If you’re not aware of your emotional triggers, let alone how to handle them, your second marriage will be more turbulent.
Many times, I have seen unacknowledged triggers create suffering and chaos. Becoming more conscious of intense reactions and not denying them or becoming defensive is the first step to coping effectively.
Identifying your emotional triggers is vital to a healthy second marriage. Bringing to consciousness those triggers that provoke extreme responses from you will lessen your risk of sabotaging your relationship by withdrawing or issuing ultimatums, such as threatening to end the relationship.
It truly is worth putting in the effort to explore your emotional triggers. The more aware you are, the less you’ll be ruled by past relationships. Exploring your triggers is an ongoing process. The first step is actually to commit to the process by discussing the concept of triggers or “hot buttons.” For instance, you might reflect on how you notice a sudden shift in the emotional tone of a conversation. Describing triggers will help you and your partner raise self-awareness.
Here Are Some Simple Ways to Identify Your Emotional Triggers
How Is Your Body Reacting?
Notice any tense muscles, increased heart rate, hot or cold flushes, tingles, or any physical changes that generally indicate contraction (or physically reacting from what your partner says or does). Ask yourself, “What is the first reaction in my body? Do my fists clench? Does my breathing speed up? Does my face turn hot or red? Do I feel like fleeing the situation? Do I feel frozen or unable to move?” Mentally note these reactions and even write them down. Remember that physical reactions can be subtle all the way to extreme, so don’t rule anything out.
What Thoughts Seem Intense or Repeat Themselves?
Look for extreme thoughts with opposing viewpoints (i.e., someone or something is good/bad, right/wrong, nice/evil, etc.). You don’t have to do anything else but be aware of these thoughts without reacting to them. Let them play out in your mind. What story is your mind creating about the other person or situation? I recommend simply listing these thoughts in your journal or in a notebook to enhance your self-awareness.
Who or What Triggers an Intense Emotion?
Once you have become aware of your physical reactions, notice when your spouse’s words or actions trigger extreme physical and emotional responses within you. Sometimes you’ll discover a single object, word, smell, or another sense-impression that triggers you. Other times you’ll notice that you’re triggered by a certain belief, viewpoint, or overall situation.
For example, your trigger could range from anything such as loud sounds to a partner who is overly controlling and opinionated. However, you may have a whole series of triggers (most people do), so be vigilant and open to perceiving a whole range of things that set you off.
Remember, it’s important that you record these triggers in some kind of journal (either printed or digital). Writing them down will help cement them in your mind so that you remain self-aware in the future.
What Happened Before You Were Triggered?
Sometimes there are certain “preconditions” to being triggered — for example, having a stressful day at work, waking up “on the wrong side of the bed,” going to a certain uncomfortable place (such as the bank or a doctor’s office), or listening to the children argue. Virtually anything could set the stage for being triggered later on. When you identify your emotional triggers, you may be able to prevent yourself from being triggered in the future simply by slowing down and reflecting upon them once you’re aware of the trigger prerequisites.
What Needs of Yours Were Not Being Met?
When we’re triggered emotionally, it can usually be traced to one or more of our deepest needs or desires not being met. Take some time to think about which of your needs or desires were being threatened:
- Being liked
- Being needed
- Being right
- Being valued
- Being treated fairly
- Being in control
Becoming aware of your body, thoughts, unmet needs and desires, and certain people or situations that set you off will help you get a better handle on your emotions — to not overreact or lose control. For instance, you might feel overwhelmed by attending a family event and either freeze, feel like arguing with someone or even have a strong desire to leave. By being aware of your triggers, such as feeling threatened by being with close family members, you’ll be better able to cope.
Five Ways to Cope with Emotional Triggers
Now that you have become more aware of “triggers” by tuning in to your body, thoughts, and unmet needs, work on becoming more aware of certain situations or words, or your partner’s actions, that seem to trigger these reactions. The following is a list of some ways to help you cope more effectively with extreme emotions such as anger and fear so that you will be able to be calmer and more reflective.
- Remove your attention from the person or situation and focus on your breath. One thing is certain, your breath is always there with you — it is part of you and accessible, and therefore a reliable way to relax. Focus on your in-breath and out-breath for a few minutes. Breathe in through your nose and exhale through your mouth as you count to ten. Thinking about a pleasant place can help you relax. Try imagining yourself in your favorite place. If your attention goes back to the triggering person or situation, pull your attention back to your breathing.
- Take a break. Remove yourself from the situation. Walk away for five minutes and cool down. If you’re speaking with someone, excuse yourself temporarily and say that you need to go to the bathroom or somewhere else. Return when you are feeling calmer and more centered.
- Find the humor in the situation. Practicing this suggestion is not always possible, but you might be surprised how much laughter and pleasure lightens your mood and perspective. When I say find the humor in the situation, I don’t mean necessarily laughing out loud. Instead, look at the situation from a different perspective and find the humor in it.
- Ask yourself why you are being triggered. Your emotional triggers may have a way of blindsiding you. To offset this, ask yourself, “Why am I feeling so fearful or angry?” Understanding why you’re being triggered will help you regain a sense of calmness, self-awareness, and control.
- Do not gloss over your feelings, but do not act on them. Trying to resist your feelings isn’t the solution. However, you can delay your emotional reactions. For instance, if you’re feeling enraged by someone, instead of exploding at them, consciously set those feelings aside to experience and unleash later in a healthy way. You might choose to express this anger by screaming in your room or doing an intense workout. However, be very careful not to repress your emotions. There’s a fine line between consciously delaying your emotions and unconsciously suppressing them — this is why it’s so important to practice the self-awareness suggestions in this chapter.
Healthy intimate relationships provide couples with a safe place for speaking out and voicing both positive and negative emotions without fear of negative consequences. Often, having gone through a divorce (your own but also your parents’) can leave you with a fear of failure in relationships. This fear may make it difficult for you to be vulnerable with an intimate partner.
This article has been edited and excerpted with permission from The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around (Sounds True, February 2020) by Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW. Based on the author’s personal experience, over 30 years of clinical practice, knowledge from leading marriage and remarriage researchers, and 100 in-depth interviews of remarried people, this book is a must-read for anyone contemplating remarriage. The Remarriage Manual is available at www.Amazon.com