If someone pointed a gun at you with their finger on the trigger, I can guarantee that you would flip out. You would go into the classic fight or flight response where your body is primed for dealing with this very grave danger – either by fleeing or fighting back. A rapid release of hormones including adrenaline and cortisol would course through your body to mobilize your muscles. Your heart would race and you would start to sweat as your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain which thinks logically and creatively, was bypassed in favor of the amygdala, your primitive brain.
Liz, you might be saying right now, don’t be so dramatic. No one is going to point a gun at me, unless I have very bad luck. This is not going to happen to me. Why are you even talking about this?
To which I would say, fine. It most likely won’t. Yet the metaphorical equivalent of this might very well be happening in your relationship on a regular basis.
I’ll say it again. The metaphorical equivalent of this might very well be happening in your relationship on a regular basis.
We can be triggered into fight or flight mode whenever our survival feels threatened. And if your partner is criticizing you, putting you down, or stonewalling, it might feel like that is the case. Let me amend that. It might very well feel like that is the case. I am drawing on not only my experiences counseling couples, but also established couples research by the Gottmans and Sue Johnson.
So let’s say your partner says something like “Did you feed the dog?” Now, to us reading this sentence right now, that seems like a pretty benign question. Yet it might pack a punch for you, and generate the same physiological response as if a loaded gun were pointed at you with someone’s finger on the trigger. How can that be?
Maybe remembering to feed the dog has been a big issue in your relationship. Maybe your partner tends to nag you about it. Maybe the resentment builds in you every time you’re reminded so that by this time, your amygdala takes over. But why would your amygdala do such a thing? This isn’t a loaded gun, after all!
It’s all to do with the fact that we are wired for connection. Connection keeps us safe, both emotionally and physically. We feel more secure knowing our partner has our back. And when that connection seems to be missing, when it seems that our partner actually does not have our back, when we don’t feel securely attached, our physiology treats it as a survival issue and the amygdala is activated.
Or, maybe you had some trauma in your past where feeding the dog was a stressful thing. Perhaps, as for a young child I met many years ago, your responsibility in caring for the family dogs, including hosing down their kennels and walking them, far exceeded your six year old capacity, and it was a responsibility that carried harsh consequences if not followed to the T. The idea of feeding the dogs, then, makes you anxious, and when this anxiety is provoked by your partner’s question, it triggers a survival response, much as when you used to get punished for not feeding the dogs at age six.
No matter the root cause, this trigger of being asked to feed the dogs jabs you and you go right into survival mode. How can you best survive in this instant? Maybe it’s by getting very angry – which to your partner seems like sudden escalation. At this point, remember, the problem-solving prefrontal cortex is not in operation, your amygdala is, so this conflict is not going to get resolved well. Or maybe you protect yourself by withdrawing – by getting very quiet as your heart races and your breathing gets more shallow, and you bolt from the room. You’re fleeing like this to survive – it’s programmed into your brain – yet to your partner, it seems like you’re disengaging to provoke them. And, again, this conflict will not resolve well.
It can be useful to know your triggers, and to dialogue about them with your partner. This goes both ways – we’re all triggered to some extent by certain things. You can recognize a trigger by its physiological effects, but also by the fact that you’re either escalating the issue very quickly or by shutting down – and in the process, confusing and pissing off your partner, which doesn’t make for a very happy relationship.
Triggers can be so engrained in us that they can be hard to discern. But, once recognized, they can provide great opportunities for healing, both in ourselves and our relationships. A couples counselor can help discover and unpack the triggers that exist between couples, supporting increased understanding of the origins of triggers along with coping mechanisms. If the trigger is deeply rooted, individual therapy might be recommended. With this unpacking and work, the trigger might be softened and even disappear, so that the question of whether or not you fed the dog would no longer catapult you into fight or flight, and you could simply answer non-reactively “Yes, I did,” or “No, will you?”