Why Triggers Are Normal In Relationships and How To Manage Them
Updated: Sep 27, 2021
Imagine your partner walks by and pats you on the arm. Their hand hits a painful bruise, just starting to heal. Maybe you’ve even told them about this bruise before and can’t believe they bumped it yet again. Understandably, you flinch and mutter “ouch.” They look at you with confusion. “What’s the problem?” they ask. “That hurt!” you respond. “Oh come on, I barely touched you. I won’t bother next time,” they say and walk off.
Two things are true here. First, the pat on the arm really hurt. Your pain was real. Second, your partner did not understand why their seemingly soft touch wounded you.
Every person has a unique constellation of pain points or bruises under their skin. Often these marks are hidden or fading, so your partner cannot see them, but when bumped, you will feel sudden and sharp pain. Sometimes your partner may have done little more than tap you with the kindest intentions. Other times, your partner may have been in their own pain and struck out intentionally, sending a metaphorical slug your way. Regardless of their intention, your pain is real and hurts worse because of your underlying wound. So, how can you and your partner navigate these pain points? Is it possible to stop triggering each other so much?
1. Bumping each other’s bruises is inevitable
My clients often have a strong understanding of their own pain points gained through self-reflection, individual therapy, and life experience. Couples I work with often even have a good sense of each other’s pain points, and generally do not wish to trigger each other. But intellectual awareness of pain points does not necessarily prevent them from getting bumped. You might wonder, why not? We should learn to stop bumping each other’s bruises, right? First, consider whether the bruise can actually be avoided. If you know exactly where a bruise is and what behaviors bump it, you can certainly tell your partner “please don’t look at your phone while I’m talking,” for example. They may listen and try to respect this request. However, for them to completely stop bumping the bruise, they need more than momentary commitment. They need self-awareness (“when I look at my phone during conversations, that’s the thing that bugs them”), a desire to stop (“this feels like a reasonable and achievable request, I will stop”), and in-the-moment consciousness of their behavior before it happens (“oops, I was about to look at my phone, but they’re talking so I won’t”). Preventing the bump, even when your partner is understanding and on-board, is a complex shift.
But second, and more tricky, is the reality that your needs may not align with your partner’s. Perhaps they look down at their phone to distract themselves and calm down when something you said really irritated them. They are also triggered and wish you would have behaved differently in that moment. Or maybe you are quite talkative, and they are unwilling to never look at their phone while you are talking since you talk a good deal. They have their own experience of what the behavior means. Asking your partner not to do something because it triggers you is, in essence, saying “put my needs first,” which they may hope and try to do, but execution is likely to be imperfect if your needs conflict.
Finally, the “don’t look at your phone while I’m talking” request is particularly clear and easy to spot, even if there may be barriers to stopping. However, many bruises are sensitive to less clearly defined or more dynamic behaviors. If you find it very upsetting when your partner is sarcastic toward you, you might express to them “please don’t be sarcastic when we’re talking.” However, sarcasm involves subtleties of tone and language that are defined differently by different people. Many who rely on sarcasm developed this style through their family of origin’s humor and conflict patterns, deeply establishing the tendency. Sarcasm also tends to land very differently depending on context. As such, it is difficult to decide in advance which behaviors are okay and which are not, as some triggers are not cut and dried.
2. Blaming only hurts and does not help
Blame is a natural inclination. When you feel attacked, blame offers a way to both defend yourself and push back against the perceived attack. But saying “you should have known that would hurt me” ultimately doesn’t help you and actually hurts you in at least two ways. First, it does not actually stop or ease your pain. Although temporarily satisfying, assigning blame does not tend to provide much real comfort. Your bruise is still stinging. Second, blame drives your partner further from you, so that instead of wanting to care for and connect with you, they feel an urge to attack or retreat. Now, you are hurting and also in the middle of an unpleasant interaction with your partner, in which additional hurtful comments are likely to be said. Blame doubles the pain.
3. Your feelings are yours
Even if you avoid escalating, it is tempting to focus on preventing your partner from hurting you again by telling them what not to say or do, how to avoid all your bruises so they don’t accidentally bump one again. This looks like offering explanations of what kinds of things they should refrain from saying or doing in future. However, these requests ultimately ask them to take responsibility for your emotions, which belong to you and not them. Telling your partner that they should prevent you from feeling pain by knowing the right thing to say or do sends the message that you are fragile and cannot tolerate distress. Although being treated delicately can feel good in the short term, in the long run it fosters an unbalanced relationship where you are not seen as a whole, functional person.
4. Tend your own wounds first
If your bruise gets bumped in the middle of conflict, when both of you are activated, and particularly if you feel that your partner hit your bruise on purpose, take time to cool off before trying to explain your pain. Soothing yourself first shows you and your partner that you are emotionally competent. Couples with intense conflict often have a tendency to ask each other for emergency help after bumping each other’s bruises, but when the emotional tone of the interaction is hot, such requests are not typically well-received. If you are very emotionally spun out, saying things like “can’t you see how much you hurt me?” and “why can’t you think about me instead of yourself for just a second?” you are asking your partner to serve as your emotional emergency room doctor. When your dynamic is heated, your partner is probably also in a state of emotional turbulence and cannot effectively triage your pain for you. If you both tend to yourselves first, you can circle back and focus on connection after you have addressed your own wounds.
5. Go for connection
When you lay aside the natural instinct to blame your partner for hurting you or explain to them how to avoid doing it again, you can instead focus on connecting with them. You can tell them about what hurts and why, without telling them it is their fault. Instead of demanding an apology or asking them to change the way you feel, focus on sharing your feelings with the goal of them understanding you better. A trick here is to focus mostly on yourself and minimally on them. Talking about your feelings rather than their behavior, signals that you want them to lean in and come closer. Most partners soften in response to hearing more about what is going on for their spouse if they are not simultaneously pulled to defend themselves or justify their actions. Remind yourself that what you want most is to feel close and loved, and choose words that help you achieve that feeling.
Everyone has bruises beneath the skin. Your partner will sometimes bump your bruises, both accidentally and deliberately in heated moments when their desire to win an argument or defend themselves overrules their mental map of your pain points. And you will bump theirs. But by taking accountability for your reactions and focusing on sharing about your pain rather than asking your partner to anticipate what might hurt you, you can build your connection even in moments of hurting. Instead of hoping and waiting for a glorious (but perhaps unlikely) time when you no longer trigger one another, you can use the experience of getting triggered to create closeness and understanding.
Navigating bruises under the skin can be messy, and learning new ways of responding to pain takes time and effort. If you are ready to dig in deeper, I offer customized support for couples in Minnesota who want to stop blaming and start connecting.