How to Stop Feeling Triggered by Your Partner

In my last blog, I wrote about some of the psychological reasons we get triggered by our partner in a relationship. I explored why tensions can rise so quickly, and things can feel heated before either person has a chance to understand what’s going on. These conflicts can be fraught enough for some people to end the relationship. Others may seek counseling. Yet, many couples just fall into a pattern of fight, make up, move on, fight, make up, move on, which only leaves tensions to build and triggers to become more sensitive.

What many of us aren’t aware of when we feel triggered by our partner is that our own personal history as well as a “critical inner voice” in our heads is impacting what triggered us and why. While exploring these early influences can change how we feel and interact in our relationships, there are also strategies we can adopt here and now to help us when we get stirred up by our partner. No matter what we feel in a given moment, we can learn to react in healthier ways that don’t do lasting damage to ourselves, our partner, or our loving feelings in the relationship.

1. Learn your triggers

We can start by learning our triggers. This may sound obvious, but many times when we feel overly reactive or frustrated by our partner, we aren’t entirely sure why we’re so worked up. Moreover, we fail to ask ourselves, “Why am I so reactive to that particular behavior by my partner? Why does that one thing bother me so much?” It’s also valuable to notice the specific actions, tone, and words that set us off, so we can start to discern the roots of our reactions.

For example, a man I spoke to described feeling shame whenever his wife offered him advice. He’d feel embarrassed and condescended to, and would usually react defensively. Another woman recently told me how infuriated she felt whenever her partner would bring up an unrelated topic in the middle of a conversation. She felt he wasn’t paying attention, and that she didn’t matter to him. In both cases, the painful feelings being triggered almost always led to tense interactions.

Noticing the kinds of things that trigger us offers us insight into ourselves and our past. In order to explore this further, we can sit with the feelings when they get triggered and do what Dr. Daniel Siegel calls SIFTing the mind for any Sensations, Images, Feelings, or Thoughts that arise. By doing this, we can get clues about the early childhood experiences that were the original source of our strong emotional reactions. Becoming aware of the source of our oversized reactions allows us to be more mindful and not take them out on our partner. We will be less critical of our partner and also feel more compassion for ourselves.

2. Pay attention to your critical inner voice

As we get to know our triggers, we should be equally aware of the critical inner voice, or negative internal commentary that’s filling our heads when we feel stirred up. For example, when I asked the man mentioned above what he was telling himself when his wife gave him instructions, he described having thoughts like: She thinks you’re an idiot! This is so humiliating. You should just sink into the floor. Who does she think she is anyway? You must look so pathetic.

When also asked to reveal her critical inner voices, the woman who hated when her partner would bring up another subject mid-conversation said that, at first, the voices would attack her partner: He is so self-centered. He never listens to you! Why is he changing the subject? But soon, the thoughts shifted to attacks on herself: You’re not important. No one wants to hear what you have to say.

A critical inner voice can be like a distorting filter through which we process what’s going on. Therefore, when we respond to our partner, we’re not just responding to whatever they did or said, but to our inner critic’s interpretation of what’s being conveyed. This critic tends to exaggerate, misinterpret, and hone in on the negative, so noticing it and countering it with a more realistic, compassionate perspective toward both our partner and ourselves is key to not overreacting to our partner.

3. Make connections to the past

Any human being will feel annoyed by their partner controlling, complaining, nagging, or being cold. However, when our emotional reaction to our partner’s behavior feels particularly intense or when our critical inner voice gets especially loud, it’s often a sign that something from our past is being tapped into.  As we get to know the content of our critical inner voice and the particular words, actions, and expressions that push our buttons, we can start to make connections to our history.

For example, upon further exploration, the man who attacked himself for being stupid and pathetic when his wife offered him advice felt particularly upset when she looked at him in a way that he perceived as parental or disciplinary. He remembered being scolded by his mom, who often told him how incompetent he was at completing tasks around the house. Along with the scolding, she would instruct him about how to do things the “right” way. His father also gave him long lectures that expressed his underlying disappointment in his son. The feeling of shame being triggered by his wife’s suggestions was very similar to the way he felt as a child being disciplined and lectured to.

The woman who had “voices” that she was unimportant or uninteresting when her partner changed the subject spent a lot of her childhood isolated and quiet. She often felt ignored in her family, who took little interest in what she had to say. When she did speak up, she was often shushed and defined as being temperamental and loud. The anger she felt when her partner interrupted her was intense, because his behavior ignited all those old feelings of being disregarded and unimportant in her family.

4. Sit with the feeling

Relationships are a hotbed for emotions to be awakened. One simple tool we can use when we feel shaken up is to simply pause. Take a few deep breaths before we respond. When there is time, we should try to sift our minds to explore the sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts that arose in the interaction. We can use Siegel’s other acronym COAL to be Curious, Open, Accepting, and Loving toward whatever comes up. By taking a curious, kind, and mindful approach to our reactions, noticing them without allowing them to overpower us, we arm ourselves with a tool that helps us not be a slave to our immediate impulses and reactions.

5. Take control over your half of your half of the dynamic

In relationships, it’s easy to notice the flaws in our partners and want them to change. However, the only person we have the full ability to influence is ourselves. We have 100 percent of the power to change our half of the dynamic. When something our partner does triggers us, we should ask ourselves, “What did I do right before they reacted?” Sometimes the answer will be nothing. However, most of the time, there may be a pattern or behavior we engaged in that was triggering to the other person. Looking at ourselves doesn’t mean we should take all the blame in our relationship or that we are solely responsible for how the other person feels, but this exercise of self-reflection allows us to know ourselves better and challenge any ways of behaving that are hurting ourselves or our partner and could be creating unnecessary distance in the relationship.

6. Collaborative communication

When we start to understand our intensified reactions, we can seek out a more collaborative and forthcoming communication approach with our partner. When couples fight, usually both of them are being triggered. Both have critical inner voices in their heads and old emotions being stirred. The best thing we can do in heated moments is to really listen to our partner. We should try to hear what they’re experiencing, so we can better understand what was going on in their heads and how they perceived the situation. This gives both us and our partner a chance to trace back to the initial trigger that set each of us off. It also allows us to be compassionate toward what our partner is experiencing and to separate what they think and say from the filter of our critical inner voice.

As we take steps to calm ourselves down and understand the internal workings of our reactions, we can extend this compassionate, inquisitive attitude to our partner. We can share with them revelations about why we have certain emotional reactions and encourage them to do the same. When we take a gentler, more honest, open, and vulnerable approach to our partner, we are more likely to get the same response in return. We’re not only less likely to feel triggered so intensely, but we are more likely to challenge negative patterns of defense and shift old dynamics that trigger us in the first place.

About the Author

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D. Dr. Lisa Firestone is the Director of Research and Education at The Glendon Association. An accomplished and much requested lecturer, Dr. Firestone speaks at national and international conferences in the areas of couple relations, parenting, and suicide and violence prevention. Dr. Firestone has published numerous professional articles, and most recently was the co-author of Sex and Love in Intimate Relationships (APA Books, 2006), Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice (New Harbinger, 2002), Creating a Life of Meaning and Compassion: The Wisdom of Psychotherapy (APA Books, 2003) and The Self Under Siege (Routledge, 2012).Follow Dr. Firestone on Twitter or Google.

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