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Trigger Happy

September 16, 2019

You know your partner’s age, phone number, maybe social security number. But do you know her triggers? 

A trigger is something that sets off a memory, a sensation, or an emotion that belongs to another time and place in our lives, and leads to an over-reaction to what’s happening in the moment. Unaware that we’ve been triggered, the mind tends to explain or justify our reaction according to the situation at hand — “you made me lose my temper!” or “that sales clerk wanted to cheat me!” — rather than recognizing how strong emotional reactions often have their origins in some other place and time.

A great many of our triggers are associated with normal human needs that went unmet during childhood: the need for protection, for understanding, for fairness, etc. As adults, when those same (or similar) needs go unmet or seem to be unmet, we can get triggered into an over-sized emotional reaction. 

Suppose, for instance, you grew up in a family that afforded you no privacy. Your room was regularly searched, your backpack inspected. The bedroom door could never be closed. You hated the constant surveillance and felt powerless to do anything about it. Today you come home from work and find your partner rummaging through a stack of papers on your desk. Boom: you hit the ceiling, emotions surging as you bark your outrage. “You’re over-reacting,” your partner says. You disagree; the violation feels huge. An argument ensues. Imagine how helpful it might be if one or both of you gently suggested — before the conflict gets too far gone — that you may have been triggered around one of your core unmet needs or vulnerabilities.

Some of the most common emotional triggers are associated with the following needs: 

  • To be accepted        
  • To be seen and heard
  • To be understood        
  • To be treated fairly
  • To be needed            
  • To feel safe 
  • To be liked            
  • To be included            
  • To be comforted
  • To be valued            
  • To experience order and predictability
  • To experience control        
  • To experience autonomy and privacy

Talk with your partner to identify which of these needs seem to serve as triggers for each of you. Such an understanding can be a kind of roadmap, helping you make sense of quick and powerful emotional reactions that tend to hijack the moment and undermine partnership harmony. 

When it comes to our triggers, forewarned is forearmed.