June 13, 2022

Emotional Triggers in Relationships

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Do you and your partner know each other’s raw spots and emotional triggers? This is the eighth episode of a series on Getting Ready for Marriage. ​In this podcast episode, Elizabeth Polinsky discusses the importance of identifying your emotional triggers in relationships. 

IN THIS PODCAST

SUMMARY:

  • Understanding emotional triggers in relationships. 
  • Types of emotional triggers in relationships. 
  • Identifying your emotional triggers. 
  • Communicating about emotional triggers in relationships. 

Why I am doing this series on Getting Ready for Marriage

I had a wedding photographer reach out to me asking me to provide some tips for couples getting married. I created an entire checklist for her with the things I think are foundational for getting ready for marriage and starting off your marriage on the right foot. If you want the checklist, you can download it here!

A Personal Example of an Emotional Trigger

Hey, everyone welcome back to the communicate and connect podcast. This is episode 28 on emotional triggers in relationships. So I’m pretty glad that we’re going to talk about emotional triggers in relationships because we all have them and being aware of kind of where the landmines are in a relationship is generally a good idea. So I’ll start with a story about myself because I find that examples tend to be very helpful for people when we’re talking about these things. So for example, I have a raw spot that triggers me and that is when my husband laughs at me. That comes from my childhood, I can trace the roots of that raw spot back to my childhood when I was more overweight.​I don’t know if I would really say overweight; I developed into womanhood earlier than my peers. And so I had a more adult body than my peers did at the time and I did feel kind of like an outcast because of that. People would make fun of me and they would laugh at me. And so that is a very humiliating feeling, that is a trigger now for me. So if I’m like playing around with my husband or I’m doing something or I say something to him and he starts laughing at me, I immediately go into why are you making fun of me? Are you making fun of me? How can my person, who I love, be making fun of me? And it does, it’s a big trigger for me emotionally And every time I ask him, I say why are you laughing at me or why are you making fun of me, and he says, “I’m not making fun of you, I think you’re cute” and that is always his response to me. It is sweet when I can remove myself from how I feel emotionally triggered, he is feeling sweet emotions towards me which is nice to think about you know that he’s feeling sweet emotions towards me that he finds me cute. I mean, I do like that, but his expression of it by laughing and chuckling like he does is triggering for me.So this I think is a great example of how we have emotional triggers that come from somewhere in our past that our partner could be doing something with positive intentions and it could still be an emotional raw spot–an emotional trigger–and bring up a lot of painful emotions. And again these are often like landmines. So my husband and I have worked through this already in our marriage and I still sometimes get triggered by it, but we have the same discussion each time and it’s not as painful now as it was towards the beginning.​

Oftentimes the partner is not doing anything wrong. They’re not doing anything wrong, they’re just being themselves and something happened to trigger the pain template.”

Elizabeth Polinsky 

Understanding Emotional Raw Spots and Emotional Triggers

I got myself a little off track here but let me get back on track. So we all have emotional raw spots and they get bumped up against in marriage. And when that happens, we do get emotionally triggered and it brings up a kind of a mental template in my mind.When we go through painful emotional experiences, our mind stores that memory and our bodies store that memory, and in that memory are the emotions that I had with that memory. And so the memory comes up. It’s not just a memory, it’s also a memory plus all of the emotions that I felt at the time. And so then something in modern day or current day happens in your relationship. Something happens that feels very similar to what happened in the past. It brings up all of the emotions, not just from that moment in time, the current moment in time, but it brings up the emotions from when that has happened in the past as well. So now we have lots of painful emotions happening, and it is very painful when raw spots get triggered.And in relationships, it’s hard because if I don’t know that my partner has a raw spot, I don’t know to avoid it. I don’t know why they’re hurt. Like I could see like if I put myself in my husband’s shoes and I’m laughing because I think my wife is cute and then she gets really mad and blows up at me for making fun of her. I’m going to feel kind of lost as to what on earth is going on. But if he knows that that’s a raw spot for me, and if I can communicate that to him in the moment, then that helps him know for the future. But it also helps him be able to comfort me and help us have a different experience of where we can become closer versus becoming more distant as a result. Often times when raw spots get hit, people either blame their partners for hurting them or they kind of shut down and go away and distance from their partners.

It’s extra challenging because oftentimes the partner is not doing anything wrong. They’re not doing anything wrong, they’re just being themselves and something happened to trigger the pain template inside of me–or inside of you in this case. So they’re really not the cause of the pain, they just happened to be the trigger at that time. The goal is to be able to express the pain that gets triggered and then be able to comfort each other when that happens.

Romantic Couple Looking at Each Other

Navigating Emotional Triggers in Relationships Like a Pro

I like to use this metaphor of dancing, you know, couple relationships are a lot like dancing. I do dance, some of you probably already know that. I started with like swing dancing, lindy hop, balboa, charleston–all of that stuff. I met my husband through west coast swing. Recently, I’ve been getting really into kizomba dancing; it’s just so much fun! But when you dance with somebody, it’s really common to step on each other’s toes. Just the other week, I was dancing with somebody and I kind of tripped and I had high heels on. And my heel, like I jammed it into the dude’s foot, and I felt so horrible, I was like, “oh my God, I did not mean to like, put all of my weight through my heel into your foot!”. Like ouch, that’s gotta hurt. But these types of things do happen when you dance, and the goal is to see, okay, how can we recover in this moment and keep on dancing together?And that’s also what we want to happen with emotional raw spots. So you guys are interacting together, you and your partner, and somehow they bump into or step on your toes or do something that triggers an emotional raw spot for you. It does hurt. Of course it hurts, and it also comes along with dancing together and being in a relationship together. There’s no way, there’s no way to avoid raw spots altogether. The most important part, instead of, you know, as you get used to dancing together, you probably step on each other’s toes less and less because you become more in sync. So basically the goal is that I can’t, you know, it’s not possible for me to never step on my partner’s toes, and to never bump into them, and to never hit a raw spot or an emotional trigger for them. That is just unrealistic if we want to interact together. If we want to dance together it’s going to happen and it does happen less and less as we get used to each other, get used to the triggers, get used to interacting together, dancing together–but it’ll still happen.​When it happens, the goal is to recover. The way that couples recover is through comforting each other when triggers comes up, when the pain comes up. So that is the ultimate goal for couples. If that feels like a challenge, you could go to couples counseling, they can help you figure out how to do that. 

Examples of Emotional Triggers and Emotional Raw Spots

But let’s just talk about the beginning of the marriage because this series is on getting ready for marriage and the foundational tips to help you get started. And so it can be really helpful if you can identify some of your raw spots at the beginning of the relationship, and if your partner can identify some of their raw spots at the beginning of the relationship. That is gonna be awesome.​It’s always better to know this is a really painful spot ahead of time. It’s nice to know that and not find it out later. So some examples of raw spots are:

  • Feelings of being rejected.
  • Feeling betrayed.
  • Being afraid of being rejected.
  • Being afraid of being betrayed
  • A loss of control.
  • Feeling excluded. 
  • Feeling trapped. 

​I covered the raw spot of excluded in the last episode when I talked about my trip with my husband to this cabin with some friends. He got into a hot tub and he like didn’t invite me and I felt excluded. That feeling of exclusion has to do also from stuff from my childhood that is a template that came up for me.​So that is another example that is slightly different than the first one if that’s helpful for you. But okay, so we’ve got rejection, betrayal, loss of control, feeling excluded, feeling unwanted. Also feeling too needed to where you might feel smothered and like you don’t have your own room. That could also involve kind of feeling trapped–like you don’t have your own independence. These are feelings that are common feelings for people when they have a raw spot that got triggered. 

It’s better to repair than try to avoid… the antidote to the pain is comfort from your partner; it’s not avoiding it.”

Elizabeth Polinsky

Identifying Emotional Triggers

And you want to see if you can maybe think about your most recent fight and kind of get curious about it. See if you can connect it to your past life events. So, some good questions to ask yourself would be:

  • When else have I felt this way before in my life?
  • Then ask: is there a pattern? Is there a pattern in my life where I felt this at different times?

If so then, it’s probably an even bigger raw spot because there are more memories and painful emotions encoded in that mental template. You want to be able to share these with your partner so that way they can be aware. They can try to avoid it, but they’re not going to get that perfect. And ultimately it’s better to tell them when you do get triggered and ask them for comfort. They can help comfort you and help you with the pain of that so you guys can get back in sync and keep dancing. It’s better to repair than try to avoid. And I would I really like, I cannot stress this enough, like the antidote to the pain is comfort from your partner; it’s not avoiding it.​So, if you have questions about that, feel free to send them in a comment or something on social media. If there are questions, then I can do a live or something that goes a little more in-depth on that. 

Back View Photo of Couple Holding Hands While Walking Along Pathway

Action Item for Communicate & Connect Podcast Episode 28: Emotional Triggers in Relationships

So, your action item for this episode is I want you to see if you can identify just one raw spot, that is a common emotional trigger for you, and share it with your partner. And I think that’s gonna help just open up your conversation around emotional raw spots and emotional triggers. All right, have a great day. 

Liz’s Useful Links: 

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Thanks for Listening!

     

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    About Author

    Elizabeth Polinsky is a Certified Emotionally Focused Couple Therapist (EFT) providing EFT marriage counseling in the states of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Nevada. She also provides EFT training and supervision to therapists looking to become certified in EFT Couple Therapy. As a military spouse, she has a special passion for working with military and veteran couples, and is also the host of The Communicate & Connect Podcast for Military Relationships.

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