Don't take it personally: Relationship problems

When couples talk to me about problems in their relationship, it often means that they are triggering each other by things they do or say. People can have significant triggers or “hot buttons”, that once pressed lead them to say things and behave in ways that they might regret if looked back at with a cooler head. But it’s as if they can’t help themselves. Somehow they’re triggered, and the angry words come out, or the abrupt exit, or the silent treatment.


Emotional triggers in relationships

This is why, so often, people tell me that their recent argument was about something embarrassingly trivial. The dishwasher is a classic example or being a few minutes late. Or the wrong item of shopping. Maybe a light left switched on. Something they would easily forgive from anyone else, except their partner. They hesitate to tell me these things, thinking that this little thing can’t be the real issue. But the real issue is why and how that small disappointment explodes into a big conflict that’s hard to resolve. It can be something as small as not looking up when your partner enters the room.

And this happens, as I said because people have triggers. It’s something about that 'not looking up' or 'that wrong' item of shopping that presses the button. People in relationships are driven by deep fears and longings. It could be a fear of abandonment, below the surface, of which they are not consciously aware. All they know is that suddenly their button is pressed. When there is a disconnection, a response from their partner that isn’t what they wanted, they feel the edge of a fear that it’s hopeless, that their partner will always be inaccessible or unresponsive. Or it could be a fear of being dominated, overpowered. Or of being not good enough, so that their partner will inevitably leave, sooner or later.

The thing to know about these fears is that they usually go a long way back, perhaps to a previous relationship or to childhood; perhaps even infancy. They may have originated with a parent or sibling. In other words, if your partner has a trigger, it’s not about you. It’s not personal. Never try to interpret it in terms of what they think about you. For example, if they have a fear of abandonment, they would have that with any partner. It doesn’t mean they think you can’t be trusted. It just means you have to avoid triggering it. Just as if they had a fear of heights, that wouldn’t be about you: it just means you need to know they are not going to like a birthday gift of a voucher for bungee jumping.

Similarly, if they have an underlying fear that they are not good enough, so that they are always afraid you don’t really want them, don’t take it too personally. It doesn’t mean that you mustn’t ever criticise something they’ve done, but you do need to make sure you give them about five pieces of praise or acknowledgement in ratio to every piece of criticism you want to express. You may need to think carefully about which are the most important negative remarks to make and which can be forgotten, so that they are reassured that on balance, you like them. This often provokes a strong reaction when I tell people this: “why do I need to praise him/her for every little thing they do as if they were a child?” Indeed, giving praise is a delicate art! It mustn’t seem mechanical or superficial. But on the inside, a part of your partner is a child who needs some praise. And why wouldn’t it be a pleasure for you to give it? After all, it’s free.

But on the other hand, maybe what presses their button is insincere-seeming speech. They may have had a parent who was emotionally manipulative, who said things they didn’t really mean. Insincere praise may send them into despair, with a feeling that they can never trust anything you say. You need to know about that, and you need to understand that it’s not about you. If they’re like this, then they have a highly sensitive radar for manipulation, and they would be like this with anyone.

And in the worst case, your partner may test you. They may try to see if they can push you to do the thing that they fear. If they fear criticism, they may try to provoke it. If they fear being left, they may suggest breaking up.

How can therapy help?

The role of a therapist in relationship counselling will be to take one of those tiny incidents, the dishwasher or the light left on, and unpick what happened, in a slow-motion action replay of the emotions. In excruciating detail. What exactly did you feel when he/she said this thing? What did you see on their face? What did you say to yourself? Where did you feel it in your body? Have you ever felt that feeling before? What was it that you felt the impulse to do or say? And what did you do or say?

It’s a bit like directing some dialogue in a play or film. What exactly is the emotion, the motivation, the tone, at each instant? And in this way, we will get to the bottom of what’s happening, and what can be done about it. If your partner fears that you’re going to leave, it’s not helpful to promise “but I’m not going to leave”, any more than it would help to say to a partner with a fear of heights “but you’re not going to fall.”

And of course, this applies equally both ways. Your partner has triggers that you need to understand, and not take personally, and equally you also have your triggers. Big flare-ups tend to happen when both things are happening at once. A triggers B, and then B’s response then triggers A, and it goes round and round, getting worse and worse. Either partner can solve it, by changing the pattern, by hanging in there when their urge is to walk away or give up. By speaking softly when their urge is to shout. By listening when their urge is to make their own point. Easy for me to say; hard to do in the heat of the moment. When there is this circular pattern, an outside observer can be particularly helpful. You can search for a professional therapist on Counselling Directory.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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