Triggers. Hot buttons. Stupid stuff people say. It doesn’tmatter what you call it, we all have things that can set us off. In any intimate relationship, and particularly in marriage, it pays to know your own triggers—and it pays to know your spouse’s triggers.*
All types of things can trigger someone emotionally. Sometimes the things that set us off are rooted in our pasts, either as individuals or as a couple. Other times, our triggers are related to work stresses. One-time events or infrequent situations might cause a reaction. Being around someone who has wronged you can push a hot button. Even normal things like hunger or lack of sleep can cause someone to feel agitated, drained, or anxious. And when your triggers are activated, it becomes easy to explode at your spouse.
While it’s unpleasant and at times hurtful when your spouse blows up at you, your objective should not be to eradicate your mate’s emotional nature. Emotions are a gift from God that can greatly enhance a relationship. The objective is to bring your own emotions under control of the Spirit of Christ so that a bad day or an ill-timed comment doesn’t become a minefield that your spouse has to navigate.
So how do we do that? There’s no cookie cutter solution because everyone’s triggers are different, and while some things that get us upset are nothing more than a short-lived blip on the radar, others things can be deep and painful and frequent. Here are a few suggestions that might help when triggers have been activated.
Communicate rather than react. Does your husband know that something happened or something was said that has you on edge? Does your wife know that you missed lunch today due to a meeting and you're really, really drained? Your spouse may say or do something to further agitate the situation if he/she doesn’t know, and the easy thing to do is explode on him/her. Take a deep breath and calmly explain what has happened and what you are feeling at the moment.
And remember, in good communication, timing is often everything. If your mate shares with you that he/she is upset, give time for him/her to work through the initial emotional response and cool down before offering advice. If what you’re about to say begins with “I know you probably don’t want to hear this right now…” then you might need to reconsider saying it right now.
If your mate is upset, ask “Is there anything I can do to help?” Whether your mate needs time alone or to be held closely, to know that it’s okay to yell and scream or twenty minutes of uninterrupted silence, when you take the time to ask, you let you spouse know that you are there, you care, and you recognize his/her present disposition.
When you are the one whose buttons have been pushed, there is a temptation to use those times as an excuse to act in an ungodly manner. It is much better to control yourself on the front end than to have to continually say, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that to you. I was just mad.” While necessary, apologies wear thin very quickly if you let angry outbursts at your mate become your habit every time you get upset. Remember, God did not redeem us into a new life so that we can act in an un-Christlike manner and blame it on “a bad day” or “someone said/did something to me.” In marriage, you are one flesh, so only speak and act toward your mate in a way that you want your mate to speak and act toward you. (If your mate is berating you or losing control of his/her speech, don’t idly take abuse. If the anger becomes directed at you, it is perfectly acceptable to tell him/her in a loving way, “I know you’re upset right now. I love you, and I’ll come back when you can talk to me in the way that I deserve to be talked to as your husband/wife.”)
And finally, remember that you know your spouse’s triggers better than anyone else, so don’t use those triggers against him/her to manipulate, induce guilt, or otherwise try to control your mate. To do so is cruel and abusive.
When someone activates one of your mate’s triggers, you can be a blessing to your mate, helping him/her navigate a difficult time and draw closer together. Or, you can use it as an excuse to create distance and drive a wedge between you and your spouse. Be a safe haven for your love and let it bring you closer together.
(*Please note that in this post I am referring to managing normal stresses and conflict, not extreme, abusive, or addictive behaviors. If the conflict in your relationship presents danger to your well-being—physically, mentally, emotionally, or in any way—or if you live in a state of fear due to conflict, seek immediate professional and protective help.)
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