When You Are Triggered in Your Relationship


We've talked over the past several weeks about the importance of understanding attachment, how to learn our attachment styles, and some strategies for identifying our needs and our partner's needs when we are feeling disconnected. That's a lot of information! Thank you for being here and exploring this with me.

This week, I want to share some strategies for managing emotional triggers during moments of conflict, tension, and disconnection. This is especially important for folks who find themselves in a relationship where one person is avoidant and the other is anxious (by the way, this pairing is the most common in relationships--I believe it's because there is so much healing we can offer each other when we are grounded, intentional, and aware of ourselves and our partner).

As we explored last week, each attachment style has different needs during moments of disconnection. When one of us is calm and the other is triggered, the calm person can serve as the safe, secure base and gently remind the other about the strategies they need to use and support them in getting their needs met. When both people are triggered, I encourage folks to use self-soothing strategies to reduce the potential emotional fall-out and avoid digging deeper into the negative emotional cycle. Practicing these skills when you're feeling calm or during moments of minor irritation are good practice for when you're feeling more stressed and out of control of your emotions and behaviors.

When we experience disconnection in our most important relationships, our nervous systems become activated--we move into the part of our brain whose job it is to keep us safe and alive. This part of our brain is really important because if we are being chased by a bear in the woods, we want to be able to move quickly to safety instead of doddling around and considering all of our options. This part of our brain doesn't operate from a place of logic--it's all about survival. So when it becomes activated during arguments with a partner, the goal of self-soothing is to do everything possible to remind yourself that you're safe and this is not an emergency. That's how important connection is to our brains: we can feel like disconnection is a true emergency.

As human beings, we tend to feel soothed by activities that are rhythmic and repetitive. For example, we usually are not taught to bounce or rock babies or pat their backs while we sway with them in our arms--we do it naturally. Arguments with partners tend to feel loud, jarring, and frustrating rather than calm, regulated, and predictable. The more we can bring the latter qualities into moments of disconnection, the more likely it is that we will be able to repair quickly and move forward in a connected way.

Now let's talk self-soothing strategies.

For people who tend to feel more anxious/activated when they are triggered, I recommend grounding techniques. Focusing on aspects of the physical world and the here-and-now is helpful. This might look like:

  • noticing and naming the colors you see in your vicinity

  • running water over your hands

  • pressing your feet into the floor and noticing the sensation on your toes; wiggling your toes in your shoes

  • running your hands up and down your arms or the tops of your legs in a slow, repetitive way

  • breathing and imagining your in-breath rooting you down into your chair or the ground

  • picking up a small object and noticing how it feels in your hands, identifying the texture and temperature, etc.

  • loving on your pet if you have one

For folks who tend to feel more avoidant/withdrawing when they are emotionally triggered might benefit from calming strategies that keep them engaged in the moment and give them the space they need to calm down. This might look like:

  • taking a walk around the block and noticing how it feels when your feet hit the ground and air enters your lungs

  • visualizing a time when you felt calm, grounded, and safe and allowing yourself to be there for a few moments

  • engaging in a physical activity like running up and down the stairs, doing jumping jacks, or lifting weights and notice how it feels to be in your body

  • stretching your body

Utilizing these strategies when you're triggered can help you show up more effectively in your relationship with your partner. The times when you are both feeling really upset is not going to be the time you resolve the issue. If you can remind each other of your need to calm down, regulate your emotions (not make them go away), and set a time to return to continue to process together, you will have much more success!

I'd love to hear other strategies you've used that have been effective!

Take good care of yourselves and each other!


P.S. Ready to practice some of these strategies in real life? I have created a Support Bundle for Working Through Disconnection in Relationships to provide a step by step guide to managing arguments and reconnecting more quickly and effectively. It’s low-cost and includes 5 worksheets (that you can reuse over and over again!) and an audio component that supports you and your partner in calming down and getting to the root of the disconnection between you.

You may also be interested in:

A Love Letter to the Insecurely Attached

The Intersection of Attachment and Social Justice

What You and Your Partner Need to Know to Resolve Arguments

Do You Know Your Attachment Style?

What does it mean to be attached? Why does attachment matter?

Healing the Anxious-Avoidant Relationship Pattern

Scripts for Soothing: Avoidant Attachment Adaptation

Scripts for Soothing: Anxious Attachment Adaptation 

Why You Shouldn't Avoid Avoidants (this is a bit controversial)

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