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.
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.