Sometimes we step into sensitive areas by mistake and our spouse gets upset. We call it “touching a raw nerve” or “pushing a button.” Many marriage counselors refer to it as a “regrettable incident.”
Regrettable incidents occur when an otherwise benign action by one spouse triggers a misfire of a negative emotional reaction from the other. The triggers for these emotional reactions are rooted deep in our brain. We call them triggers because they activate our defenses. This defense activation happens without us consciously thinking about it.
These triggers get automatically programmed into our brain by its amygdala. This part of the brain stores memories tied to emotional events. One function of this storage process is to protect us in situations similar to past situations where we experienced pain or danger.
Activating Emotional Triggers
When triggers spark emotional responses in a person, they may be activated by something as simple as a word, facial expression, sound, or touch. If we’re aware of out triggers, well rested, and mindful of a situation, we can override a trigger. When we’re tired to stressed it’s almost impossible to stop our reaction.
Sometimes inconvenient triggers form. For example, as a young child, I remember hearing my father reprimand my mother and me for slurping while drinking. It irritated him so much he got visibly angry. This happened more than once. It frightened me every time. I was never in any danger from my father’s anger, but a trigger formed. My wife sometimes slurps while drinking hot tea. When I hear it, I can feel the tension rising inside me. If I’m stressed or tired, I feel irritated by slurping and complain about it. I don’t get angry like my father did, but for me to say, “Stop slurping, please,” makes her hot drink less enjoyable to her.
Some triggers form in situations where there was a real danger of loss and physical or emotional harm. These triggers do provide protection. But in a safe marriage, these triggers may misfire at inconvenient times, and inconvenient places. A happily married couple might be enjoying a dinner party with friends. The wife whose previous husband cheated her might see her current husband in a friendly conversation with another woman and suddenly feel afraid. A couple might be enjoying a romantic vacation, and the husband abused by his mother for not cleaning up after himself feels threatened when his wife complains about him leaving dirty clothes on the hotel room floor.
Avoiding Trouble Caused by Emotional Triggers
The first time a trigger misfires in a marriage comes as a surprise and may cause a conflict. Couples who achieve and sustain satisfying marriages prevent the same triggers from repeatedly causing trouble. Here is how to do it:
1) Recognize your own triggers.
My wife and I know our own triggers. Understanding one’s own triggers comes from developing awareness of why certain situations trigger a negative emotional response. This may be accomplished by thoughtful introspection, journaling, or talking with a good listener about times in your past where these emotions rose up. With the most mysterious triggers, a skilled psychotherapist may be helpful.
As you identify your own triggers try to understand when you’re most vulnerable to them misfiring. Some triggers may only misfire when you are tired, tense or feeling stressed.
2) Discuss each other’s triggers.
As we gain this self-awareness, we can explain to each other why we reacted the way we did in a situation. We can also explain to each other when we are most vulnerable to our triggers. As you discuss each other’s triggers, talk about how to avoid the trigger and how to deal with it the next time it misfires.
3) Remember and respect each other’s triggers.
Take note of what causes your spouse’s triggers to misfire and take care to not unnecessarily set them off. Couples who succeed in maintaining satisfying relationships make concessions in order to accommodate each other’s needs, desires, and dreams. They also don’t ridicule, criticize or make light of each other’s triggers and misfires.
4) Cultivate a sense of humor about your triggers.
Learn to laugh at yourself. Knowing when the trigger has misfired is the first step. Being able to laugh about it will help lower the tension and make it more comfortable for your spouse to be around you.
It’s Not Always Your Fault When Your Spouse Gets Upset #marriage
A version of this post appeared on LifeZette.com.