The only people who don’t get triggered are those who are perfectly healed and completely mature. And neither you nor your spouse are there yet! So how do you handle triggers in your marriage? Is a fight or withdrawing inevitable? There must be a better way.
Your spouse says something that rubs you the wrong way. They don’t follow through on something you expected from them. The way he seems oblivious when you bring up a topic important to you, or how she makes little remarks around your friends that you’d rather she kept private – could your spouse be any more irritating?
Regardless of how “off” your spouse may be, your response is about you, not them. Case in point; your spouse might say or do the exact same thing to someone else, and it might not bother them at all. As much as your spouse may need to do better, when your “flight-fight-freeze” mechanism gets activated, it’s about what’s going on in you.
So what’s going on here? And what can you do about it?
The Truth Behind Triggers
You learned how to be in the world long before you got married. The way your family of origin handled communication, conflict, intimacy, relationships, money, and everything else colored your unspoken expectations. The wounds, opportunities (or lack thereof), traumas, etc. that you encountered affected you.
And in response, you unconsciously crafted internal ways of being that enabled you to make some sense of things, protect you from further harm, and generally survive in the world.
And when your spouse does or says something that activates your learned responses, you get triggered.
When your angst gets strongly activated, it’s important to understand that what you’re responding to is only partly your spouse; you’re also responding to what happened “way back when.” You’re feeling anger, or shutting down, or trying to manipulate, or feeling desperate both about what your spouse did or said, and about your past.
Sex is an area where this happens big time, in part because sex cuts so close to the core of your being. Any interaction where physical, emotional, or spiritual intimacy is possible is a prime area for you to be triggered; you’re vulnerable there. But just about any area of human interaction is a possible target for triggers.
Think back over the last week or month in your marriage. In what situations has your inner engine been activated? When has the emotional heat been turned up? When have you felt fear or contempt or desperation, or wanted to run or hide?
That’s a trigger. And it’s worth investigating. Your spouse may have truly done something that’s “off”, but remember this is mostly about what’s going on in you.
So thinking about the last time you were triggered, ask yourself some questions such as; When have you felt that way before? What does that feeling remind you of? What expectation, inner hurt, or fear was rising up in you? Taking the time to recognize your trigger, and ask questions about it, will be necessary in order to change things going forward.
And it’s worth noting that your spouse gets triggered to, sometimes by you. Study your spouse; you’ll learn what triggers them and how they respond when that happens. Simply understanding some of that can lessen your own angst, and will also help you learn how to love them better.
Expecting you and your spouse to never trigger each other is unrealistic. But you can develop healthier ways of responding and working through the triggers that come.
When You’ve Been Triggered
So what do you do when you have been triggered? Can your response be changed?
Growing up means learning your own triggers – at least the ones that impact your ability to love your spouse well and function in a healthy way. Dealing with triggers intentionally can actually change your brain activity, the inner way you respond when that “thing” happens again. Here’s some of what that process looks like.
- Recognize the trigger. We already mentioned this. Realize that your inner angst is about more than just what your spouse did or said right now. Look under the surface and learn more about what is getting triggered inside.
- Apologize for your reaction. For whatever part of the “wrong” was on you, ask your spouse for forgiveness. This does not excuse their bad behavior; it keeps your slate clean.
- Pursue healing. Most negative triggers involve some hurt or wound or trauma from the past. It’s unfinished; that’s why you still get triggered. Be intentional about going back and dealing with that hurt; acknowledge the hurt, get some help if needed, and specifically invite Jesus into that part of your story.
- Learn a new response. It doesn’t work to say “I’m not going to get angry, or shut down, the next time.” You will have to intentionally plan something different to do. When you feel your inner engine activated, what specifically are you going to do? Think that through, and practice it.
For many people this process takes a lot of time and effort. In part, this is what the journey of learning to love well is all about. A significant benefit of marriage is that you will get triggered; it provides you opportunity to deal with your stuff!
Grace, Time, and Love
When you get triggered and respond in an unhealthy way, or when your spouse does so, knowing these dynamics does not provide an excuse. Giving yourself and each other grace is different from an excuse; grace embraces the reality that you are on a journey to love well. You’re not there yet, but that’s where you’re headed.
Isn’t that how God deals with us? His grace, His love, doesn’t excuse our bad behavior. But He’s much more interested in the trajectory of where He’s taking us. If you’re listening, allowing Him to do His work in you, He will continue that good work until you become like Jesus.
That’s a big part of learning to love your spouse well. Choosing to take in God’s love for you allows healing for your triggers. And when both spouses embrace the process, marriage can be a powerful vehicle for healing both of you.
Your Turn: How do you respond when you get triggered? Are you aware of your spouse’s triggers? What are you doing to deal with the underlying roots of your triggers? Leave a comment below.
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- You will get triggered in your marriage; your fight-flight-freeze internal engine will get activated by something your spouse says or does. But you can learn healthier ways to deal with the triggers in your marriage. Tweet that.
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