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Triggered & In Love

Updated: Dec 8, 2023

I recently did a training with couples therapist, Terry Real. He gave a very important perspective. Sometimes because we are triggered, we might feel entitled to rage at our partner, boss, colleague, friend, or child; but guess what, we are not. No one is entitled to lash out or act out violently towards someone else. In this post, I'll focus primarily on a significant other.

We enter into trauma work because we hope to understand these responses and feel more choice over them. It is with compassion that we offer a firm and loving boundary to our triggered default responses. We get curious about the history and how these responses were learned from our caregivers or evolved as a way to protect ourselves. Over time, we become less identified with these responses and discover who we are separate from our trauma or "what happened to us." It's possible. EMDR and somatic experiencing are interventions supporting your nervous system in releasing the grip trauma holds on the body.

What else helps? A love ethic or a moral value system. Often, the way we relate to love is a conditioned cultural response. In many cultures, love implies loyalty. Loyalty above all else can enable bad behavior. In this post, I want to explore psychoanalyst and humanistic philosopher, Erich Fromm. In his book The Art of Loving (1956), Fromm offers more elements to love: care, responsibility, respect, and knowledge. To only care and feel responsible for someone, we become obsessive and overbearing. Respect and knowledge offer balance. We must respect the unique individuality of the other and support their flourishing uniqueness. We continue a state of curiosity toward the other, knowing what they like and dislike. I would add that as partners, we also develop knowledge of the other's triggers.

More from Erich Fromm:

Infantile love follows the principle: “I love because I am loved.”

Mature love follows the principle: “I am loved because I love.”

Immature love says: “I love you because I need you.”

Mature love says: “I need you because I love you.”

A photo of Erich Fromm Art of Loving supporting conflict in relationships.
Erich Fromm was a German-American social psychologist, psychoanalyst, and humanistic philosopher. He was a German Jew who fled the Nazi regime and settled in NYC. He is a founder of the William Alanson White Institute.

"Mature love is union under the condition of preserving one’s integrity, one’s individuality; a power which breaks through the walls which separate man from his fellow men, which unites him with others; love makes him overcome the sense of isolation and separateness, yet it permits him to be himself, to retain his integrity."

How does one maintain love and integrity in the moment they are triggered?

To start, bring awareness to what is happening in the body. We may say to ourself, "I am triggered. This is a PTSD response." With this knowledge, pause. Consider options to remove self from the environment to calm the body and self-regulate. (Someone told me that keeping one's mouth closed is effective. I have learned this is true-especially for my relationship. What comes out of our mouth may not get us the best outcome.) We may write down the feelings of this moment as something to process later in therapy.

We maintain dignity when we are able to see ourselves and the other as a full human being. Our defenses can dehumanize the other. Notice the primal aspects of yourself that want to lash out. Terry Real highlights these losing strategies (please read with compassion, we all do this):

  1. Being Right - bringing the scientific method to your relationship and arguing over details.

  2. Self Righteous Indignation - abusive and doesn't bring justice to the situation.

  3. Controlling - "I will control you through the relationship." This is a manifestation of patriarchy.

  4. Unbridled Self-Expression - going on and on about your victimization. This doesn't lead to being heard and understood, it just creates more distance.

  5. Retaliation - you hurt me, so I get to hurt you back. Hurting someone never assists in intimacy or getting someone's empathy.

  6. Withdrawal - unilaterally shutting down.

See these responses for what they are; a self protection system that protects me, not us. Learn what supports down regulation for the nervous system: cold water on the face, time alone, a walk, a run, throwing a mini tantrum in the bathroom, box breathing, etc. Once we are back to a calm, curious and compassionate place, we can return to the conflicting situation/person.

I recommend nonviolent communication skills to re-engage the conversation. Apologize for your behavior or part in the conflict. Be very clear. Use "I" statements. Listen. Paraphrase what happened objectively. Express unmet needs.

An example: "When you expressed your disappointment in my behavior, I felt small. When I feel small I start to get really scared, paranoid, and out of body. I apologize for lashing out. I realize it takes me back to how small I felt when my mother raged at me for not completing chores. I protected myself then by leaving the house. A part of me wants to leave now. A part of me really wants to believe we can work through this. I need respect in communication and tone. I really need to hear your experience to understand what was happening for you in order to renegotiate our relationship."

This takes practice. If we can work through these conflicts together, we can actually become stronger. Can you imagine what safety we could have in a relationships if we got triggered, held space for inquiry, and then offered each other the repair that we wish we had earlier in our lives? These are relationships of transformation that encourage each person to evolve into their greatest selves.

Love for others and oneself is a choice. We all have fear and that fear can lead to violence. We see these parts of ourselves, learn the histories they carry, and unburden them from the fears they carry. Fear loosens its grip upon us in this process and it becomes easier to see our true reality. We are no longer confined to the environments we grew up. There are more options and choices we can make as adults. A love ethic makes the decisions easier.

This work is difficult to do alone. My supervisor once told me, "it takes two minds to think one distressing thought." We all have aspects of ourselves that we feel ashamed, confused by, and scared. Why am I this way? Stay curious, and don't worry, love has your back.

To dive in deeper into ethics and moral development, I recommend bell hooks, Gabor Mate, Carl Jung and Carol Gilligan. I personally love Russian literature. Who are your favorite philosophers or spiritual teachers? Consider how you may bring them into your triggered place.

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