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Emotional Triggers in Relationships

Bob and Jim are having dinner out with friends.  The wine is flowing freely; everyone is having a good time.  In fact, Bob is turning into the life of the party.  He’s not drunk, just a bit louder and more gregarious than usual.

He tells a tasteless joke and everyone laughs…except Jim.  Unknown to Bob, Jim isn’t going to be speaking to him by the time they drive home.  What’s going on here?

Why does something push our buttons – and why is it our partner who usually does the pushing?  Someone once said that we marry someone who will bring out the worst in us – that is, someone with whom we ultimately feel safe enough to show our most unattractive parts.

Within each of us there is an amalgam of memories, wounds and experiences from earlier times in our lives – a child version of ourselves, if you will.  The adult aspect of us is usually in charge most of the time, which is a good thing.  Adults are better at managing problems, interacting appropriately with other adults and generally getting their needs met.  But even when he’s in charge, this inner adult is not alone – the child persona is also part of our inner life.

When something happens that takes us out of “adult mode,” we can find ourselves in a childlike place where we feel frightened or angry or abandoned.  Counselors sometimes call these events emotional triggers.  Just like the trigger on a bomb, something sets us off and we blow up or fall apart.  And just like other triggers, emotional triggers make something happen so quickly that the mood shifts in the blink of an eye.

In the situation at the restaurant, Bob was unaware that his mildly intoxicated behavior reminded Jim of exactly how his alcoholic father used to behave when he was inebriated.  Jim’s father would embarrass him when he was drunk.  Jim’s father wasn’t much of a parent, and he often left his son feeling abandoned, hurt or embarrassed.  This created a powerful emotional trigger hidden within Jim.

You can guess the rest of the story.  Bob’s drinking and clowning took Jim back to that place of feeling embarrassed and fearing abandonment.  His frosty reaction to Bob was out of proportion to the nature of the offense (Bob wasn’t out of control and wasn’t driving that evening).

The temptation is to get into a big fight.  (“You drink too much!”  “You’re over-reacting and always finding fault with me!”) This happens when both partners give free reign to the wounded child part of their psyches.

Relationships provide us an opportunity to experience emotional triggers in a new way if we work the situations through in ways we could not as children.  It takes effort to keep the adult in charge.  When we resist the urge to respond out of that childish place, emotional growth is possible.  We learn that we can express our feelings and not be abandoned, for instance.

When you find yourself in this place of over-reaction, be on the lookout for your own emotional triggers. (Don’t be eager to point out your partner’s issues while he’s angry with you; he probably doesn’t want to feel you intellectualizing away his feelings.  Save the conversation for later.)  Take responsibility for your part of what happened.  See if you can help create a resolution that works for both of you, then talk about the triggering nature of the event later when both of your adults are back running things.

About John

I have been  licensed by the State of Georgia as a professional counselor for more than 25 years.  My areas of specialty are relationships, intimacy, sexuality, anxiety and depression.  My passion is helping people build happier lives and stronger relationships. 

I know it isn’t always easy to talk about problems.  My approach to counseling is nonjudgmental and compassionate.  If you have questions, I welcome the opportunity to talk with you about working together.

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Whether you've worked with a therapist before or are exploring counseling for the first time, you probably have questions.  It is important to have the information you need to make a good decision when selecting a therapist.  I welcome your questions -- about your specific situation, about me or about my approach to therapy. Making things better can start with an email, or you can call me at (404) 874-8536.