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 deeply in our brains. We call them triggers because they activate our defenses.
This defense activation happens without any conscious thought 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 incidents when we experienced pain or danger.
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 our triggers, well-rested, and mindful of a situation, we can override a trigger. When we’re tired or stressed, it’s almost impossible to stop our reaction.
Sometimes inconvenient triggers form. As a child, for example, 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 as my father did — but for me to say “Stop slurping, please” makes my wife’s hot drink less enjoyable to her.
Some triggers form in situations in which 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 on 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 he’s left dirty clothes on the hotel room floor.
The first time a trigger misfires in a marriage comes as a surprise and may cause conflict. But couples who achieve and sustain satisfying marriages prevent the same triggers from repeatedly causing trouble.
Here’s how to do it:
1.) Recognize your own triggers. Understanding one’s own triggers comes from developing an 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 the past that 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 misfiring. Some triggers may only misfire when you’re tired, tense or stressed.
2.) Discuss each other’s triggers. As we gain this self-awareness, we can explain to our spouses why we reacted the way we did in a situation. We can also explain to each other when we’re 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 with you.
Jon Beaty, counselor and father of two, lives near Portland, Oregon. He’s the author of the book “If You’re Not Growing, You’re Dying: 7 Habits for Thriving in Your Faith, Relationships and Work.”