A trigger is when someone does something or says something that triggers or brings you back to a certain event or pattern from your past. Sometimes we are unaware of the event or pattern that is attached to the current reaction. Often due to shame, fear, and the unwritten rules we've grown up with, we tend to try to deny these triggers or sweep them under the carpet. We often find ourselves thinking that there must be something wrong with us, and we can find ourselves doing all sorts of mental backflips to try to keep the triggers unspoken.
Hiding our triggers is evidence of shame.
In our marriage, my wife and I try to share our triggers with each other. Sometimes, she'll say something or do something that makes me feel scared and insecure. In those moments, I have to decide if I'm going to hide or if I'm going to live in the light. If I hide, I refuse to let her love me. If I bring my trigger and shame out into the light, then I allow her to love me.
The craziest part about sharing our triggers is that it requires we share them with our partner before we have figured out if we are right or wrong. We can be so tempted, especially as men, to get into an argument over right or wrong, when in reality we are dealing with a trigger and there is nothing truly right or wrong about what the other person is doing. Of course, sometimes the other person is sinning and this can get messy, but the only way to figure that out is to get into the messiness.
Here is an example:
My wife and I have both struggled with a fear that the other might leave us. It could be a fear that the other person might outright leave us or it might be the fear that they will stay with us physically but check out relationally - thus creating an emptiness in the relationship or home. This fear stems from previous relationships in which we were left, in which someone else was chosen over us, and in which we were emotionally harmed.
Sometimes, my wife might say or do something that might pull this trigger so-to-speak. She is trustworthy, but I have this fear she might choose someone else over me, even choose a woman over me - not in terms of physical adultery but more like making another woman her foremost emotional confidant instead of me. At other times, I might say or do something that triggers my wife into believing that I might leave her even though I'm trustworthy. It can go both ways.
It is in these moments that we can hide our fears or we can share them out loud to our partner so that our partner can protect us by being there for us. This is the ultimate form of vulnerability. We put our emotional selves on the line because we don't know what their response might be. But, if our partner is able to see that it isn't about them but that we are in the middle of a fear based on our past, then they can recognize it, affirm us, and make an adjustment if necessary.
Before you put your heart on the line, you probably want to talk to your spouse about trying to do these sorts of vulnerability talks. If you and your spouse are used to taking things personally, then it could backfire and you might do more harm to yourself than good. So, I recommend talking to your spouse about how you'd like to try sharing when you feel scared of them, when you might feel it is a trigger, and ask them to listen to how you feel. Ask them not to try to fix you or to convince you of anything or explain anything. Just ask if they would be willing to hear you and not run away. Ask them to thank you for sharing their fears so that they can be aware of your triggers and have the ability to love you more, knowing more about you and your triggers.
One final thing: You might be tempted to want to try to get your partner to do the same with you. Do not try to force this. You can invite them into the process, but you can never force them. They will know the difference between an invitation and a demand, so you'll have to decide whether or not you are making an invitation or a demand.
The way that you can invite them is to say, "When you go silent or when you start to become controlling, I'd like to invite you to share your fear with me in that moment. I won't try to fix you, I won't belittle you, I won't try to explain why you are right or wrong. I will just listen so that I can know you more." You could even do it in the moment, inviting them to speak when they are silent or take a time out when they are being controlling. "I'm feeling like you are trying to control me right now." Give them some space. Then see if you might be able to ask them what's going on or why they are being so controlling.
Sometimes we have to make adjustments to the way we relate to our spouses and their triggers and sometimes we have to stand our ground and assure them that we aren't those triggers. Those sorts of specifics you'll have to navigate yourself or find a good counselor who can help you answer those sorts of questions. I highly recommend a counselor to help you through the process if you haven't done things like this before. The counselor should understand the difference between grace and legalism, and have a good understanding of the relationship between boundaries and letting others in for connecting emotionally.
For me and my wife, we have made adjustments and stood our ground, depending on the issue. Sometimes we have to remind each other that we are not each others' past hurts and that we are acting differently than those triggers. Sometimes, we are sensitive to each others' triggers and find ways that we can word things differently or do things differently to help ease those triggers.
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash