Engaging Triggers in Marriage

We recently wrapped up the Allender Center Marriage Conference with Dan and Becky Allender and Steve and Lisa Call of The Reconnect Institute. So as our team is reflecting on that incredible event and gearing up for next spring’s Marriage Enrichment Retreat, we thought we’d go back into the archives to revisit this conversation between the Allenders and the Calls.

In this episode from 2020, the two couples talk about engaging triggers in a marriage. Whether you are married or not, we hope this topic will help you in any of your close relationships with a spouse, friend, or family member, and will prompt you to consider the triggers you have – and the triggers you notice in those close to you.

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Episode Transcript:

Dan: Well, there is nothing better than laughing and weeping with dear friends comrades not only in arms, but in this wild process of engaging marriage. And so for Becky and I to be with dear friends and colleagues, Steve and Lisa Call, uh, it is an honor to have you back to talk about the issues between the two of you. That’s our primary point, is to talk through what goes on between the two of you when one of you gets triggered. And then Becky and I will listen, learn, because we don’t wanna talk about it.

Becky: We don’t have any triggers.

Dan: I asked her before, What triggers do you have? She goes, I don’t have any. I don’t have, Yeah. Well…

Steve: Oh yes she does.

Becky: Thanks a lot Steve. Yes I do.

Dan: Then she turned to me, “And what triggers do you have?” And I said, “uh, let’s just, let’s just talk to Steve and Lisa.”

Steve: Yeah, I’m sure you, I’m sure yours will come up as well. Yeah. Thank you. Thank you for inviting us. It’s a privilege to be a part of the playful conversation with you, both.

Becky: Two dueling psychologists…

Dan: And sane women who somehow foolishly married them.

Steve: That’s so true. We’re trying. Yes.

Dan: Well, and what an honor to have you both after you’ve just finished, shooting your own online course on marriage, on your book, so to say, for our audience, may you be soon aware of this great gift that will be out, but what is sweet, sweet work to have you be not only part of our online course, but to take your material and to invite people into it? So, and what the word triggered to me implies is that we can be going along doing fairly well or so we think, and then all of a sudden we either fall into an abyss or erupt into an interaction that just seems, that just isn’t compensate to what seems to have been going on before, during, and after. And those triggers, I think, really undermine a lot of people’s marriage because they don’t have language, they don’t have a context to understand what might be provoking. And in many ways, they don’t have a clue how to engage. So triggers, Steve and Lisa.

Steve: Yeah, I’m, you know, I think, I mean, it was, it was probably an hour ago where Lisa and I were sitting and having a conversation about some of what we maybe thought about bringing in to this time with the both of you. And, and I was aware in that very moment that thematically, I think, think what happens for us sometimes is when one of us feels or believes that we are taking care of something on our own without the other. Meaning where we are responsible for figuring something out that is meant to be something for the both of us. I think for, for us and for many couples, that’s where significant amount of triggers occur when, wait, how come you’re not helping me with this? Wait, it’s this, isn’t this your responsibility? I think whenever we have a sense of, you know, being alone in this journey, whatever it is, whether that’s taking care of the car, whether it’s watching over one of the children, whether that, you know, whatever it could be. That’s I think for us is where we get triggered often is when there’s a sense of, we’re we’re in this. It feels like we’re in this moment alone. Which I think for most of us, that’s the core fear we have anyway, is the fear of being left or being alone in whatever we are in.

Lisa: And I think you were right on when you said that it’s in a split second, that it happens. And that’s one of the hardest parts because you, you’re going along, things are fine, you’re feeling, maybe you’re even feeling really happy and connected, and then the slightest thing happens and all of a sudden everything’s undone and you’re trying to figure out what just happened. And I was fine a minute ago and now I’m not fine. And all my emotions are going and I’m not prepared for this. Or I don’t know why your emotions are all going and I don’t even know what’s going on for you. So it is, it’s very, it’s a very unknowing kind of a situation where here, here we are now what.

Becky: Yeah. And I think in some regards, it was easier when Dan was traveling a lot because I pretty much knew I was on my own and I was glad that he was earning a living, you know, that was sort of like, this is working for us. But then there, like during the time of Covid where we, have grandchildren and their parents over and no one’s in the house and I’m like the Energizer bunny inside and Dan’s outside talking and a chair with the other adults and chairs and I come out and there’s not a chair for me. And I’m like, why doesn’t he notice this? Cause I’m bringing all the food out, You know? So it’s, we’re not beyond our triggers, you know, unfortunately, we, still have them.

Dan: Well, and, and again, I think Steve is so right on, it’s where we feel alone. And then I would go in terms of our relationship where I feel like I’m gonna be found fault with being alone. That is absolutely. Like, I’m gonna be in the kitchen having to prepare pancakes while she’s doing yoga. Hey, and I’m not doing it fast enough. And I hear this little voice from the yoga mat saying, Did you get the, and it’s like, if you wanna help here, leave your mat and follow me out to bring those pancakes.

Becky: And let me say, this is the first time I ever did that with the covid entertaining. And then Dan was like a little irritable and…

Dan: No? A little?

Becky: You were a lot. But I’m like, you know, I’m gonna stay here on my mat ’cause this is what I’m supposed to be learning. And I knew that he would come around, but that’s, that was a new experience for me this morning. Totally new.

Dan: But it is that sense of being alone and then being held responsible. I’m gonna probably be at fault. And that sense of alone and critiqued alone and shame, I think for a lot of people, that’s where we get, we get taken and then taken.

Steve: Absolutely. Yeah. I think what you just named for both of you is helpful. I think across the board is when there’s any hint of judgment, when there’s any hint of how come you’re not doing and then fill in the blank, or how come you haven’t done, fill in the blank. What’s wrong with you that you haven’t any hint of judgment? I think that’s, for us, I think that’s a really significant trigger is, we’re, I think most of us are hyper aware, hyper attuned, hypervigilant almost to that Oh, so you don’t like the clothes I’m wearing? Oh, so you don’t like the way my hair looks? Oh, so you don’t like the meal I made? Oh, so you don’t like the way I talk to the kids? Like there’s just this, I mean, especially when we’re spending more time together, just naturally happens.

Dan: There is no escape.

Becky: There’s no, But I had, he had, I had already done this three times with pancakes, so I felt like I had capital, you know.

Dan: You did have capital and it wasn’t, and it wasn’t a problem. It just had that sense of, come join me even for a few moments. Don’t go off to work out and to have you. It really was that sense of isolation. So that even just now helps a whole lot to be able to say oh my gosh. If we can get better at anticipating, which is what a trigger doesn’t allow. I mean, a trigger has that sense of it is in an instant and it’s very hard to predict. But a category like what you just offered, I feel like gives a whole new scope to being able to go, Oh, when I feel alone. Alone. And when there’s a sense of judgment possible, those are gonna be very, very significant moments to tend to, I I know my own wanting to make her pay at that point. So when you think about how your own past shapes your triggers, because we’re talking universal right now, anytime you’re alone, usually most people feel that judgment. But how, does each of your own backgrounds shape something of the trigger that you experience with one another?

Lisa: Well, I don’t know. I think, understanding each other’s backgrounds. So, you know, just a couple hours ago when Steve was rushing around, panicking, like, well, making you feel like I should have done something different or whatever. And I think understanding his sense of, I always need to get it right when I was, you know, in my family, I needed to get it right. I’m the first born and if I don’t have it right, then something’s gonna go down. And so that sense, that urgency that he gets. And so I think for me to be able to hear that in his voice, to hear that in his, you know, whatever’s happening at the time, and interpret it, reinterpret it. Because I think for years and years and years it would be like, totally put me on the defense. Like, what?

Steve: What, what’s wrong with you?

Lisa: What’s wrong with what, what’s going on? How come you’re blaming me? And now that I understand a little bit more, not always, but sometimes I can understand a little bit more, Okay, this is where this is coming from for him. And, and I’m gonna be a little bit more sensitive to not taking it personal. Like, okay, this isn’t about me, this is about him, and he can run around and be upset, but I don’t have to necessarily enter into it.

Steve: But that was also true for you, right? Like in terms of your story with, you would, you would lose relationship if you did something wrong.

Lisa: Right? So maybe that’s why I understand it for you too.

Steve: Yeah. I think that’s true for both of us. Like that’s such a common variable denominator for us is this, this not overwhelming fear, but it’s present in the way in which we are, I think attuned to the other being disappointed. Like if we don’t do what we’re supposed to do, quote unquote, then we lose relationship. That’s our story. I mean, that’s, that’s how we entered into marriage.

Lisa: Right? We have our own personal judgment that’s so strong, so strong that maybe we can relate to that in each other.

Dan: Sort of like, like if not saying this would ever happen, but just like if Lisa used the word panicking…

Steve: Yeah, I don’t, because then I’m doing something wrong, you know, like, like, how dare you say that word? ‘Cause that can’t be true. ‘Cause if I do something wrong, then Lisa’s disappointed and there’s a, then that’s the story. And I think for many of us, that’s the core story is we’re terrified of doing something wrong because we potentially lose relationship. And, and I think for many of us, we’re often not even aware of, Oh, that’s what’s happening, is I, I lose, I lose something of connection with you when I don’t do what you hope for me to do.

Dan: And, and yet I I’ve been with you, in moments of panic, true?

Steve: Yes. Yes.

Dan: I’ll just say, not that this would ever happen, but like the possibility of losing your, wallet out in the deep, deep wild Montana countryside.

Steve: Yes. Yes. Or my, or my reel, my reel one time. Yeah. My phone

Becky: Were there keys?

Dan: Keys? Keys? Yeah.

Lisa: Or three phones.

Steve: And you too, When you’ve lost your keys, when you’ve lost your reel

Dan: About you wait minute, wait minute, wait minute. We’re talking about you.

Becky: The wives are very clued into this.

Dan: So there’s something in that moment that has something to do with your past. It isn’t just the issue that, oh my gosh, I think I’ve lost my keys or wallet or whatever.

Steve: Right? No, it’s, I’ve done something wrong. I shouldn’t have done that. And, and I think for me, and for many of us, the core fear kicks in of uhoh. Now we, we lose connection because there will be disappointment in me. So I think for many couples, and I think that’s true for Lisa and I.

Lisa: Well, and I can admit that yes, using the word panic is maybe my subtle way of saying how irritating it was. I mean, I see that you’re panic. You’re freaking out.

Steve: So you were triggered by my panic. Is that what you’re trying to say?

Lisa: No, I’m just using that word is not what you would want to describe yourself as. So, Okay. And of course, Dan of course picks up on that very well.

Dan: Well. And the fact is it is relational, but there’s also a sense of our identity bound into this. And when there’s this moment where I’m exposed not being as I think she should see me.

Steve: Yes. Right.

Becky: I know I had already done the three other covid visits with you, working out for two or three hours. I knew, I think I need to stay on my net. But that was, that was really huge for me.

Dan: Huge. I mean, I’m so…

Steve: And I knew you knew he would be bothered.

Becky: No, I don’t like him to be mad. So I really like, Okay, I’ll help. I’ll help, I’ll help. We had a dog that would bark and you know, she would wanna help. And I’m like, I like to help.

Dan: Right. But you knew that you needed to stay. I knew that it was really good for her to stay.

Becky: Except it didn’t change your

Dan: It took a while. It took a while. But in that process, I think if I had put language to what we’re now talk, talking about, I feel alone. I feel judged. It’s not gonna work out whenever I’m in the kitchen. It just doesn’t work out.

Becky: I know he was good at pancakes though. We found a really expensive brand.

Dan: Yeah. Found a brand that doesn’t require a lot of labor. So all that to say, I, I know for me the identity of if I screw up, there are going to be consequences of a meltdown that’s more than just you, Becky. It’s sort of like the world itself is gonna meltdown. And in that I now have a whole new labor to do. I don’t just have to do pancakes. I’ve gotta figure out how to put the world back now that it’s melted down. All that’s happening. It isn’t conscious. It isn’t intentional, but it’s so reactive. Reflexive. And that’s what we’re trying to put words to on behalf of, of you listener. This process happens at a, for lack of a better word, at a unwitting unconscious level. And it happens so quickly that it triggers then a process for how the two of you have largely handled conflict together in the past. For us, you would’ve normally stopped doing what you’re doing and come and aided, I would’ve felt awful, but I also would’ve felt relieved. We would’ve been able to sort of like, get by it. But again, the cost of you doing something so good, staying on the mat took me a longer period of time. But when we were able to come back and I was able to bless her, not just working out, but actually not being bound at all to my irritation, it felt like we made, we made another moment of good progress.

Becky: Yeah. Really good.

Steve: That’s good. That’s good. That’s really encouraging to hear because it’s in the simple everyday moments that, that maybe re reshape, rewire, redo those kind of upsetness interactions. You know, maybe Lisa’s upset about something or bothered about something, you know, usually, and at times I might take that really personally, and Lisa does as well. And but yet how can we be aware that it’s not as if, there’s something wrong with you? And I think that’s the key with the trigger, is we often make that assumption there’s something wrong with me. You know, that again, that core theme of shame judgment when, when there’s disappointment, when there’s frustration and that overriding fear can kick in. Like, oh, oh no, You know, again, that panicky sense of where are you, we can’t have access.

Becky: Yeah. And his expression and his attitude took me back to a 30 year ago trip that I took with girlfriends, but I remember thinking, Oh, he’s gonna come around. He was gonna do this. But that’s again, the trigger where there’s great fear, right? Three decades of…Oh, it’s the same moment, you know?

Dan: Well, and as we’re putting triggers trigger, so it isn’t that it’s a single event, it it cascades to the past. It it creates this structure between the two of us in that moment. So for a couple that has escalated multiple triggers into a kind of, you know, it’s almost like a bad accident. Yes. What what’s your sense of what happens for you two? What, what do you want for a couple to do as they engage? Maybe they’re five or six trigger processes down the road in this condensed accident. What, what, what then what do we do at that point?

Steve: Well, I think what you just named is really helpful for us all to be aware of is that, that the, the trigger is not just trigger past, but trigger past, trigger present and the fear of the trigger in the future. Like it’s, they’re all in one. And so, part of I think what’s really helpful, hard for us to do at times, but it’s re it’s really helpful to be intentional about almost this, intentional question of wondering what the other needs. Like, I wonder what you need. I wonder what might be helpful. Like, to be intentionally attuned, especially in moments of trauma trigger or shame trigger or conflict trigger is that again, kind of that right brain state of fear. And we’re, we’re just so overwhelmed. We don’t know what we need sometimes. So we’re trying to be again, you know, if we dare to believe we are created to be an image of God for one another, be intentionally attuned, intentionally empathic toward our spouse, I think can be really helpful.

Lisa: I also think normalizing the fact that triggers are just, they’re just gonna be there. That everybody’s going to experience them and you can’t avoid them. They’re just, they happen, I think can also help mitigate a little bit of shame that might come up if you get triggered and you think, how did I, how did I find myself here? So I think now that we sense that, okay, this is just gonna happen. And so when you’re in the middle of a trigger or you’re in the middle of something that you just think, How did I get here? If you could mitigate this shame so that you’re not beating yourself at, at the moment or judging yourself at the moment, you can see a little bit clearer to maybe think about the need or maybe think, Okay, maybe I don’t need to be defensive right now because we’re just here and it’s going to happen.

Steve: Yeah. I think that’s really helpful is the embrace of the trigger rather than the judgment toward the trigger. I think for, for both of us on behalf of one another, Oh,

Lisa: I dont know if I wanna embrace it, but I know it’s, it’s just gonna happen. Yeah. Yeah. And it, and then there’s no, there’s no shame. Like, okay, everybody, we all have this and it didn’t mean we did something wrong. It just happened. It’s gonna happen.

Steve: I think they’re really normalizing. It’s not about avoiding it, validate it in that way. Yeah.

Becky: And I think I’m getting better with that, with my defensiveness. I know that that’s, that’s a big deal for me. And I love that with Dan. It’s not, he’s not a defensive man normally with me. I think it’s beautiful. So to kind of not go to shame, but then just like, we know that that’s my story, that’s where I go. And then to not hate myself for it, like, I’m sorry I did it again. Or just to see it and realize that’s not what he’s placing on me to go there.

Dan: Well, it, we were right before we did this, uh, podcast with you, uh, we were watering flowers and

Steve: Together?

Becky: Yeah. About two different… Well, yeah, yeah,

Dan: Yeah. And she said, Why don’t you get, I have a hard time getting to this one bush. Will you take the sprinkling can and do that.

Becky: Watering can.

Dan: The sprinkling, watering can.

Steve: You don’t do this very often, Dan.

Becky: No, no. He doesn’t. No.

Steve: It’s quite an image to see Dan with this little sprinkling can

Becky: Normally if you’re, I have the hose, the water’s running, you know, normally someone puts it on the ground, right? On the patio. Yeah. Yeah. He holds it in front of his chest. It goes all over shorts.

Steve: That’s a way to avoid watering in the future.

Becky: They’re, they’re, and thankfully dry free short

Dan: Or whatever, thankfully my home is for fly fishing. So there are shorts that will dry like in about two seconds.

Becky: And I’m like, sorry honey, but why don’t you put the watering can on the patio?

Dan: And that was some fascinating part, was she’s a, she feels awful, but she wants to be helpful, but it actually shifts to being blamed. Like, why didn’t you put it down?

Becky: No, no. Why don’t you. Most people do that. I did blame him a little bit.

Steve: Were you bothered by that, Dan? Were you bothered?

Dan: Not at all. I thought it was hilarious, like watching her, you know, water me and then, and then, and then feel bad about it, but then have to do something to mitigate her own sense of shame by making it my fault. I really thought it was hilarious.

Becky: Oh gosh. Now you’ve turned it all on me.

Dan: Yeah. Well, I thought it was pretty effective.

Steve: Becky got triggered.

Becky: I did. like you just never learned that, you know, you didn’t learn to put the watering can down.

Dan: Well, the sprinkling can

Becky: Sprinkling down. Right.

Dan: I think so much has to do with this commitment of not being contempt bound with one another. At the moment of the interaction this morning I was treating you poorly and it just came to my soul, like, you don’t wanna treat her with contempt right now. So I was able at least to back away from doing any more interaction at that point. And, but the ability to, in many ways make fun of evil to mock evil.

Steve: To mock evil.

Dan: Yes. You know, looks at death and says in first Corinthians 15, about 54, where he says, you know, Oh, death, where is your sting? You know, that that ability to look and laugh together at moments where you water me, then defend yourself by blaming me. And it’s all funny. I’m glad to be able to go water in a way that would be of help. But those are the moments where if we can laugh even over a few of those, I think we’re in a far better place to be able then to engage the next round of it with that, in many ways, that brain having been wired now slightly different given that. But I think again, what I’m gonna walk away with is what you both brought up in the beginning, and that is when you feel alone and encumbered and in many ways judged that that’s gonna ring loud and clearer as one of those… So what would you say Becky helps you get out of the triggered process?

Becky: I think probably kindness is the first thing. Absolutely. Not being so hard on myself, just not hating myself or not being perfect. Being kind. I think that kindness and that if it’s between the two of us, I think we’re gaining and trust and in kind laughter. Yeah. You know, which is huge. And I think we’ve loved each other, but I haven’t always been kind to myself. Yeah.

Dan: And that’s, that’s where the process is always going to have a kind of generic, this is true for us all. Yes. But it’s also gonna have enough unique specificity where there are things to be wrestled with regarding your own story. What you are in one sense, prone to get triggered in that has to be a part of the conversation of a good marriage, to be better prepared to engage that together. So.

Steve: Well, I think what you just named it also is the, the sense of playfulness, especially when we are triggered, especially when evil is present. I think that’s such a gift to one another is evil doesn’t have that kind of power over you. I mean, again, the protection that we offer one another and moments where the other’s triggered to me is, is, is what marriage is meant to be, is this gift of protection.

Dan: Well, I, I know the next time we’re in Montana, next time you lose something, I will not use the word panicking.

Steve: If you do, I might have to leave you stranded somewhere,

Dan: That would not be good. But I will at least be able to call Lisa and say, he did it again.

Steve: He did it again. He didn’t panic, he didn’t, didn’t panic. But

Lisa: Now I’m encouraged that you are sharing with us about your laughter, because I don’t think we’re quite to the laughter. I think we’re, I think it’s such a process. It’s such a journey because we’re, we’re just about to the part where we’re not getting too defensive. Yeah. You know? Yeah. And so I’m looking forward to, when we’re starting to laugh about him, that’s gonna be the next stage. So that’ll be our goal. But it’s really this continuum, right? You, you, you get past one and then you move to the next. And so I’m looking forward to more laughter.

Steve: Amen to that.

Dan: What an honor to be with you. And as well, uh, for folks who partake of the online course, they’ll get a chance, see, reconnect, right? Well, yes, the book, yes. With the book Reconnect, but as well with both online courses, something of the work of what, what you have done on behalf of one another, but as well on our behalf. So we say again to you both. Thank you,

Steve: Thank you, thank you. It’s such a privilege. Yep. Blessings.