Emotional Triggers Can Wreck Your Relationship
Would you like to change consistent, disheartening patterns of familiar arguments and interactions with your spouse? Many couples find themselves repeating the same battles, voicing the same complaints over and over again. These repetitive and seemingly unresolvable conflicts can take a heavy toll on a relationship. The good news is that couples who have felt frustrated and hopeless due to damaging interactions can move to settling differences and disagreements creatively, lovingly, and collaboratively!
As a therapist, I rarely see couples in which one or both partner purposely tries to hurt the other. I believe partners mean well, and want to have happy partnerships. In my decades counselling couples, I have come to understand that most of the time, couples who come to a counsellor about their relationship don’t actually need “couples therapy.”
They just need to not be triggered.
If we gauge the success of couples therapy as the pair happily stays together, the outcome of counselling is typically not as effective as we would like. John Gottman, a leading researcher and couples clinician, cites success rates of traditional couples therapy as 35% to 50%, saying, “In the long run, marital therapy did not benefit the majority of couples.”
I don’t believe this is because therapists are unskilled or couples are unmotivated, I believe that our emotional triggers wreak havoc on our best intentions and our wishes to be happy and make our partner happy.
Triggers are a symptom of emotional trauma. When we think of “emotional trauma,” what usually comes to mind is “Big-T Trauma” that can result in a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). However, trauma exists on a continuum. On one end lies catastrophic emotional trauma, often involving the threat of death, and causing PTSD. On the other end of the trauma scale lies the “Small-T Trauma,” perhaps more appropriately called “triggers,” with symptoms far less severe, but troublesome nonetheless.
While PTSD can present serious challenges, most people who access trauma treatment do not have that extreme condition. In 20 years of trauma counselling, I have seen three clients with an actual diagnosis of PTSD. It is estimated that while 60% of men and 50% of women experience trauma in their lives, only 4% of men and 10% of women develop PTSD.
However, when we include things that “push our buttons,” I believe almost none of us reach adulthood without acquiring some level of trigger/trauma that causes a predictable automatic emotional response. A triggered reaction can be as innocuous as feeling irritated every time you think of a hurtful comment your spouse made, even if it was years ago. We may be quite aware of our own triggers, but often, partners are better at identifying each other’s triggers than their own!
“If I criticize his driving, for sure he’ll flip out.”
“If I make a suggestion that can be taken as a criticism, they shut down completely.”
“When I tell her to ‘calm down,’ she goes ballistic!”
Hopefully, we use knowledge of our loved ones’ triggers to avoid triggering each another, but in a conflict situation when we are angry or defensive, we sure know what buttons to push if we wish to cause hurt.
Many conflicts in a relationship are escalated and unresolved because one or both of the partners becomes triggered. Wherever the person’s post-trauma responses lie on the continuum, a common feature is “looping” and the inability to move past or come to terms with the upsetting event. Your brain can be telling you all the logical reasons why you shouldn’t react the way you are, but the gut is not getting that message, and may panic and overreact. The automatic nature of these responses makes them non-negotiable, not choices, and often, highly distressing to both partners.
When the brain codes an event as trauma, the memory of that event is experienced differently than non-traumatic memories. Trauma appears to be stored in a different part of the brain than “normal” memories. Neuroimaging studies have indicated traumas are active in the limbic system of the brain, which is not where long-term memories are typically stored. Researchers see that trauma causes inappropriate and looping reactivation of the “fight, flight or freeze response,” long after the actual threat is gone.
Triggered responses vary — some people lash out verbally or even physically, others flee the situation — literally leaving or figuratively “checking out” or withdrawing emotionally. Others find themselves a “deer in the headlights” — paralyzed or frozen and unable to respond at all. When someone has experienced childhood sexual abuse or sexual assault, it can be very difficult for them to stay present even in consensual adult sexual situations. Certain kinds of touch can be very triggering, and result in a strong aversive reaction.
In a past relationship, Meiko discovered that her live-in partner, Jacob, was having an affair with a woman who accompanied him on most of his frequent business travels. Meiko was devastated when she learned of Jacob’s affair, and the relationship ended. Years later, in a happy marriage to William, Meiko feels very uneasy when he travels for work. She says:
“I know deep in my heart that William is not cheating on me — but the night before he goes on a business trip, I barely sleep. When he gets in the cab in the morning, I can’t stop crying. It takes hours for me to calm down after he leaves. My distress makes him feel that I don’t trust him, but I truly do! I feel awful that I can’t just relax when William travels. It drives me crazy that I can’t let Jacob’s past infidelity go — I’m afraid I might ruin my marriage.”
Bessel van der Kolk, a leading trauma clinician, states, “The core issue is the inability to integrate the reality of particular experiences, and the resulting repetitive replaying of the trauma in images, behaviours, feelings, physiological states, and interpersonal relationships.” Meiko knows William is not Jacob, and does not behave like he did, but her reactions when he leaves are triggers of the trauma she acquired when Jacob cheated. Sometimes, it is clear where the trigger originated, but other times, it’s a bit of a mystery. We don’t need to know where the trigger came from in order to release it.
When I met Ryan, he had been living with Anne for three years. He came to counselling to deal with what he called his “insane jealousy” regarding Sheldon, Anne’s ex-boyfriend who is still in their friendship circle. Ryan said:
“I consider myself to be a reasonable person. But anytime Anne mentions Sheldon’s name, I flip out and get sarcastic, sulky, and irrational. I know Anne loves me, and she isn’t pining or yearning for him. Sheldon is now married, and I actually quite like him and his wife. I know my reactions are off the wall and painful for Anne…and I try so hard to control it. But last night, she told me she had to go to their place to drop off the registration for a golf tournament we’re all going to. I felt hot prickles flooding through me, and snapped at her, ‘Why don’t you just pack a bag and stay overnight?’ She doesn’t deserve to be treated this way. I’m ashamed of myself for being so irrational and hurtful. I just can’t seem to help myself.”
When Ryan responds in this way, he knows his reaction is out of line. Anne is devoted to Ryan, and is hurt, bewildered and angry when he behaves this way. He says he trusts her, and wants to accept Sheldon as a friend, but all his best intentions fly out the window in those moments. Ryan is experiencing being emotionally triggered when he lashes out at the mention of Sheldon’s name.
Sometimes, a couple has triggers that trigger each other. This can cause situations that are exceedingly painful and can lead to feeling a sense of hopelessness about their relationship.
Laura and Malik had been together since high school. Laura grew up with an alcoholic, screaming, raging father. As a child, when her father was raging, she would go “silent bunny” — becoming still and quiet, in the hopes that her father’s anger would pass her by. As a grown-up, Laura had many triggers, but the biggest was yelling. When Malik raises his voice even a little, or when Laura even perceives his tone to be loud, she totally shuts down. Even when Malik yells at the TV while watching a hockey game, Laura can’t tolerate it. Her triggered response is to become silent and withdrawn.
Malik grew up with a cold, critical mother. When she was unhappy with him, which seemed to be most of the time, she would literally not say a word to him, sometimes for days. As a grown-up, Malik’s trigger is Laura’s silence. His triggered response? He yells. Malik’s yelling makes Laura more silent. Laura’s silence makes Malik yell more. It’s a painful cycle that ends with both of them feeling panicky and alone. They are helpless and despairing, and worried for their relationship. They love one another and are devastated to be so stuck in their pattern of distress. Neither of them can stop their automatic triggered responses.
Time does not heal all traumatic wounds. Indeed, triggers can worsen over time, as the person feels discouraged and self-blaming that they can’t just “get over it.” People may be impatient with and judgmental of their own or their partner’s triggered responses. Triggered behaviour can definitely look like bad behaviour. People with triggers often feel stuck in their emotions and reactions, and indeed, they are — that’s the nature of trauma.
In therapy, once I have gotten to know the couple and their issues, we go “trigger-hunting.” We specifically look to identify triggers that cause and maintain conflict or distance in the relationship. Couples typically find this exercise interesting and sometimes funny as they list their own and each other’s triggers. Then we treat the triggers in order to release them.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is remarkably effective and quick at releasing triggers — sometimes it takes only one session! This treatment involves focusing one’s thoughts on the traumatic subject or trigger response while administering bilateral (left-right) brain stimulation. The person also attends to emotions and body sensations experienced when thinking about the distressing issue or event. This process is not retraumatizing, but allows the client to address the event in a safe way.
The technique’s originator, Francine Shapiro, says, “The client learns what is necessary and useful from the disturbing past experience and the event is restored into memory in an adaptive, healthy, nondistressing form.” Once the trigger is gone, you may not like a certain thing your partner does or says, but you won’t default to a response that feels out of your control. You’ll be able to react as you choose to.
Ideally, both partners in a relationship release their triggers. However, if one person does not release them, the other doing their own EMDR can still have a hugely beneficial effect on the relationship.
“When Chris can’t reach me during the day when I’m busy at work, and I don’t have a chance to text or call, by the end of the day, they’re upset and accusing. I used to automatically react to that by getting angry that they were telling me what to do and implying I’m doing something wrong. Chris will never go to therapy to release their trigger. So I did my own EMDR and released mine. Now as much as possible, I try to prevent their trigger by sending even a quick text on days I’m busy. If I can’t make contact and they’re vexed, I don’t get reactive. I’ll just calmly and lovingly say, ‘I know, it was such a busy day — it’s frustrating when we can’t reach one another all day, isn’t it? I was thinking of you,’ and they calm right down.
Much of the time, when both partners have released their triggers, they don’t need further therapy. They each have full access to their own resourcefulness, love and good will toward one another, and can discuss challenges and disagreements without “fight, flight, or freeze” automatic reactions. They approach difficult issues as a team — as allies working together to solve a problem rather than adversaries fighting each other over the problem. They are able to see that their spouse means well, even if they are not in agreement. The absence of their triggers means that they can feel safe and choose how they respond to challenging situations.
They can be themselves…and be much happier together.