How many times have you experienced the following scenario: You are sitting with your loved one in a restaurant, on the couch in your home, or driving a car, and you are discussing something that seems benign and lighthearted. Suddenly the discussion takes a turn and you find yourself in the middle of a heated argument. More often than not, neither one of you understands how you got there and how to get out of it. Sometimes you are able to finally work it out; more often it gets swept under the rug with each of you feeling unresolved and upset.
It is generally difficult to get to the bottom of this kind of conflict because the surface issue you are arguing about is not the real issue. You may have been talking about a situation at work, or relating a story about a friend, but your attitude or your tone triggered some emotional threat in your partner that set off the argument. You two are fighting over the details of the conversation, but the upset has nothing to do with it. The underlying trigger does not get addressed, leaving both of you feeling hurt and angry.
Clearly I am describing an unconscious process which may leave people thinking: “well how on earth are we supposed to uncover the real issue?” First let’s clear up where these triggers come from. Most triggers developed, yep you know it by now, in childhood. (Are you beginning to see why parents need a how-to book?)
Our brains have an extraordinary capacity to lock emotional memories in our bodies when we are young and release them when a later situation seems similar to the original event. These memories usually revolve around feeling rejected or unloved in some way. When the trigger sets of the emotional memory, it literally brings us back to the original feeling and the child’s mind that perceived it. Now you are in an argument with an adult in an adult body but you are really feeling like a wounded child fighting from that perspective, not from what is actually occurring in that moment. No wonder it is almost impossible to resolve.
So what is a couple to do? They need to learn to identify when they are dealing with a real issue and when they are dealing with a trigger. A triggered emotional reaction is always disproportional to the situation. When you find yourself in an argument that seems out of proportion to the issue, one of you needs to stop and ask the question “what are we really arguing about?” If you are able to intercept the trigger and get to the bottom of what is really behind the argument, you will not only resolve the conflict, but over time rewire that trigger.
I used a couple to illustrate the point, but triggers can also be set off by our bosses, friends, children or parents.