Triggered: Finding Calm Amidst Emotional Waves in Your Relationship

We’ve all been there, your partner says or does something that sends you into intense anger, anxiety, or sadness. In most intimate relationships, it's inevitable that we encounter emotional triggers – those moments when past wounds or insecurities are suddenly activated, leading to intense emotional reactions. Whether it's a fleeting comment, a familiar tone, or a specific behavior from our partner, these triggers can stir up a whirlwind of feelings, leaving us feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed. When we feel such intense feelings, it is common to respond impulsively in a harsh way to our partner or emotionally shut down. This can be confusing for our partner when they don’t realize why something they said or did triggered you. I can’t tell you the amount of times I hear clients expressing sadness over a fight they had with their partner that could have been avoided if they had the tools to learn how to navigate their emotional triggers effectively. When left unchecked, emotional triggers can lead to disconnect and resentment for our partners. However, learning how to navigate and effectively handle these triggers can foster greater understanding, resilience, and intimacy in our romantic relationships.

1) Cultivate self-awareness

The first step in navigating emotional triggers in relationships is to understand what and why we are feeling an intense reaction. Whenever we feel triggered it is likely a result of something in our past. Triggers often open up emotional wounds of inadequacy, shame, or fear. So whenever an intense emotional response comes up as a result of something your partner said or did, it’s important to ask yourself “what am I feeling?” in order to recognize what it is that you’re feeling. Once we know we are being triggered it gives us the freedom to choose the next response. If you struggle to identify what you’re feeling, a strategy you can use is to tune into your body. Often times, especially if you’ve experienced trauma, our emotions are stored in our body. So a great way to access and understand your emotional world is to ask yourself, “what am I feeling in my body?” Is there a tightness in your chest or stomach? Is your heart racing? Do you feel a tingling sensation anywhere? Mindfulness practices are a great way to increase the ability to understand what we are feeling.

2) Self-Soothe

More often than not, our negative emotional responses are not to what our partner did but to some past trauma that is being brought to the surface in that moment. Knowing that our response is not about our partner but about something within ourselves that needs attending to is crucial in working through triggers. Once you’ve identified your trigger, take some space and do some self-care that will help you compassionately move through the emotion. That could be deep breathing, having a conversation with your younger self, reminding yourself that you’re safe, or just taking a walk outside to connect to nature. Once we feel calmer and more grounded, it opens space up to come back to our partner in a more open-hearted way. Also, the more confident we feel in our ability to self-regulate, the less likely our triggers will de-rail us and we can more quickly move through them.

3) Communicate Vulnerably. Responding to triggers in an unhealthy way can contribute to disconnect in the relationship, so it’s important to come back to your partner and communicate why you responded the way you did. Not only will this correct any hurt feelings your partner had a result of your response, it will deepen the emotional intimacy by helping your partner understand a layer of you.

Handling emotional triggers in romantic relationships requires patience, compassion, and a willingness to grow both individually and as a couple. By cultivating self-awareness, practicing open communication, and implementing coping strategies, you can navigate triggers with greater ease and deepen the bond with your partner. Remember that addressing triggers is a journey, and it's okay to seek help along the way. Together, you and your partner can create a relationship grounded in understanding, empathy, and resilience.