How we react to our spouse when triggered can be the solution they need or the very thing that exacerbates the issue at hand.
We have all experienced the hurt of physical pain at some point in our lives. Maybe we tripped on the playground and scraped our knees. Perhaps we suffered a burn when cooking on the stove. Most of us know the muscle pain of a hard workout at the gym. Just as we’ve experienced hurt or physical trauma, we have experienced emotional pain and emotional trauma. It inevitably affects every one of us. Trauma can be a deeply distressing experience caused by physical and/or emotional injury. In my work as a marriage therapist over the past 17 years, I have seen a major reason couples struggle to navigate a healthy marriage: unacknowledged trauma. Either one or both spouses have experienced past trauma that has not been identified or processed. Instead, they adopt and implement poor coping mechanisms when someone, including their spouse trigger them. This creates tension, resentment, anger, and frustration within marriages. One spouse may not know how to deal with their spouse’s triggers, and the spouse with the trauma does not understand why they are reacting so strongly to a situation and don’t know how to deal with their triggers.
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How do we recognize when we (or our spouse) are being triggered? How do we help our spouse (or ourselves) overcome them? Triggers will manifest inwardly and then project outwardly. In other words, our bodies will elicit a physical response when we are triggered. We will go into “flight, fight, or freeze” mode. This is a natural response to a perceived threat. It can occur when we see a snarling dog running toward us or when something reminds us of past trauma, like a loud voice. When triggered, the body will automatically react. We may experience an elevated heart rate and/or blood pressure, sweaty or clammy palms, muscle tension, trembling, dry mouth, anxiety, and so on. When we (or our spouse) are experiencing these symptoms, it signals to us that we have been triggered.
Triggers will often cause us to say or do something that we normally wouldn’t. We react in a way that is not congruent with our normal way of being in the world. It could be explosive anger, silence or stonewalling, crying, screaming, or shutting down emotionally.
Recognizing these triggers is important so that you and your spouse can work through them together. Once we can recognize triggers, we can then begin to implement healthy coping strategies. We recommend biblically-based counseling to help you and your spouse process those triggers to find the root—past hurt—and work through them both spiritually and practically. That being said, there are some things we can do in the present moment when we find ourselves (or our spouse) triggered.
- Recognize the symptoms. Pay attention to your body’s reaction to what you are feeling. Those cues like increased heart rate or the desire to flee the situation tell us that something has triggered us.
- Pause and breathe. Take a few deep breaths and exhale slowly. This helps reset the left and right hemispheres of the brain. Breathing increases the oxygen levels throughout the body and provides mental clarity and relaxation.
- Visualize a calming scene or word. For example, picture a calming word (like peace) or a quiet forest in your mind. This resets the front and back hemispheres of the brain. Visualizing and breathing simultaneously allows the body to calm down, decreases stress hormones, and creates a sense of safety.
- Ground yourself. Identify things you can see, taste, touch, hear, and feel around you. “I hear the birds outside. I can feel the chair supporting me…” This practice reorients you into the present moment, not the past where the trauma occurred.
- Tell yourself the truth. Ask the Holy Spirit, “What is the truth about this situation?” The truth will likely be something like, “You are safe. You are okay. You are loved.”
- When you feel calm and safe, ask yourself, What caused me to react this way? We are often triggered by something in our environment, most commonly a person’s actions. But triggers can also be a word, a picture, or even a particular smell.
- Seek help. A professional counselor can help you process the trauma and give you tools to manage triggers in a healthier way.
- Pray and talk it out with God. What is within me that causes me to react this way? Why am I feeling this way? Is there something from my past that I need to work through? What do I need to release to the Lord?
As we learn to recognize and deal with our triggers, we can work with our spouses to identify ways to support each other in those moments. Talking about the triggers enables us to create a game plan to use when necessary.
Being the spouse on the receiving end of the triggers can feel overwhelming and defeating at times. The good news is that you can use the tools we identified (like breathing) for yourself. When you see that your spouse is triggered, you may be able to gently remind them of these strategies and do them together. How we react to our spouse when triggered can be the solution they need or the very thing that exacerbates the issue at hand.
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Trauma and triggers do not have to rule over you, your spouse, or your marriage. You have the ability to take control over them. Scripture tells us to “…demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5 NIV). Through the Spirit of God living in us, we can identify thoughts and beliefs that are contrary to what God says and replace them with the truth. We can rip apart those strongholds —those roots of fear, shame, regret, self-loathing and other lies connected to past trauma—and speak truth over ourselves and our spouse. God makes all things new!