4. EMPATHY


MANAGING TRIGGERS TOGETHER


SLOWING DOWN

The Taoist text, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu includes a story that is helpful for managing triggers:

Long ago, there was a man who was afraid of his own shadow and hated his footprints. He tried to avoid his shadow and his footprints by running away. But, no matter how fast he ran, his shadow always kept pace and his footprints were always there. Thinking that he was running too slowly, he ran faster and faster until he was exhausted and fell down dead.

He didn’t understand that, had he relaxed in the shade, he would have rid himself of his shadow and by resting in quietude he would have ended his footprints.

We understand the urge to run emotionally and physically from all that is painful. And yet we encourage the you, the injured partner, to mindfully slow down, interrupt your daily routine, so you can compassionately "check in" with yourself. Do this frequently. If you are have a really bad day, set your watch hourly so you can take a moment to "relax in the shade".

 

In those moments, consider how you are responding to the threats you are perceiving, starting with your partner. If you notice yourself feeling frantic, anxious, depressed or alone or responding with a sarcastic, biting, or attacking tone, then extend your break and continue your self-evaluation and self-care. Work on deepening your understanding what you are feeling and find ways to express your thoughts and feelings to someone in your support system. 

 

REACTION TO CURRENT EVENT


If, after the self-evaluation, you believe that your reaction is valid given what your partner has recently done, ask for an appointment with your partner so the two of you can talk. Take care to find a time and place where both of you can be focused, without distractions or interruptions.

Express both your feelings and what you need, even if you believe your partner may be unable to respond the way that you wish. For example, say:

"When you get a phone call and walk out of the room, it makes me worry about who is calling you. It reminds me of when you made secret calls during the affair. In those moments, I'd like you to tell me of who is calling before you have the conversation on the phone."

REACTION TO A TRIGGERING MEMORY


If, after the self-reflection, you believe that your reaction is tied to a memory of the affair (but your partner has not done anything wrong in the present moment), share what you are remembering. Be sure to clearly identify the current trigger and what it is coming up emotionally for you. Focus more on the painful memory than the current trigger (which is often out of anyone's control). For example, say:

 

"I was sorting your clothes after doing the wash and it reminded me of when I washed your clothes a year ago and found a bra that wasn't mine mixed in with your shirts. It makes me think that you don't desire me sexually. I feel devastated and hopeless all over again. I need you to acknowledge the damage that you did to our intimacy."

 

SHARE THOUGHTS, EMOTIONS AND PHYSICAL REACTIONS


When triggered, it is common:
 

  • for your mind to have racing or intrusive thoughts (he/she really doesn't want to be with me),
     

  • to feel strong emotions (scared and abandoned), and
     

  • to experience a physical trigger (punched in the gut, hard to breathe), often all at the same time.

Take time to tune into all of these different thoughts and feelings and share them with your partner. For example:

 

"When I saw the bill for the hotel room where you took the affair partner, my mind went right back to when I first found out. My face turned red. I felt like I was going to faint. I kept picturing you in bed with her. I was so sad and felt like my life was over. "

 

ASK FOR COMFORT (IF YOU WANT IT)


Ask for what would want. That may include receiving comfort or NOT receiving comfort. You get to decide.

 

Just be clear because your partner can't read your mind. Also, your desire to be comforted may change from hour to hour so you need to repeat it often, ideally every time. Your requests could include:

 

  • Just repeat back what I am saying so I know you heard me.
     

  • I want you to try to reflect how I'm feeling, focusing only on the emotions, not reasons why it happened.
     

  • I want you to hold me and to not say anything.
     

  • I want reassurance that this will never happen again.
     

  • I want you to try and explain what you were thinking at that time.
     

  • I want you to give me a day alone in the house.
     

  • I want to take a walk with you and tell you more about this.

 

ANTICIPATING AND AVOIDING TRIGGERS

Make a plan with your spouse to avoid unnecessary triggers. This may include not watching certain movies together, avoiding certain restaurants, or parts of town. With that said, it is usually much easier and more productive to learn to turn triggers into bonding experiences than it is to avoid them.

KEEP CERTAIN TRIGGERS TO YOURSELF


Sometimes you will decide that you want to handle the trigger yourself. That is perfectly fine. You may simply share that you are triggered, are handling your response by yourself, and that you want some space to do so.