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Managing Emotional Triggers in Couples

Emotional Trigger in Couple Conflict


As adults, we all still need validation from each other, particularly if we didn’t receive enough as children. Even if we have, we still need validation from others periodically. We are social beings after all. Even those we are introverted, self-sufficient and more enjoys being solitary, still want to feel loved and approved by the few or the only person close to them. That usually is our adult partner/spouse/housemate. In couple coaching, we have seen many minor disagreements can quickly turn into escalated arguments with shouting and plenty of tears. Aside from lacking emotional awareness and regulation, often small disagreement triggers something very painful in one of the partners, who in turn defends him/herself by saying things intentionally or unintentionally trigger something painful in the other. And this vicious cycle keeps going until the triggering becomes more intense and numerous so that the memory of this fight itself can become a trigger in the future for their relationship. I remember one session when the following scenario was described(printed below with their permission and to the best of my memory but not exact words):

Wife: I didn’t think he should ask our son for kisses all the time. He should give it, not ask him for it. That is like needy and expect the child to satisfy his needs. and I told him. I said it in a calm tone as an observation and opinion. But he snapped back and kept on talking about it as if I was forcing him to do something. He then called me a control freak and trying to control everything.

Husband: Yeah and then you yelled at me and gave me a nasty look that made me feel you were disgusted with me.

Wife: yes I got frustrated. Why did you say I was forcing you? Why were you so scared by my opinion. so I shouted:” Did I kick you? Did I punch you?” so how could he say I was forcing him?

Husband: I did apologize later on when you explained a bit more your reason. I was pretty patient and humble. I heard your point about this reminding you of the gender imbalance in society and in our relationship, where I might feel more entitled to things and expect more. And I apologized and said will try to do better.

Wife: Yes, he expects others to do more for you than he is willing to do for others. (to him)True, you apologized, and I actually felt validated. (to me) I actually thought he really got it. I was grateful and was going to thank him, but then he wrote me this nasty letter when he told me I had a terrible look on my face when I yelled at him, that was like the one I always complained of about my dad. He told me to really examine that problem. And told me he wanted to leave me then. And he asked for compassion. Where was the compassion in his letter then? He referred back to my painful childhood experience with my dad, without giving me any compassion and threatened me with abandonment, which was already an issue in our relationship. I have given him a lot of compassion in the past when he was in the wrong and hurt me, and when he often tried to manexplain me about how to interact with my son. I didn’t always agree but I didn’t blow up at him or felt he was forcing me to do something.

This was unfortunately not an atypical sequence of events. The issues might change, but the process remains similar. This was a relatively emotionally aware couple who were better able to express their feelings and reflect on reasons for their emotional reaction. That was why they had a moment of reconciliation even in the midst of escalation. However, what they couldn’t possibly do during the intense back-and-forth was realizing how much the hurt they felt was less about each other than the triggers they were experiencing within themselves. With further sessions, we realized the husband was threatened by the idea he was as needy as a father as he felt his own father was(trigger No.1). He snapped at his wife when he was really fighting the fear of becoming his own dad. The wife, as she correctly explained, was experiencing the anger for what she felt was unfair give-and-take in the marriage overall(trigger No. 2). Even as she realized it was her emotional trigger, she couldn’t physically stop herself from being angry and hurt. Those emotions were in turn reflected in the look that possibly resembled her own dad, as the husband described. However, contrary to the interpretation of “disgust” the husband had, it was one of sadness and frustration. Not having equal distribution of labor or responsibilities made her feel invalidated and uncared for. It felt all the more poignant in the context of the gender discrimination she had felt in society at large. The husband on the other hand, because of the abandonment issue he had with his own mother(trigger No. 3), projected the anger he always felt about his own mother onto the current significant female in his life. That was why he couldn’t help writing an angry letter to his wife even though he understood her complaint about the inequality in their marriage. He had to fight back the pain of being unloved by telling her what she inherited from his dad and he wanted to leave. The letter then triggered her own painful childhood memories(trigger No. 4) and the abandonment issue within their marriage(trigger No. 5). At that point, they were both overwhelmed and shut down for 2 days.

Help for improving emotional triggers management in Couples

Those closest to us are also most skilled at hitting our emotional points because they know us so well. While no one truly intentionally wants to hurt the loved ones, when we are in a defensive mode, we instinctually go for where it hurts. I compared this back and forth to a fistfight in one session with them. It started out as an innocent discussion. When he felt the words jabbing at his sensitive points, he threw back a light punch. It was a reflex. That was much quicker and easier than saying: “This reminded me of my struggle with my father, it hurts to think I might have become like him. Please reassure me you still love me.” And then the wife felt hurt by the punch and instinctually kicked him in the knee(shouting at him). It was not planned but was much easier and quicker than saying:” I need you to see how certain imbalance in our relationship reflects a larger social issue, and it makes me feel unloved. I need you to reassure me I am loved by more actions of giving and less of taking.” So each time one reflexively defends self from the other’s punch, the punch gets harder and hurts more. It can’t stop until one is too hurt to fight back. Unfortunately, that is also when permanent emotional ruptures damage the relationship and overall trust in the long run.

Fortunately, with some training, many couples can rebuild a strong foundation and healthy emotional awareness. For example, through Emotionally Focused Therapy sessions, this couple was able to slowly reshape their instinctual responses and build new emotional experiences that repair the hurt they felt during the more negative ones. They not only learned to recognize better their own emotional triggers but also learn about each other’s. This was crucial. We will always have emotional triggers from time to time and none of us can be emotionally undefensive 100% of the time. It helps when there is a partner who can recognize the pattern for the other. When one forgets to demonstrate their vulnerability(in other words recognize the emotional trigger and let the partner know they are hurting) and instead strike out defensively during a conflict situation, the other partner could help by not reacting to the punch. He/she is more likely to calmly wait for the pain to subside and then approach the subject with less emotional reactivity. By then the reacting partner is also more likely to have had a chance to release the defensive energy and talk without attacking.

This is, of course, not overnight. It will take 9 to 12 sessions for the average couple who still love each other but lost their emotional connection, and more if there were higher conflicts or longer history of disconnect.  A detailed discussion about EFT is beyond the scope of this blog. It is a very scientifically proven and methodological process that will take a whole book to describe.  I believe it is worth it for people who believe good things are worth fighting for.  Partnerships of any kind are not easy, let alone one that was supposed to last a lifetime. The rewards from what I have seen in clients who made the commitment, and including my own, are fantastic.

Other Ways to Learn about Handling Emotional Triggers

There are many ways to improve our own interaction with our emotional triggers. I described above an example of how it was managed in a couple coaching situations. Other ways including individual CBT therapy, coaching, group therapy, and at-home meditation exercises that could help us become more emotionally aware and react to our emotional triggers more calmly. The overall goal is to reduce the pain and negative impact those triggers have on our relationship with ourselves and others. This allows our rational brains to stay online and engage with each other in a more open and compassionate way.

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