Who Pays the Bill?

One more fascinating perspective that came out of the relationship conference that I attended a couple of weeks ago. This one has to do with “triggers” – a word that has been creeping into the vocabulary of many relationship counselors and communication styles over the past few years.

A “trigger” tends to actually have more to do with post-traumatic stress disorder than anything else. In that situation, it is some situation, phrase, or environment that causes a flashback to the original trauma, sending the amygdala into overdrive with a flood of fight-or-flight hormones. I remember hearing that my father’s former partner in New York City had trouble going into Central Park because the greenery would evoke the memories of Vietnam for him. You also see triggers in victims of domestic abuse, whether it’s merely a flinch or being completely reduced to tears by a raised voice or a sudden movement, regardless of the source.

Working through these kinds of triggers takes a lot, and is a great reason to go to therapy. However, the word has also become associated with almost anything that reminds you of an unpleasant memory. For example, I had a partner who often used the word “fine” to mask a whole lot of unstated angst. When someone uses that word around me I have a reactionary mistrust of what they are saying, which is completely unrelated to what the person speaking.

Navigating Minefields

Two married friends of mine described a situation where the husband said something that “triggered” the wife into memories of her abusive first husband. She talked about how she began weeping, talking about how awful the experience had been, how the words brought it all back, and (as she put it) causing quite a scene.

Her  husband, being a strong quiet mountain of a man, had listened patiently, quietly, and with a calm attention. She appreciated that, of course, and (as she relates it) expected that when her tearful diatribe was over he would hold her, apologize for the words, pat her on the back softly and promise to never do it again. That’s what Good Men do, right?

Instead, when she finished her long tale of woe, he simply said “I can see how all that is very upsetting. What does it have to do with me?

That was like a shock of cold water. Her first thoughts, she admitted, were along the lines of : You’re not a nice man! But upon reflection (and this woman is one of the deepest thinkers I’ve ever met) she realized the answer to his question was: Not a damn thing.

Footing the Bill

Courtesy Steve Snodgrass via Flickr CCHe went on to explain how he looked at the situation:

It’s like going to a nice restaurant, sitting down at the table, and having the waiter hand you the menu. There’s all this great food, and you’re really hungry, but then he says “I’m sorry, but the people who sat at this table before you left without paying the bill. Before you can eat anything, you need to take care of their tab.”

I confess, when I heard him say this, I thought some contrary thoughts: But what about taking your partner’s past into consideration? What about helping them through their pain? Maybe he isn’t a nice man!

All of which is true, but which he also had shown in the first part of his response. “I can see how all that is very upsetting.” He was compassionate and a witness to the situation and her pain, without taking on the responsibility for something that, in truth, didn’t have anything to do with him.

Too often, they explained, we use the word “trigger” when what we mean is “this is something I don’t really want to deal with.” We give it power far beyond what it deserves, simply because it’s easier to skirt around the emotional landmines than to take the time to carefully unearth and disarm them. Problem is, they don’t go away any other way.

The good news is, the more landmines you disarm, the better you get at it, and the faster they disappear, so that you can romp and play at will through the fields of love created in your life.

And that rocks.

Note: you may be wondering why I’ve kept this couple anonymous. They actually have a very exclusive and specialized clientele, and I did not want to expose them to any unwelcome inquiries. However, if you are curious as to their work, email me directly and we can talk about their work.

4 thoughts on “Who Pays the Bill?”

  1. Wow wow wow. I have just been thinking about this very topic lately. I’ve been feeling like a minefield recently, and it’s made me just want to put up a Keep Out sign all around the premises, because that just seems easier. Trouble is, I am having a hard time expecting anyone to care about what triggers me, or actually to care about me at all whenever I’m not feeling sexy and fun and creating sexy fun experiences for someone. Hence my anger in my most recent blog post that you and I discussed. And yes, it is our responsibility to deprogram ourselves in between partners to the best of our abilities, but I am still hoping for a partner who will just ask me what works for me and what doesn’t, as I seem to do myself for anyone I date. Sometimes though it feels like there’s just too much that hurts and it’s not worth it, and I ought to just throw in the towel. I’m sick and tired of the simplest requests getting overlooked.

  2. As I come to know more and more social workers and change-professionals, I’ve noticed that “triggered” is shorthand for a high level of emotional response. I used to assume that when a friend said they were “triggered” by a conversation or event, it meant that there was a deep-seated trauma they were reliving. (That was partly because I have had a couple long term sexual partners with histories of sexual assault and abuse, and when they were “triggered” I would see their consciousness exit their body). In these recent conversations, I would pause and go into care-taker defense mode, only to realize that we were talking about a reawakened emotion.

    I don’t know if that means we are losing emotional vocabulary or expanding it.

    1. I would say “losing it”, and worse, I think we are diluting the seriousness of actual “triggers” as they are related to PTSD.

  3. Excellent analogy and to the point. This ties very much into whenever I discuss buttons with people how to defuse and control them.

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