Something inside you goes off. Your spouse says something (or doesn’t), gives you a look, or acts a certain way, and it pushes your fight/flight/freeze button. In what seems like a nanosecond your entire nervous system becomes tense and your body and brain are flooded with stress chemicals. How can you win when your spouse triggers you like that?
One of the most enlightening things I’ve learned about neurobiology is how quickly your entire system gets activated when something happens that you perceive as a threat. Said another way, your feelings happen much more quickly than your thoughts can form.
That perceived threat may be to your physical safety, but it’s much broader than that. Your response now is almost never only about this moment. We call them triggers because this moment activates a whole series of connections in your brain including images, feelings, and memories from the past.
The other thing about our brains that amazes me is neuroplasticity. We used to think that your brain was fully formed by early adulthood, and there was little or nothing you could do after that. But we now know that your actual physical brain – the pathways and connections from one brain cell to another, etc. – can and do change over time.
That means your triggers can be healed. Or in theological terms, you can stop sinning when your spouse triggers you. That does not happen by just trying harder to be “nice”! But how does it happen?
Grace and Understanding
If you’re reading this, you surely didn’t wake up this morning saying to yourself, “I’m going to get mad at my spouse and be mean to them the first chance I get.” There’s a history behind this moment. Without that history the volume of your response to the trigger wouldn’t be nearly as loud (internally or externally).
Giving yourself some grace doesn’t excuse any less-than-godly behavior. But the only way to change your response is to look at your story with honesty and compassion. That’s how Jesus looks at your story. There’s a lot behind the fangs and claws that come out when you’re triggered, or the metaphorical tail you wrap around your face as you hide, or the mental running shoes you wear as you sprint away from your spouse.
Notice the physical response in your body to the trigger. Your neck tightens up. Your fists clench. Your stomach starts to churn. Your chest feels heavy. Your heart starts to race. Your entire body shrivels up and pulls away. Noticing does not mean judging; your body responds as it responds. At this point you are simply becoming aware of your trigger response earlier in the process. At first you’ll only be able to do this after the fact. With practice you’ll notice these responses as they begin to happen.
What’s Behind the Triggers
Begin to practice reflecting on your responses. What in your history is being triggered?
The prospect of spending the holidays with family leaves you anticipating misery, and you want your husband’s support in figuring out a way to manage this. But when you attempt to talk with him about it he brushes you off. “They’re family! We do this every year.”
You’re triggered. Not only is your brain replaying the emotional memories of past difficult holidays with family; now it’s also replaying the many previous times you’ve felt unheard in your marriage. And even more, it’s also replaying the countless times you felt unheard in your family growing up – the very reason you’re feeling miserable about the upcoming holidays. So your claws and fangs come out trying to force your husband to hear you.
It’s been a while and you’re wanting sex. You’ve been thinking about it all day. You come home in a good mood, ready to emotionally connect with your wife and invite her into a time of physical intimacy. But the moment you walk in she starts peppering you with questions about some unpaid bills. The emotional connection just isn’t happening, and neither is sex.
You’re triggered. Your brain begins to replay all the previous times you’ve wanted sex and been disappointed. And it’s also replaying all the times your wife has pointed out all your other failures. And then it begins to replay all the times your father pointed out your failures. It seems you’ll never be enough – as a man. And you withdraw.
Oversimplified, yes. But that’s what your brain is doing when your spouse triggers you.
Now for the “rebuilding your brain” part.
A New Story
Your brain can become rewired by building new memories and inviting God and others to enter and reinterpret your old memories. It’s hard, perhaps impossible, to rewire your brain on your own.
Here are a few ways that rewiring can happen.
- With God. He is the only One who truly understands you, and who is completely trustworthy. But we often struggle to experience Him that way. Get quiet and imagine being in a pleasant comfortable place. Invite God to come to you, and hear Him say to you, “You are my beloved son, beloved daughter. I’m so delighted to be here with you! Being with you pleases Me!” Let yourself feel heard by Him. Let yourself feel validated by Him.
- With Others. You need other growing people to connect with. Prayerfully consider who God would have you move closer to, and consider asking three or four such people to join you in a regular community of honesty. This is the place to get vulnerable with each other, ask each other questions, support each other. You talk about all the stuff, especially the stuff you don’t want to talk about. This moves you in the direction of disinfecting shame and experiencing growth and healing.
- With Your Spouse. When your trigger response has wounded your spouse, or you realize you’ve triggered them, circle back and invite repair. Let the walls around your own soul come down, and apologize without excuse. Be fully present. Listen. Take the time to look at the world through their eyes. Your vulnerability and attention has the potential to bring an even stronger connection going forward.
This description of discovering how to win when your spouse triggers you is so brief. This is a process that you’ll need to engage in repeatedly throughout your marriage. But in God’s hands, this is the process that will bring healing to you, to your spouse, and to your marriage.
And that’s a real win.
Your Turn: How do you usually respond when your spouse triggers you? How might looking at your triggers with honesty and compassion change things? Leave a comment below.
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- Your spouse triggers you. Guaranteed. But looking at your triggers with honesty and compassion, and writing new scripts, can actually change your brain. Tweet that.
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