Just as the message received by your partner may not be the message you thought you were communicating, the message you think you have received may not be the message your partner intended to communicate.
Your partner may say something that leaves you feeling:
Your brain may react almost instantaneously, so quickly that it seems obvious that your partner must have known you would react like this and that he or she must have intended you to feel this way. Sometimes, this may be accurate.
However, it's not unusual that someone had no idea that his or her partner would feel a certain way and may have had a very different intention. Should your partner have anticipated your reaction more accurately? Perhaps. I often find that at least one partner needs help understanding the cause and effect of emotions - in some circles this is called "emotional intelligence". It can be learned, but often not quickly, and with help. And, it is certainly difficult to learn emotional intelligence in the middle of a fight!
So, here are some steps you can take when you are feeling "triggered" by something your partner said or did:
- Notice your feeling more consciously (you have already felt it, now start thinking about it) and try to figure out specifically what triggered the feeling. It could be words, tone of voice, a facial expression, or even the lack of a response
- Try to understand for yourself how you got from whatever your partner did to what you are feeling. It may be quite simple or there may be several assumptions along the way.
- Put into words what you are feeling, and why you are feeling that way
- Ask your partner if he or she intended you to feel this way
- If not, ask if they understand why you might feel this way
- If he or she doesn't understand, see if you can help him or her to understand
- Try to explain in personal terms, based on your own experience. Your reaction may be a universal reaction, but perhaps not. In either case, if you talk about your own experience, you are less likely to get derailed into a discussion about what people "should" or "shouldn't" feel
This is not easy, particularly once a strong feeling has been triggered. While it's great to be able to catch ourselves during these interactions, it's not always possible. In those cases, it can be helpful to revisit what happened after the fight, using the same process, perhaps starting with something like "I realize, now, that when you... I felt ...", followed by the same steps listed above.
If you and your partner find it too difficult to follow these steps, try to find a marriage counselor or couples therapist who can help you both to slow things down enough to explore these patterns and to improve them.
For more information, you can find several ways to contact me here