Why do we fear intimacy even as we also need and want it? Perhaps the biggest fear in intimacy is the secret fear most people carry around that their past unfinished business will get re-stimulated in their present relationships and cause them to feel hurt or want to run away. These old fears are called buttons or triggers.
People have buttons about being rejected, being abandoned, controlled, judged, ignored, criticized, misunderstood, etc. When an intimate partner does something that reminds us of painful but perhaps forgotten experiences in our past, this often triggers an automatic, unconscious over-reaction. So if you find yourself protesting, "He's not listening to me! He never listens!" you have probably just gotten your button pushed. Someone in your past did not listen to you and your never fully dealt with the pain of this experience.
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To master our buttons and heal ourselves, we need to use these triggering events to become more conscious and loving toward the hurt little person inside. The best place to do this is in an adult love relationship.
What can a couple do when they find themselves both overreacting at once, repeating the same fight over and over and never getting anywhere? An important first step is for at least one of the pair to get fluent with the language, "I notice I'm having a reaction to what you're saying" or "I think I'm getting a button pushed" or "I'm getting triggered." This signals to the listener a level of self-awareness that tends to help the listening partner feel safer. The listener hears that she is taking responsibility for her reaction rather than blaming him.
Using this phrase also helps partners get beyond blame. Blaming is what I call a "control pattern," an unconscious strategy for feeling more in control by explaining why something occurred. When in fact, you do not really know why. You feel helpless and finding something or someone to blame helps you feel less helpless. "I'm feeling bad because of you. If you hadn't done that, I wouldn't be feeling bad." Blaming supports the illusion that you have identified the cause of your suffering.
Even if only one member of the pair masters this all important statement, that's a good start. How does a couple proceed after one of them admits to being in reaction? If it is Joseph who says, "I'm getting triggered," where does this leave Janice? In my experience as a relationship coach, if Janice hears this admission from Joseph, it helps her feel safer because he is taking responsibility for his own trigger. It may also help her become more conscious of her own feeling state and more aware that she too is caught in a reaction. So Janice can use this as her cue to admit, "I'm triggered, as well." Now both of them are more present to their own feelings rather than holding the position that, "you ought to stop pushing my buttons!"
To help Joseph and Janice learn to step back and notice their reactions, I would teach them to be more aware of their bodily sensations. To notice when they feel relaxed and when they feel tense. The couples I work with learn to use this phrase whenever they noticed their bodies tightening up in fear. This video shows how you can do this for yourself: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7LDRLIDXUrs
Most people get triggered when someone directs anger at them—particularly if the anger comes without warning. Darol took Marie by surprise when he scolded, "How many times have I asked you to save your receipts?" Marie's normal reaction would be to defend herself, as in, "I'm doing the best I can. Can't you see how overwhelmed I am dealing with these kids and a family business?" Defensive reactions like this are normal in most relationships but they do not build intimacy. Defensiveness is a control pattern that erodes trust and loving feelings. It also keeps you from getting to the root of your defensive reaction.
If Marie could tell him, "I'm triggered by what you said and I'm feeling defensive," this would put her more in touch with herself. When you are present to yourself, you naturally feel stronger and more capable because you are giving yourself permission to be as you are, rather than denying or masking your true feelings. By expressing yourself responsibly and authentically, you are creating a powerful self-affirmation. Avoiding and hiding from painful feelings weakens your connection to yourself. Acknowledging what you feel builds confidence and self-trust, which will make it easier for you to face difficult situations in the future.
If two people are stuck in an argument, both people's buttons are probably being pushed at the same time. When this is going on, how can partners extricate themselves? It's not as hard as it may seem. The secret is this: if just one of the pair will admit, "I'm being triggered here. I'm reacting. I'm on automatic," this brings the whole conversation to a higher level of truth and transparency. When one person becomes humble and aware enough to make this statement, it is like a wake-up call that invites both people into the present moment. We recognize how un-present we are and paradoxically, this brings us present.
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