Breaking the emotional trigger cycle in marriage

How to avoid pressing emotional triggers in a relationship.

Illustrative (photo credit: CHUCK TODD/TNS)
(photo credit: CHUCK TODD/TNS)
Emotional triggers in marriage are part of life. Finding dirty clothes scattered on the floor, not replacing the toilet-paper roll, squeezing the toothpaste from the middle of the tube, may elicit some negative reactions for a husband or a wife. However, the concern is not about the normative negative response to these triggers but rather the intensity of the reaction that can cause problems in a marriage. On occasion, couples trigger each other by saying insensitive things or acting in a way that pierces deep into old emotional wounds that we think that we have buried. Sometimes a difficult childhood experience or suffering a trauma can make a person vulnerable to overreact to an emotional trigger.
So what are emotional triggers? Emotional triggers can be people, words, opinions, behaviors, or the memory of specific situations that can at times provoke an automatic, intense and excessive emotional reaction within us. Emotional triggers can set off a wide range of feelings, which include anger, rage, sadness, anxiety, guilt, shame, fear and panic. Some people feel these feelings in their bodies and have severe headaches or a knot in their throat or stomach. Others externalize their emotions by getting into a fight with their partner.
The marital trigger cycle
A husband’s/wife’s reactions when triggered vary from individual to individual. For example, whenever Jay’s wife triggers him, he gets verbally assaultive and vulgar to her. His anger skyrockets over something that would appear meaningless to an outsider. Jay is by nature an irritable person, so it does not take much to get him angry. He had a terrible relationship with his narcissistic, angry father and felt unsupported by a mother who was unable to deal with his emotional needs.
Suzy, his wife, is generally supportive and has a calm personality. However, occasionally Jay’s angry behavior toward Suzy becomes unbearable and she cuts off communication with him. Her difficulty tolerating angry outbursts began during her childhood. Suzy’s father had an explosive temper and frequently screamed at her mom over trivial things. Jay cannot bear Suzy’s reaction of total emotional withdrawal because Jay’s mother often gave him the silent treatment when she was angry with him.
As a result, Jay’s angry behavior escalates when Suzy withdraws from communication. When she finally responds, she tells Jay, “You are just like your father,” a statement that enrages Jay, since he certainly does not want anyone to tell him that he is like is his father. This is an example of what I call the “slippery slope” of the trigger/counter-trigger cycle. During the fight, all rationality breaks down and the interaction becomes highly emotive, leaving each person feeling like the victim and looking to blame the other.
How to break the trigger/ counter-trigger cycle
Clearly, these highly conflictual and upsetting moments are examples of a total lose-lose communication paradigm. From my perspective, the first step to break the cycle is to recognize that you are in a “dangerous” situation. Once you are aware of this, you can begin to do something about it. For instance, when the angry behavior is escalating, try to take a step back. Tell yourself and your partner that you need some space, since nothing productive is happening during those highly explosive moments. Perhaps you can take some slow deep breaths, create some physical distance between you and your partner and give yourself time to calm down. You can take a 10-minute walk or do something to get away from your partner. It works.
When more calm, it is time to ask yourself some very important questions. Why is this particular event troubling me so much? What meaning does this event hold for me? Are my reactions something I have felt in other relationships in my past? Is this something I also felt as a child? Our emotional sensitivities are often rooted in our childhood experiences, so it can be helpful to make a connection between your current “triggered” reactions and the important emotional events that affected you throughout your childhood.
Try to reengage with your spouse and ask if he/she is ready to try to talk about what happened without getting into a fight again. Then try to talk it out. It is often helpful when having this talk to try to connect with all of the good things that are going well in your lives. This can help defuse some of the adrenalin and anger. If you have overreacted, show your partner a little humility and apologize. It is also helpful to reach out to your spouse by holding his/her hand, give a hug, or asking if he/she would like a cup of tea or coffee.
Marriage is a relationship between two people that needs constant work to keep the positive energy flowing. All marriages have trigger moments. What really counts is getting your communication back on track.
The writer is a marital, child and adult cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist with offices in Jerusalem and Ra’anana. ;