A trigger is something that sets off a memory tape or flashback transporting the person back to the event of her/his original trauma. Triggers are very personal; different things trigger different people.
I remember at the start of my recovery process, I started to talk about and accept the abuse I had faced as a child. I did a lot of research to understand its effects on my psychological well-being, and how this in turn impacted on my ability to form and maintain close relationships, especially intimate ones.
The abuse had left me with a shaky foundation of people and relationships. My attachment style became Anxious-Resistant. I made friendships easily, maintained them well and had no issues forming secure relationships with others. When it came to intimate relationships, all the rules went out the window! Certain triggers would set off my attachment style and I would behave in unhelpful ways. Feeling rejected, ignored or abandoned, brought me back full swing into being anxious-resistant, where I became worried, uncertain and preoccupied with knowing if my partner wanted to be with me or not. I was on shaky ground and not sure if my partner would “return my affection”. This put a lot of strain on the relationship. So imagine if two people without secure attachment styles are in a relationship. Different triggers, different responses. Without complete self-awareness from both parties, it can become a recipe for disaster.
Intimate relationships are unique, in the sense that they can trigger more deep-seated fears, anxieties and can closely replicate the dynamics of your relationship with your primary caregiver.
This is the reason why some women date men who remind them of their fathers, or men are attracted to women who are like their mothers. Good or Bad. You try to find a solution to the primary relationship failure by replicating this dynamic in the present. This is all very subconscious, and the mechanics at work are not within our control unless we become extremely self-aware of ourselves and the partners we choose.
Our partners get the worst of this, they don’t understand the dysfunction, or where the insecurities stem from. Simple things in relationships quickly become complex. The smallest criticisms can feel like overwhelming character assassinations. A partner expressing how your behaviour made them feel, can trigger the same feelings you had as a child, if your primary caregiver chastised you or was very heavy handed in how they dealt with you. Nothing your adult partner says or does can help you focus in on the present. Your fear sets in at the subtle reminder of past abuse, anger and rage erupt and a situation escalates beyond repair.
Studies have shown that the brain of a person who suffers from continues abuse can change its structure to help that person adapt to the abusive event. The brain of a person who got abused will want to prevent the person from experiencing emotional pain once again and so by making itself more sensitive to external stimuli the brain can detect potential threats earlier.
This is a dangerous way to live because once the dust settles, painful words have been exchanged and decisions will have been made which can be irreversible. I learned a long time ago that when I feel extreme anger, rage, I shout or “throw my toys out of the pram”, this indicates that I feel out of control. This means what is infront of me has triggered a subconscious pain and the anger I feel is now being misdirected towards the person infront of me. While there is no place for rage in intimate relationships, your feelings are valid as what you feel is the pain from repressed past abusive experiences surfacing. It’s clear that this behaviour isn’t conducive to having a healthy adult relationship and eventually you would need to heal from your past before being able to let another adult into your life.
It’s important to know and understand ourselves, how past abuse has developed our attachment style in intimate relationships. Once we are aware of our attachment style, being aware of our triggers is the second step. When extreme emotions occur within you, you will then be assured that you are not reacting to what happening in reality, but rather to your association with something in your past. It took me a long time to learn about this and I am still learning to behave in more helpful ways. I fall short all the time but the intention to have healthy secure relationships is there.
To learn about your own attachment style, try the quiz below: