Trigger Warning: You might not like this!
We write a lot of articles together. Usually one or the other will do the first draft taking the idea forward as much as they can. So far so good. It’s when it gets to the next stage that things often derail.
We each have a distinctive writing style and we construct our argument using different logic. Sometimes what makes perfect sense to one is befuddled and disorganised to the other; one thinks an analogy is a stroke of pure genius and the other simply doesn’t get it. In these cases, the document returns to the original author looking like a murder scene; red mark-ups bleed all over it and comment notes locate the evidence of the author’s muddled thinking (in the editor’s opinion).
Depending on the available time, we sometimes have 2-3 rounds of edits before the impending deadline thankfully forces a halt to the process. The article may be better for it but it can be a tortuous effort, especially if we hit a ‘hot-button’ in the process.
What’s that, you ask?
A hot-button is when one of us does or says something that ‘triggers’ the other. The trigger causes us to react strongly and defensively, usually quite disproportionately to the original comment or action.
All couples have them and they are responsible for initiating many of the arguments between spouses. If you’ve ever had the experience of being in a quite sane interaction when, without warning, it escalates to an argument for no apparent reason, the chances are that one or both of you have hit a hot button.
“What just happened?” we ask ourselves. It can be just as mystifying for the one who is triggered as it is for the one who inadvertently hit the hot button.
Hot buttons typically tap into the energy of past wounds and childhood frustrations. It might be that we made a comment in a way that subconsciously reminded us of being put down by a parent, or the conversation strayed too close to an unresolved argument from the previous week. Hot buttons are like scabs on a wound that never heal… the slightest touch is exceptionally painful.
That’s why the reaction is so commonly disproportionate… it has the combined energy of the recent comment or action, plus the original unresolved frustration, plus all the trigger events in between.
Without active engagement to process the underlying source of our hot buttons, that is the original wound, we tend to become more reactive, more easily triggered, and to feel more out of control of our reactions. When we’re triggered, it’s rarely about the other; it’s about us.
There are three typical patterns in the way that couples handle their trigger events.
Most couples learn through hard and unpleasant experience how to avoid many of the other’s hot buttons. They learn not to bring up that topic, or not to raise certain subjects at particular times. They successfully avoid many arguments by knowing and avoiding the other’s taboo subjects. This takes the marriage towards more like living a truce rather than an intimate love-affair; it’s ‘safe’, but low energy.
For some couples, the energy of the hot buttons take-over and they end up in a blame game. They project on to the other what is actually their own ‘stuff’. They excuse themselves of responsibility for their overreaction to unprocessed internal issues and project blame onto the other for causing their pain. This is a dangerous pattern and often leads to a marriage breakdown. It’s high-energy, but not constructively so.
Neither of these two patterns, taboo subjects or the blame game, are healthy or in the best interests of the relationship. Both are unconscious avoidance strategies and they leave us with the wound unhealed and thus still vulnerable to the next event.
Fortunately, there is a third way. Instead of avoiding trigger events, we can choose to transform them; to use them as a springboard for growth and healing. Rather than avoiding the subject or projecting blame onto the other, mature, resilient and psychologically healthy people see their trigger reactions for what they are: the cry of a wounded self, calling for attention.
It takes maturity and self-awareness to resist blaming the other and recognise these hot buttons as signs of our own woundedness. It takes courage and persistence to own it and process it. Sometimes we may need professional help. Prayer and the Sacraments are also invaluable aids. Sometimes they are easily addressed when recognised and attended to and sometimes they are hard and require conscious and persistent investment.
Processing our hot buttons to resolve our childhood frustrations and heal our emotional wounds is certainly harder than simply avoiding them or agreeing to keep out of each other’s way. These might be appropriate, temporary fixes depending on the circumstances at the time, but they are never permanent solutions.
Ultimately, our hot buttons are windows into ourselves and provide an invitation to growth. Consciously processing them is not just a better way, it is the only way to grow our marriages into the joyous encounter they are meant to be.