Relationships should come with trigger warnings

Relationships come with problems. When we commit ourselves to a person, we commit ourselves to the whole of them. With their sweetness, their joys, and their love comes their sorrows, their triggers, and their baggage. It’s a package deal. What most of us fail to understand in the moment is this; our baggage has been with us long before our partner entered our lives. What we’re dealing with are the triggers of a life that pre-exists the relationship.

Throughout our lives, we develop automatic reactions to certain circumstances and behaviours based on previous experience. Call them pet peeves, call them triggers; by whatever name, they often seem irrational to someone who hasn’t lived our experiences. A history of being ignored may result in intense anger when someone doesn’t punctually answer your messages. Unfulfilled promises might have endowed you with control issues where you don’t trust others to take the lead. These qualities, whether in you or in your partner, existed before the two of you were an item. It’s not personal – but that doesn’t make mistreatment as a result of these triggers okay.

Let’s get one thing straight; understanding the origin of our behaviours does not excuse treating someone we love badly. We all lose our temper. We all say things we don’t mean. But when those events occur, we don’t get to turn around and say, “Well I hate when people don’t do their share of the housework because I always did more than my brother and never got recognized for it.” We still have to apologize. We still have to make it right.

In couples’ therapy, I turn to the Hendrix model. Dr. Harville Hendrix is the author of Getting the Love You Want. Dr. Hendrix and Dr. Helen LaKelly Hunt developed what’s called Imago Relationship Therapy. Based on the observation that frustrations in adult relationships are often connected to childhood experiences, IRT is largely founded on partnered reflection and communication in order to establish an empathetic, open exchange whereby couples can grow stronger both in their relationship and as individuals.

Like I said, relationships and problems are a package deal. You’ll never get rid of all of your squabbles and differences, with anyone. So don’t focus on eliminating problems; focus on learning to grow from them, together. If you’ve picked your “imago match” you WILL be triggered by your partner and vice versa. This is the unconscious opportunity you are giving each other to master wounds through the love you share, that was not previously possible.

To accomplish this, I first recommend researching IRT and reading Getting the Love You Want. These resources will allow you to build relationship skills that enable the deeper healing and carry your relationship from conflict to sustainable and more profound intimacy. In the meantime, here are some things you can start doing right now.

1. Stop Personalizing

When your partner behaves in a way you find irrational, do not take it personally. It is their reaction, not yours, and usually it stems from a part of their lives you’ve never seen. By dissociating from their reaction, we can observe the circumstances more objectively and respond with empathy and reason.

2. Watch For Unintentional Triggers

This one can be tricky because it goes both ways. It’s often easier for us to spy the faults in others than in ourselves, and while it’s valid that you notice your partner’s triggers, you also need to be alert to your own. When a trigger emerges, either in yourself or in your partner, take note. What was the trigger? What was the reaction? How is this connected to my life? their life? What was needed in the past that couldn’t be done, that we can now do for each other? By keeping track of this, you can work together to find out where the trigger comes from, and how to work past it as a team, not only to reduce reactions, but to deepen the love.

3. Commit to Open Dialogue

At the foundation of every healthy relationship is communication: ” the dialogue.” Aggression, passive aggression, and bottling our feelings are just different ways of digging our heels into the mud and going nowhere. Be open. Be honest. Be vulnerable. When you see a trigger, practice self awareness and use good stress management, so you can show up for the dialogue with your partner with effective ” I” messages. Be prepared to practice active listening to your partner’s “I” messages and go deep making the connections to your pasts so that you do for each other what wasn’t possible before.

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