says or does). Ask yourself: what’s the first reaction in my body? Do my fists clench? Does my breathing speed up? Does my face turn hot or red? Do I feel like fleeing the situation? Do I feel frozen or unable to move? Mentally note these reactions and even write them down. Remember that physical reactions can be subtle all the way to extreme – so don’t rule anything out. Slow, deep breathing can help you cope with these feelings.
- Who or what triggers an intense emotion?
Once you have become aware of your physical reactions, notice when your spouse’s comments or actions trigger extreme physical and emotional responses within you. Sometimes you’ll discover a single object, word, smell or another sense impression that triggers you. Other times, you’ll notice that you’re triggered by a certain belief, viewpoint, or overall situation. For example, your trigger could range from anything like loud sounds to a partner who seems overly controlling and opinionated. However, you may have a whole series of triggers (most people do), so be vigilant and open to perceiving a whole range of things that set you off. Writing down these triggers will help to cement them into your mind so that you remain self-aware in the future.
- What happened before you were triggered?
Sometimes there are certain “prerequisites” to being triggered, for example, having a stressful day at work – virtually anything could set the stage for being triggered later on. When you’re trying to identify your emotional triggers, you can prevent yourself from being triggered in the future simply by slowing down and reflecting upon them once you’re aware of the trigger prerequisites. Once again, taking several slow, deep breathes can help you cope.
- Take responsibility for your reactions and work on your own behavior. As humans, we often expect others can read our mind. However, it’s a good idea to assume the best of our partner and have realistic expectations in regards to their behavior. After all, we all have flaws. Focusing on dealing more effectively with our own triggers and contributions to misunderstandings and arguments is a great way to be more personally responsible. You’ll also notice more harmony in your relationship.
Find Terry on Twitter, Facebook, and, movingpastdivorce.com. Terry’s award-winning book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Her new book The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around was published by Sounds True on February 18, 2020.
I’d love to hear from you and answer your questions about relationships, divorce, marriage, and remarriage. Please ask a question here. Thanks! Terry