Do You Know Your Triggers?

Help your relationship by understanding yourself because it’s important to know what triggers you in your relationships. Often, there are themes in relationships that send us into negative emotional spaces. Our triggers are based on old wounds that could go back to childhood, past intimate relationships, or even something that happened in your social circle.

Some common sensitivities include:

  • Fear of abandonment
  • Fear of intimacy
  • Feeling unlovable
  • Feeling suffocated
  • Feeling inadequate

Let’s use the fear of intimacy as a hypothetical example. If you had very few people in your life who you connected with you as a child, you likely would have a hard time connecting with people later in life. People who have a hard time connecting often have a hard time sharing and experiencing intimacy in their relationships.

If you never process your childhood experience, you will likely carry that pain with you into adulthood. Whether you consciously understand that you carry this relationship sensitivity, your brain remembers the original wound. That pain will show up in all your relationships but especially so with your significant others. Understanding why certain behaviors trigger you allows you to communicate your relationship sensitivities to your partner effectively.    

My clients often come to therapy unaware of their sensitivities and triggers. They believe their partner is behaving in horrible ways just to upset them. They think anyone would react as they do. However, most of our triggers come from our past experiences.

Past experiences shape how we perceive and interpret outside information.

That is why people often get so much out of therapy. When there is an objective third party to help make sense of the problems in our relationship. 

Our sensitivities make relationships difficult to navigate our way through. Not to mention that your partner has a set of their own experiences and beliefs about relationships, which defines their reality and sensitivities, which your behavior can trigger. Can you see how this creates a negative spiral?

Here’s another example, let’s say you have abandonment issues, and you’re in a relationship with someone that needs a lot of space. Their need for space will trigger your sensitivity and fear of abandonment. Your brain goes back to the old wound that’s the root cause of your sensitivity.  Your reaction will seem like an overreaction to your partner, but it would make sense if they knew about your experience.

Someone with a different history may not be triggered by this at all, so it’s up to you to know what your triggers are and how they affect your relationship.

If you don’t understand that these two incidents are a similar theme (abandonment), then you won’t be able to take responsibility for your sensitivity, and you will put all the blame on your partner. Your partner will likely feel confused, scared, and even angry. They will need more distance from you, which will further trigger your fear of abandonment. 

The way out of this is to make your sensitivities conscious and accept them as a part of you. When you take responsibility for your triggers, you can talk about them differently with your partner. When they understand why you react the way you do, they may feel more empathetic to your experiences and be a healing presence for you. Start by telling your partner what your sensitivities are, how they developed, and what triggers them. 

Unsure where to begin? Try this.

A quick exercise for identifying your triggers, and your typical response after a triggering event is to think about the last  three arguments you had with your partner and fill in the following:

When ___________________________________
(name a situation that triggers your sensitivities) I feel insecure about our relationship.

This situation reminds me of _______________________________
(name the first time you can remember this situation arising)

What I take the situation with you to mean about ME is _________________.
(What do you tell yourself your partner’s behavior means about you?

What I take the situation with you to mean about YOU is_________________.
(What do you tell yourself your partner’s behavior means about them? 

What I take the situation with you to mean about our RELATIONSHIP is____________________. 
(What do you tell yourself your partner’s behavior means about the bond that you share?) 

The move I make when I feel negative emotions about these situations is________________________. 
(Identity your typical response)                                            

But underneath that, what I’m really feeling is ____________________
(Identify the very first feeling that comes up.)

What I really want from you is_______________________
(Tell your partner what you need).

Once you complete this exercise, you should understand your specific sensitivities, how you behave when you are triggered, and what you really need during those times. Share with your partner any information that you think could help them understand your behaviors and emotions.

What if my partner isn’t interested?

One important thing to look out for is whether your partner genuinely wants to be a healing presence for you. That doesn’t mean you put all the work onto them. It’s your job to manage your triggers, and it’s their job to help.

There’s a chance that you chose someone that isn’t able to be a healing presence.

An unfortunate relationship paradox is that we often generate a lot of chemistry with people who constantly trigger our core sensitivities.

Try to differentiate between a loving partner who needs some education about your triggers and is motivated to work with you on creating an emotionally safe relationship. 

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barbi pecenco lmft

Barbi Pecenco, LMFT

A Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist  with over 15 years of experience, Barbi works with individuals to help resolve issues that have them feeling stuck in life. She’s based in Newport Beach, California. Learn more about Barbi >

What are you REALLY arguing about?

Pinpoint the areas of your relationship that need the most work and learn how to fix them.

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