Communication: Do You Know Your Triggers?

If someone asks you what the true basis of a happily married life is, you may say love, commitment, honesty, and other such things. However, how often do we talk about the importance of communication in a marriage? Just because two people are spending most of their time under one roof does not mean that they communicate effectively with each other. And when you throw in “triggers” – which are anything that remind someone of previous hurt – communication becomes key to a happy marriage.

Communication is not just about words; it is about actions or non-verbal communication that hold great significance too. If your spouse is truly your best friend and you feel safe in the relationship, then it might be easy to take effective communication for granted. It happens to the best of us because effective communication is a byproduct of any healthy relationship. Being lax is far too easy on a daily basis.

Have you ever snapped at your spouse because something outside of your relationship was bothering you? Does your spouse ever feel the brunt of your words because you know they are committed to you? Is it easier to be “real and raw” with your spouse than anyone else? If you answered YES to any of these questions, that’s what I mean when I say that we can take effective communication for granted in our marriages.

I have been in this position myself where I needed to find a better way to communicate with Kenneth. Something negative was happening too frequently when I shared with him. I’d say, “Hey honey, are you still going to help with house cleaning?” He might grimace or say, “I already told you I would. Why are you asking me again?” Well, there you go! My question, coupled with his answer, set us down that old road to me getting irritated and Kenneth becoming annoyed. It’s the proverbial communication bust-up, and we had to learn how to stop it. Both of us had to figure out what triggered my irritation and Kenneth’s annoyance. We didn’t have to look far. Our triggers were rooted in trust and control. I didn’t trust Kenneth would help me in the manner that “I wanted” and he didn’t want to be “controlled” by suspicion of his cleaning skills. It is so embarrassing as I write this blog in retrospect.

As a counselor, I give advice and strategies on how to curtail communication bust-ups in marriage. Many of our ideas work well, per our clients’ feedback. Yet I could have used my own advice ten years ago when I was jockeying with Kenneth over house cleaning. Reader, what are your communication bust-ups in your marriage? I’m referring to your triggers, those emotional or mental responses that automatically show up when your spouse says or does something that reminds you of a past hurt. Whatever your answer is, chances are that is the root of your problem that could be interfering in effective communication in your marriage.

If you do not know your triggers or your spouse’s triggers, you may not be able to understand or empathize in those moments when the communication bust-up happens. This will slowly lead to a lack of interest in each other’s lives and thus, strained relationships; therefore, knowing one another’s triggers is important in consistently achieving effective communication. Triggers can make or break your communication because they are tied to your emotions and psyche, and they make you feel and think that your spouse is “trying you intentionally,” and they know better.

You know you have been triggered when you become defensive. Being defensive is the poster child for someone who is still grappling over past hurt. If your spouse needs to bring out complaints or issues against you, it is important to listen to them intently without being defensive about it. Separate the trigger from the truth of what is being communicated to you. It is equally hard for your spouse to bring his or her own flaws in front of you especially when you behave defensively. Make sure you listen and take effective measures to solve the issue rather than getting defensive about the issue.

Finally, understand it’s the small things in how we communicate that lead to major heartbreak. Nagging, being ticky-tacky, controlling, distrusting, being rhetorical needlessly, sarcasm, and all those other negative communication tactics might be tolerable in the beginning, but they will ruin a good marriage in the end.

We all have different communication styles; however, this blog isn’t about addressing styles as much as it is focusing on the triggers that interfere with effective communication – no matter the style.

If you are triggered when communicating with your spouse, own your feelings by sharing it with your spouse (if you feel safe); ask for some space to clear your head so you can focus on the issue at hand; don’t shut down and stop listening; be honest that the issue has overloaded you; and work with your spouse or a counselor at a different time to help you manage or even overcome the trigger root.

If you are triggering your spouse when communicating (you may or may not know it), understand what triggers are in the first place; don’t tell your spouse he or she is exaggerating or playing the “victim card”; pause the conversation to check on them – pick up the discussion later if needed; and reassure them they are safe with you and you two will work through it (if they haven’t permanently burned your bridge).

In the final analysis, learning to recognize and manage your triggers can take some time, but this effort can pay off in some major ways when it comes to your relationships and overall well-being. Unpleasant discussions can provoke strong reactions in anyone, but when you manage your triggers effectively, you’ll find it will improve communication in your marriage.

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