Relationship Help: Understanding Your Emotional Triggers

For a moment, think about your reflexes: No matter how hard you try to remain still when your doctor taps below your knee, your leg is going to involuntarily kick—in these moments it’s as if your body has a life of its own, acting on its own set of rules that exist independent of your intention. And like our body’s reflexes, there are certain events that seem to reflexively trigger certain emotions in us, feelings that rush over us at times, whether we welcome them or not.

If you’re in a long-term relationship, you probably know about being emotionally triggered—those maddening moments when your spouse/partner seems to get under your skin: A word, comment, look, or behavior that shoots your emotional thermometer upward. We may not be proud of them, but we’ve all had those moments—moments when we don’t feel in control of our own emotional destiny.

When your spouse/partner upsets you in some way, it’s easy (and all too common) to place the responsibility for your upset state entirely onto him/her—you are having your reaction because your partner made you feel angry or hurt or embarrassed or…  And the reality is that there are certain events that would upset most of us (e.g., being disrespected, invalidated, ignored, or mocked).

Relationship Help: What occurs when you’re emotionally triggered?

While the argument can be made that there are relationship experiences that would upset nine out of ten people, the other reality is that we each have unique emotional fault-lines, sensitivities created in our childhoods that make us more vulnerable to reacting a certain way emotionally. What sends you into an emotional frenzy might have little emotional impact on your spouse/partner (and, of course, the reverse is true). When you have a reaction to something your partner does (especially when you later—in a cool, reflective moment—decide the event wouldn’t have bothered most people the way it did you), it can be helpful to consider whether a particular emotional sensitivity from your past is being activated.

5 Emotional Trigger Warning Signs

When we’re emotionally triggered, our emotional reaction may take on one or more of the following features:

1) You may experience a quick, knee-jerk reaction (your feelings rapidly escalate);
2) Your emotional reaction seems automatic (beyond your control);
3) The feelings are intense (and may seem disproportionate to the triggering circumstance);
4) It’s difficult to shake yourself from the feelings once they’ve occurred (the feelings have a lasting quality to them);
5) You may ruminate about the triggering event (you focus for an extended period of time on what happened, thereby adding fuel to your emotional fire).

Think of the above as possible cues that a particular emotional sensitivity is being stirred in you—when this occurs, your feelings are controlling you, rather than you controlling your feelings.

It’s important to understand that being triggered does not mean your reaction isn’t justified or valid. It very well may be your partner’s inappropriate behavior that is triggering you and that his or her behavior needs to be changed. The goal of understanding your emotional triggers isn’t to minimize troubling relationship events or to let your partner off the hook when s/he should be taking responsibility for certain actions, but rather is to help you feel more in control of your emotional world—to  allow you to exist within your emotional world without feeling like a prisoner to that world.   

Strengthen Your Marriage/Relationship Action Step

Once you have suspicions that you are being emotionally triggered, you can ask yourself the following  questions to help you better understand your emotional experience:

  • Why is this particular event troubling me so much—what meaning does this event hold for me?
  • Are my reactions something I felt in other, past relationships?
  • Is this something I also felt as a child?

Our emotional sensitives are often rooted in our childhood experiences—so it can be helpful to make a connection between your current reactions that are being triggered and the important emotional events that impacted you throughout your childhood. Doing this is easier said than done, but it is well worth the time and effort to find out. It can be helpful to work with a therapist or counselor to help you better understand how your past is impacting your current reactions and relationships.

Wishing you and your relationship a bright future,

Dr. Rich Nicastro

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