Emotional Triggers

Help Couples Recognize Their Emotional Triggers

I got angry at my wife last weekend. We were lying in bed Sunday morning and I was kissing her. She started to talk to me about all the things that we had to get done that day. It made me upset that she couldn’t enjoy a few moments with me before we got busy.

I yelled, “Fine, let’s just get out of bed. And, yes, I’m upset with you.” I jumped out of bed and stormed off into the bathroom to take a shower.

As I was taking a shower, I cooled down enough to recognize that I wasn’t really being fair to Michelle. She didn’t do anything wrong.

We were having a busy weekend full of activities and I was feeling a bit burned out. I was thinking about enjoying a few moments in bed before we had to get up. When she shared her list of things to do, it set me off. For some reason, her talking about everything that we had to get done triggered my emotions.

After my shower, I went and apologized to her for yelling. When I explained that it was in reaction to my disappointment with a busy weekend, she understood.

I don’t think this type of fight is unusual with couples. Couples that we mentor tell us about how they fight about things and, often, it doesn’t get resolved.

I’d like to use this example to talk about three ways to help couples work through conflict.

What Are Your Emotional Triggers?

When we work with couples, we introduce language around emotional triggers. Those are the little things that set you off. Often, we react way out of line to what is actually said or done to us.

When Michelle started to talk about what we need to get done on Sunday, I reacted. It triggered me. I reacted far more than the situation warranted.

When we ask couples about their triggers, they often don’t recognize what is triggering them. This can take some self-reflection.

When they do identify them, the results are often amazing. It’s much easier for both people to manage their conflict and their emotions once they understand their triggers.

Emotional Flooding & Reactions

Flooding is when your emotions take over. You feel so overwhelmed with emotions that your thinking brain is shut down. You react, often poorly.

When Michelle started to talk about her task list for the day, it triggered me in a way that I became flooded. My heart rate increased. I was overwhelmed with the thought that she doesn’t enjoy being in bed with me and she’s
only thinking about her task list. My brain wasn’t really functioning at that moment.

When we work with couples, we’ll ask them what is happening to them in that instant. Typical responses:

  • Fight – When some people get flooded, they fight. They lash out and they attack.
  • Flight – You get out. This is what I did. I took flight. At that moment, I didn’t want to stay there.
  • Freeze – Some people freeze. They just shut down and stonewall. This is their way to manage their overwhelming emotions.

My point is that when you are working with couples, know that people get flooded. We all do. Managing emotions is part of managing marital conflict.

We ask couples what they can do the next time this happens. They are often able to come up with tactics to sooth their emotions.

Look for the Softer Emotions

Anger or resentment is what we often feel most strongly. Our partner does or says something and we become angry. We get flooded and then respond out of that emotion.

Anger and resentment are usually covering up softer emotions. Softer emotions typically show vulnerability and they are easier for our partners to understand. These emotions elicit a more positive response. Softer emotions are things like hurt, fear, sadness, rejection or abandonment.

When I got angry at Michelle, I knew that there was something else under the anger. After I cooled down, I started to think about what was really bothering me. I recognized that it was the sense that I was overwhelmed by what I had to get done. I was also disappointed that I wasn’t going to get a day off.

When I explained what was bothering me to Michelle, she was able to understand those softer emotions much better. She rapidly forgave me for my anger and poor behavior.

There was a time in our marriage when we both would have gotten angry. Neither one of us would have thought about what was really going on inside of us. We wouldn’t have looked for the emotional trigger. The conflict would have created resentment and it may have gone on for days.

We have gotten much healthier.

You can help other couples to process their own emotions in the same way.

Tips for Marriage Mentors:

  • Help Couples Recognize Emotional Triggers – Ask couples about their emotional triggers. When they do get upset, what is really triggering them?
  • Take Steps to Manage Emotional Flooding – Emotions will happen. There will be times that you feel flooded by your emotions. Ask couples what they can do the next time it happens. When we ask couples this, they will usually think through something they can do, like taking a short time out.
  • Look for Softer Emotions – Ask couples to identify their softer emotions. What’s the emotion under the anger or resentment? What’s the vulnerable emotion?


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