4 Steps to Defuse His Emotional Triggers

It was just a comment.

All Amanda did was ask Ethan to pitch in to get chores done.

Okay, maybe she mentioned the fact that all he was doing was sitting on the sofa staring at his phone. But it was a light-hearted joke. She wasn’t being mean about it.

Ethan blew up. He stormed out and slammed the door behind him. What kind of grown man still slams doors?

Amanda was furious. And sick at the same time.

She was mad at Ethan for overreacting and terrified she’d done something horrible to end their relationship.

That’s when she reached out to me.

Spotting Triggers

Most of us come to relationships with baggage.

Not necessarily the kind of baggage that’s obvious, like a past marriage or financial problems, but rather invisible baggage.

We all have emotional wounds, sore spots, where we were teased as kids, shamed by partners, or punished by parents.

These are sensitive areas where we can’t tolerate even the most well-intentioned joke.

If you were teased about your weight as a kid, you may get defensive if someone makes a comment about your weight now—even if they’re just appreciating how fit you are.

If your parents shamed you for staring at the television for hours on end, you may get defensive about your right to relax with your favorite show—even though no one is suggesting you’re lazy.

Your brain can’t distinguish between the harmless comment you’re hearing in the present and the verbal attacks you remember from the past.

These emotional triggers can sabotage a relationship.

How Emotional Triggers Affect Your Relationship

When your partner is triggered, it’s like he changes into someone else.

He’s angry at you in a way you don’t recognize. It’s almost as if he’s not even seeing YOU; he’s seeing the person from the past who hurt him.

Your initial instinct is to defend yourself. You didn’t do anything wrong! You’ve made comments like this a thousand times before and he never got upset.

But defending yourself and shaming him for overreacting just sends him deeper into the shame spiral.

He’s already feeling attacked on an area he feels sensitive about. Now he feels that you’re trying to make HIM the guilty party, just because he stood up for himself. You’re dismissing his feelings on top of it.

You’re confused. You don’t understand what just happened. You’re both hurt and angry at each other.

There’s a better way.

4 Steps to Defuse His Emotional Triggers

The first thing Amanda needed to know was that Ethan wasn’t reacting to her comment.

He was reacting to all the times he’d been shamed for taking a minute to sit on the sofa and zone out.

He was also reacting to the critical voice inside his head that felt guilty for relaxing when Amanda was still doing chores.

Seeing Ethan’s reaction in this way helped Amanda take his behavior less personally.

Now that she felt she could spot when Ethan was being triggered, she was ready to learn a new way of dealing with it.

The first step is to stay calm. When your partner lashes out at you unexpectedly, you want to lash right back at him. But that just ends in a fight, which makes you feel even more emotionally unsafe with each other.

If you can recognize that he’s not here in the present with you—he’s in his mind, remembering a past situation as if it’s happening now—it can be easier for you to not react.

The second step is to reassure him. He’s in an emotionally safe place. You can see and hear his distress. Lower your voice, speak in a calm and reassuring way, and validate his feelings. Tell him that you can see he’s upset.

The third step is to disrupt the pattern. In the past, when he was shamed, his accusers never said sorry. Apologizing to him breaks that pattern. Tell him you’re sorry that what you said upset him or made him feel bad.

You may feel you have nothing to apologize about, and you’re probably right! But this is about empathizing with the pain your guy is experiencing. He’s hurting. Of course, you feel sorry for triggering his pain, however indirectly.

The final step is to return to love. Explain to him what the intention behind your comment REALLY was—you were just trying to tease him, and you thought he’d smile. Reassure him that you understand that the comment didn’t feel that way to him, though. Tell him you care about his feelings, and that you love him.

With time, a consistently loving response to your guy’s emotional triggers can help him heal, even if you never know the full story behind certain triggers.

But if it doesn’t, he may need extra support. Trauma and PTSD can’t be healed by a loving relationship alone.

Have you struggled to deal with a partner’s emotional triggers? Do you notice getting emotionally triggered yourself in certain situations? Share your story of healing with us in the comments.

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7 thoughts on “4 Steps to Defuse His Emotional Triggers

  1. Doug said:

    I’m confused by your response. Amanda asked him to help with the chores because all he was doing was sitting on the couch staring at his phone. It appears to me that she was upset because she was doing the work and he wasn’t helping out. There was nothing mentioned about it being a light hearted comment as you said in your response. Maybe they both work full time and only have the weekend to get things done. Maybe he is old school and expects her to do all the house work, but hasn’t told her that, but expected her just to do it. Maybe that’s why he stormed out and slammed the door.

  2. Jessica said:

    Hi James,

    Thanks for your method. I had read several pages but just have some issues on how to start this method to communicate with him because we have not communicated for 2 months and he’s not responded (not read/answered my calls/chat).

    As first module said to send him a text about the best moments that were memorable, I don’t know how to send that because he never reads my texts.

    Do you have any advise on how to start it?

    Many thanks,

    • James Bauer said:

      Hi Jessica. Digital communication has made things much more convenient for us in many ways. But romance flourished for thousands of years and even 30 years ago without any kind of email, chat, text, or other digital communication. If he won’t pick up the phone, I challenge you to brainstorm a list of five ways you could communicate with him. Think outside the box.

      Some people find it sparks creativity to ask themselves questions like, “If a multimillionaire promised to give me $1 million if I could start up a conversation with him again, could I find a way to do it?”

      Others find the reverse kind of question helpful, “if someone put a gun to my head and said ‘Figure out a way to strike up a conversation with him or I pull the trigger’,” how would I make it happen?

      Of course, these are just ways of getting yourself to think outside the box. The reality is, you can live a beautiful life with or without his attention. The only question is, might there still be away to enjoy this journey through life with him as your partner? And of course, right now you are working through the very first step, which is getting him to open a private line of communication with you in some way.

      Looking forward to hearing what ideas you come up with. Remember, when brainstorming, don’t look for perfect ideas. Just start writing down any idea that comes to you even if it’s terrible. Because this has a way of triggering new thoughts about backdoor methods for solving problems.

  3. Jay said:

    How do I use the Relationship Rewrite Method on someone who has blocked me and told me to stay out of their life…

    • James Bauer said:

      Hi Jay. The hardest part, as you’ve come to realize, is getting someone to crack the door open for communication. And your best bet (even in a situation where they are saying they don’t want to hear from you) is to follow the steps outlined in the Relationship Rewrite Method. But you may need to be creative to get a private line of communication going. It could be as simple as a hand written note, saying, “Hey, I wanted to ask for your help with something. Would it be ok to talk?” Often, curiosity is more powerful than you’d expect.

  4. veronica said:

    Hello James,
    Thanks for sharing this with us. I personally have this kind of problems with my boyfriend, he is good one day and everything seems so normal and happy then suddenly his mood changes and he gets so mad for no reason or gets jealous and wants to leave me. After a few hours or a day he starts being nice and lovely again. He shows me in so many ways that he loves me, but he confuses me.

    • James Bauer said:

      Hi Veronica. I can understand why that makes things difficult.

      To what extent do you think he is aware of his own tendencies when it comes to this pattern? Can you think of ways to gently encourage him to be introspective and speak openly with you about it? Some people find that approach yields breakthroughs, others find it only leads to more frustration as he closes down when the topic comes up.

      I typically only advise women to stay with a man who is at least willing to acknowledge that kind of problem so that there is hope for working toward a better future.

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