We reached the final part in this relationship advice series.
Let’s look at what starts relationship conflicts and how to deal with it.
Triggers are defence mechanisms that we have developed to protect ourselves from neglect or violation.
They are fear responses that kept us safe as children but often become harmful in our adult relationships, as we tend to respond excessively to anything that seems like a similar situation.
By understanding our triggers, we can stop being controlled by them and this will help us break the negative cycle and build intimacy instead.
As we grew up, we might have experienced abandonment by a parent or parents that went from loving and responsive to unresponsive and cold. This could now cause us to feel insecure and anxious.
This will often lead to what we often wrongly describe as “needy” behaviour, as the person feels uncertain their needs will be met or fear being left.
Children that grow up with parents that are unresponsive or abusive and don’t react to their needs learn they have to be self-sufficient and therefore often become avoidant.
These people often lack trust in others and avoid intimacy, as they never learned to have an intimate and trusting relationship with their parents.
They can often seem to fear intimacy and push people away.
We all have a history that formed these attachment patterns, so understanding each other’s history and attachment style allows us to understand and see it for what it is, rather than being dragged in to the drama.
Our history has given us some wounds that activated our protective nervous system response (fight, flight or freeze).
These are stored as emotional and somatic memories in our bodies, meaning when we are triggered our brain can believe this is similar to a past experience.
We often don’t know logically why we are so upset but we can’t act calmly and logically.
Trying to discuss things logically with someone that’s triggered will only fuel the fire.
You have to realise when your partner is triggered the adult has left the room and you are dealing with their old hurt child.
If you partner is triggered you are no longer having a logic conversation. It’s now an emotional conversation.
Until you address the emotions nothing will get through.
So, we need to develop some self-awareness, to start stepping out of these destructive auto responses that we developed as children to protect ourselves.
They might have worked well as a child but they are no longer beneficial and can even become destructive.
So here is what we should explore:
Anything that our body or brain perceives as being similar to a painful event in our childhood can trigger us.
When I was a child, I reached out for help from my parents at a critical time when I was in danger and I was not heard but ignored.
Now, if my partner is dismissive, ignores or rejects what I am saying I experience stress and get triggered.
This comes from my childhood experience of not feeling heard.
The attachment wound; meant I struggle to trust other people to be there for me when I need it.
Similarly, I learned I could only count on myself when in danger, so I have a strong need to feel in control and when I don’t feel in control, I get triggered easily.
If in our childhood we felt rejected, this can also mean we are highly sensitive to feeling rejection and might even feel it when it’s not actually happening.
Some triggers are not childhood related and are genetic, such as protection and safety of loved ones.
Do you attack or withdraw?
Do you want to be alone or do you want to be together and sort things out together?
For me when I feel unheard, I get louder until it’s recognised and I get some response.
If I feel a loss of control, I fight back until I feel in control again.
It’s how my inner child learned to feel safe and protected.
Anger, sadness? …..
I often feel anger when triggered but as I sense deeper, I also feel sadness beneath the anger.
Fast heart beat?
I can sense my stomach becoming tense and my muscles in my shoulders and jaw tensing up.
This is a clear sign to me that I am triggered.
Our bodily sensations are the first to react to a stress response, so knowing your body sensation will help you catch triggers early.
If I feel unheard, I need my partner to understand my experience.
If I feel loss of control then I need them to listen and acknowledge what I want.
To find our triggers start looking for highly emotional responses such as anger, sadness, when we lash out, blame or attack or when we withdraw.
These reactions and emotions indicate something has been triggered and its often old attachment fears of being abandoned, violated or ignored.
It could be your dad left for another woman, so when you see your partner talking with another woman you feel hurt or panic and attack him.
Knowing this trigger will allow you to see it’s not about your partner, and you are triggered.
Instead of lashing out which will likely make him defensive or withdraw, you can ask for the support you need and be vulnerable.
That will allow for intimacy instead of disconnect and you can get your needs met and start to heal.
There is no greater healing power than our close relationships.
Most wounds, triggers and traumas are caused by a breach of trust in other people and as such are best healed by people too.
The single most misguided advice I hear in self-help is:
“You must learn to love yourself before you can love others “
This quote, while well intended, is contradictive to everything we know about the human mind and body.
We are social creatures and so we can only learn what love is through our relationships with others, so if we have never had a loving bond and experience with a close attachment then we can’t just love ourselves.
It comes from this western thinking of independence, that we should be independent of others and be able to give love to ourselves and not need it from others.
However, we are social creatures and we do need others.
The idea of individualism and that we should do it all alone is both misguided and very destructive.
We do need others for our well-being, so embrace and realise this idea that we should take care of everything on our own is incorrect and brings us apart.
Loving yourself is wonderful but you need to first learn what love is by experiencing it through relationships with others.
I went a bit off topic there, let’s get back to triggers.
So now you know your partners triggers from the questions above and from sharing them.
Let’s look at the core emotions behind your triggers and how they relate to your actions.
If you are not that familiar with noticing your emotions then you can look at your actions to help you figure out how you might be feeling.
Anger = Anger often makes us attack our partner. Blame is one form of attack.
Behind anger is often sadness or fear of being violated, or not being heard and our needs not being met.
Shame = withdraw or hide
While anger makes us lash out, shame often makes us retrieve and hide.
Fear = escape, flee or freeze
Outright fear is when we feel our fundamental safety is threatened and that can make us attack, try to get away or freeze and disengage completely.
When you feel calm again try to fill this out to understand your triggers more.
The trigger was ….. on the surface I showed ……. But deep down I felt ……. (anger, sadness, shame, fear)…. What I longed for was…………..
This will help you become clear on the 4 steps I described earlier. Let me give you an example here:
The trigger was my ex-wife breaking our agreement around childcare.
On the surface I showed anger but deep down I felt scared that I am losing control, and I longed for her to express that she can understand the negative impact her actions have on my life.
After you have identified your triggers yourself.
Can you remember what experience might have led to this trigger?
We grow up learning it’s weak to need others and that we should be independent and self-sufficient (in western culture).
Consequently, we hide our need for others rather than be vulnerable and share them with our partner and get the closeness and support we need to heal and feel safe.
We want to protect ourselves and not show ourselves fully because then we reduce the risk of feeling rejected.
But by avoiding the vulnerability we miss out on intimacy, connection and healing.
Instead we often experience the negative cycles of disconnect.
Here is another little exercise you can do to become more familiar with your triggers:
When I get triggered I (push you away/action word), I feel (angry/initial emotion felt), I get triggered when I sense/feel/perceive (attacked, you don’t care), on a deeper level I feel (sad/hidden secondary emotion). I want to (be close to you), and I need (what you need).
Before having attachment conversations like the above we need a space to release our anger, resentment or other emotions that will escalate things and start the cycle.
We discussed how to release previously so remember to do this before you have this conversation, and have this release with other people not your partner.
I have some great exercises in my eBook on how to release your stress response when you feel triggered so you can restore calm and communicate your needs clearly.