What to do when you accidentally trip your spouse’s emotional triggers

Everything seems to be going well between you. You’re having a good day. Suddenly you say or do something rather benign and your spouse explodes or overreacts emotionally. You’re wondering, “What just happened?” Guess what? You accidentally tripped your spouse’s emotional trigger.

What are emotional triggers?

Here are a few things you should know about emotional triggers (ETs):
  • ETs are universal – everyone has one or more
  • ETs are unique – each person develops an ET based on personal experiences
  • ETs are usually formed in early childhood and embed in the unconscious mind
  • ETs develop when basic needs are not met in a predictable fashion
    • (Basic needs: belonging, acceptance, security, freedom, love, recognition)
  • ETs are activated by a “perceived” threat to personal well-being or safety

Types of emotional triggers

Here are 7 common emotional triggers that activate in couple relationships:
  1. Abandonment – you will leave me or I cannot depend on you to be there for me when I need you.
  2. Harm – your actions toward me are intended to hurt me emotionally or physically.
  3. Guilt – you always think I am at fault and blame me.
  4. Shame – you think I am bad in my core
  5. Rejection – you don’t think I am good enough
  6. Anger – you want to control me and I won’t let you.
  7. Inadequacy – you criticize me because you don’t think I measure up to your expectations/standards.

What happens when ETs go off?

The brain’s “fight-flight” system is activated. Your spouse will either attack with intense anger or retreat in fear. You are viewed as an adversary. This happens because your spouse’s perception of you is distorted by an apparent threat to their sense of well-being.

7 ways to respond when your mate’s emotional trigger is activated

Here are seven sequential steps you can take to respond to your spouse and effectively disarm the trigger.
  1. Do your best to stay calm. A knee-jerk reaction is to return fire or get defensive. It will only make the matter worse. Your best move is to take deep breaths and find your calm.
  2. Do not be defensive. Easier said than done, but done nonetheless it must be!
  3. Respond with a soft tone when you speak. Rehearse in your mind how you want to speak your words. Get the tone right and you will lower the emotional intensity between you.
  4. Label and validate the emotional your spouse is expressing. Labeling emotions helps neutralize them. “I can see you are upset right now…”
  5. Apologize for the “unintended harm” your actions caused. You may think you didn’t nothing wrong, why should you apologize. This is not a time to defend your actions. Empathy is what your spouse needs. “I am sorry that what I said/did upset you…”
  6. Clarify the intention of your actions. Here is where you can address the accusation more effectively. “I did not mean to make you look bad. I was trying to help you solve the problem.”
  7. Reassure your spouse that you care about him/her. “I understand how you feel and want you to know that I love you and care about you.”

The Benefit to Your Relationship

Following these 7 steps will help you deal with an emotional trigger without losing your cool. Your spouse will feel safe. Here is another important outcome. The emotional wound begins to heal. It may not happen the first time. But the more you follow this approach the greater likelihood it won’t happen as often.

Now it’s your turn

Go through the list of emotional triggers. Can you identify your own? Which one(s) can you identify in your spouse. For more on how to manage your emotional triggers check out these two blogs I posted:
Recognizing Your Emotional Triggers
How To Master Your Emotional Triggers