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'Managing Your Emotional Triggers In A New Relationship'

By Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW

Let’s assume that you have started a new relationship that looks promising with someone who you care for and are attracted to. But you worry, because you know that you have tended to fall into certain patterns in some of your past relationships — and you don’t want to repeat them here. 

You may know, intellectually, how you “should” behave, but what happens if you become emotionally “triggered”? Do you have to hide who you are or what you are feeling from your partner?

This article offers a way to recognize when we start falling into counterproductive behaviors — and suggests a solution that helps us be stronger while still fully acknowledging who we are and how we feel. The old habitual behaviors can be called “acting out” while the alternative, new behaviors are “letting go” and “heroic communication”. 

The goal is not to eliminate “acting out”, which is impossible, but rather to begin to gradually introduce a new approach.

The Habitual Way: “Acting Out”

“Acting out” is defined here as the way we characteristically behave in relationships when we are emotionally triggered by fear or anger. “Acting out” is an automatic response that can take many forms, but there is usually an element of trying to control our partner and how they respond to us. 

The problem with “acting out” is that it can have the effect of pushing away the other person, which in turn may further trigger our fear and/or anger — possibly leading to an escalating downward spiral.

Examples of “Acting Out”

One classic “acting out” pattern occurs when our fears of abandonment and/or rejection are triggered and we try to directly control the other person. For example, we may become “clinging” if we sense the person is retreating in some way — or we may seek approval or reassurance in ways that alienate our partner. Ironically, our attempts to avoid feelings of abandonment, shore up our self-esteem, or avoid unpleasant feelings of rejection or disapproval can end up creating just what we fear the most.

Another common form of “acting out” is when we attempt to coerce or punish our partner as a way to get our needs met. Demanding behavior, angry outbursts, or pouting do not generally inspire another person to be more giving, particularly if we are asking for more time together or greater commitment or intimacy. 

I have heard this trap referred to as wanting to “keep them and kill them at the same time”. This is rarely a winning combination, but it is very human, and many of us can relate to this pattern.

Solution One: “Letting Go”

It may feel impossible to change how we behave when we are triggered. Change means adopting an attitude of “letting go” of control and letting the chips fall where they may. While this may make sense rationally, it may be hard to really have faith that “letting go” can help us.

Given that “letting go” is challenging, it is fortunate that we can begin by just experimenting with this new attitude, even if we only attempt the new behaviors 1% of the time and “act out” the remaining 99%. By just opening the door to the possibility of something different, we can become stronger and more committed to “letting go” in the future, particularly when we see the benefits of our new behavior.

 Examples of “Letting Go”

For those of us who find ourselves seeking reinforcement by “clinging” or looking for approval or reassurance, “letting go” may mean being able to tell ourselves that we are willing to tolerate the painful feelings of abandonment, rejection, aloneness, self-recrimination, or fear that we are inclined to look to our partners to protect us from. 

(Yet our instincts and/or experience may tell us the opposite — that these feelings are tremendously painful and to be avoided at all costs.) 

And for those of us who find ourselves “fighting” to get our partners to honor what feels like basic human needs that we long to have met, “letting go” might mean thinking: “I am willing to put aside my anger and do my best to invite my partner to meet my needs in a way that is most likely to succeed, and, if my best attempts fail, I know that I can choose to find someone else who is more compatible”. 

(But dropping our demands and anger may feel unfair, like we have been defeated or are relinquishing the best leverage we have to get what we feel we urgently need and deserve. We may think: “If they really loved me, they would surely do this for me”.)

Solution Two: Heroic Communication

Another problem with being asked to “let go” is that it sounds like we are expected to stop being who we are and feeling what we feel. So, it is important to clarify that “letting go” here means letting go of our attempts to control — not letting go of or denying our feelings. 

In fact, by truly embracing and honoring our deepest feelings and needs we become prepared to attempt another change step — the “heroic communication”. We have a “heroic communication” with our partner when we describe our dilemma and our feelings — but in a way that takes full responsibility for the problem and asks nothing of them but to listen. 

What makes it “heroic” is that we are sharing honestly with no strings attached — meaning that we are willing to accept their reaction, whatever it may be. So, the “heroic communication” is the opposite of trying to control.

This type of communication also has the advantage of inviting our partner to get to know us better, vulnerabilities and all. Without stating it directly, we end up conveying to them: “I see this as a struggle within myself, and, in this moment, I am strong enough, wise enough, and generous enough to shield you from any pressure, manipulation, or blame.” 

Timing is important, of course, since we don’t want to jump in too soon. But we shouldn’t wait too long either.

Examples of “Heroic Communication”

Here’s how a “heroic communication” might look. Let’s say that we are getting the urge to “cling” to our partner when they are about to leave on Sunday after a fun weekend together. 

Rather than “act out” and try to coax them to stay longer, we could say: “I’m getting an urge to try to get you to stay longer, even though I know we’ve had a great time and we both have lots to do tonight. I have a tendency to sometimes feel a kind of fear or abandonment feeling when you leave, but I think that it is better to tell you about it rather than try to make you stay. So, if you notice that I do that sometimes, you’ll know why.”

This takes courage, of course, since we may not know how our partner will react. But if they can’t handle our abandonment fears, there are plenty of people out there who can, particularly when we have the strength to present our issues directly, without attempts to manipulate or coerce (at least some of the time, anyway). 

And in our other example, let’s say we are tempted to demand that our partner go on vacation with us. After all, our friends manage to go on vacations with their significant others, why can’t we? 

Instead, we could remember to let go of trying to control and think about what the vacation really means to us. Maybe, upon reflection, what we really want is more quality time together.

Assuming that our partner is basically there for us, we could say: “I know you don’t want to go on vacation this winter, so I think I’ll ask a friend to go instead. I realize that your not wanting to go on vacation can feel to me like you don’t care, and then I get angry. But the reality is that you do show me how much you care in so many ways... and I want you to know that I appreciate that.” 

You may not get the vacation together, but you are starting to create something you really want — the intimate connection with your partner. 

Conclusion

Hopefully these examples convey another benefit of “letting” go of our attempts to control — that our “letting go” can feel like an act of love; it is a gift to ourselves and our partners. Love is something that we all have the power to create in our relationships, and making the conscious choice to replace fear and attempts to control with “heroic” communication is a good place to begin.

 


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Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW | Relationship Realizations™
180 East 79th Street, Suite 1A, New York, NY 10075

To ask questions or set up an appointment, call 212-439-5102 or contact me by email at eli@relationshiprealizations.com

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