How to Handle a Trigger While Dating (or in a Relationship)

When someone says or does something that upsets you and you automatically lash out, this is known as a “trigger.” Think: stimulus and response. Your date’s comment or behavior is the stimulus; how you react is the response.

Triggers are automatic, unconscious, emotional responses that you don’t even realize you’re having. In response to something your date says or does, you might say or do something out of character. You might feel out of control, victimized, or like your power has been taken away. You might feel like your date or partner was intentionally trying to hurt you.

Whether you’re in a relationship or dating someone new, the scene is ripe for triggers. It happens. You’re dealing with another human being who may (and probably will) have different viewpoints, opinions, and feelings than you. These differences will probably trigger you at some point.

Here’s how to gracefully handle being triggered.

First, Know that Your Trigger is Mostly About YOU


The hardest part is understanding that your reaction is largely about you—not the other person. Your trigger is about you, your feelings, your patterns, your reaction, your unconscious tendencies, your automatic defense mechanism kicking in.

Triggers can come from a deeply held or unconscious belief you have. They can have a lot to do with your early childhood experiences and anything else that influenced you subconsciously.

For example, if you were bullied in school and the bullies made certain comments about your appearance (or a specific part of your body), you may get triggered whenever you hear similar comments being made about you or someone else.

The important thing is to understand that you can (and should) take responsibility for how you’re reacting. Taking responsibility gives you your power back—because you can choose your response instead of blindly reacting to the trigger.

See the Trigger as an Opportunity for You to Grow


One of the most empowering ways to look at life is to believe life is happening “for” you, not “to” you.

No matter what’s going on—on a date or anywhere else—try to see it as a gift, a lesson, or an opportunity to grow and increase your awareness. This reframe allows you to view all your dating experiences through a more empowering lens.

Catch Yourself Being Triggered in the Present Moment


A trigger is unconscious, so most people don’t realize when it’s happening.

Your job is simply to develop more awareness. Your goal is to catch yourself in the moment before you react and say something you’ll regret. You can take a deep breath (or three deep breaths) to collect yourself before you respond. Put space between the “stimulus” and the “response.”

I know, it’s easier said than done. But awareness and mindfulness are key.

For example, let’s say your date uses a certain word or phrase in a way that irritates you. Or maybe your partner has a habit of saying a certain phrase, or they breathe funny, or they make a weird sound and it grates on your nerves. They don’t realize they’re doing it. And you don’t realize you’re being triggered by it.

You’ve had a rough day. You meet with your date, and she says the phrase. And you just lose your sh#t. You can’t handle it. Not today.

Depending on how much awareness you have, you’ll either react emotionally and unconsciously and go off on your date (or partner)…or you’ll take responsibility for your trigger and you’ll communicate what’s going on with you.

“[Name], I had a really rough day today and for some reason, I’m feeling SO triggered by your use of the word, ____.”

Be mindful of your tone of voice. This kind of admission can either lead to a good conversation with your date that brings you closer. Or it can lead to your date getting defensive and getting triggered herself.

If you come from an authentic, vulnerable place, you’ll have a greater chance of having a productive conversation from it. (See my blog post on “Fierce Conversations” for help with this.) The goal for this kind of conversation is to get everything out in the open and find a way to say things that are difficult to say—like sharing your thoughts without labeling them as truth and without judging the other person’s opinions.

If It’s Really Intense…


If they say something way out of line and you feel like you have to get away immediately, you can tell them something like:

“I’m really upset right now. I’m going to say something I’ll regret. So I need like 15 minutes to an hour alone to think about this.”

Or, “I’m SO upset by what you just said. I’m not even sure how to respond right now. I feel so frustrated and need to go for a jog. I’ll be back, and we can talk about this later.”

Let them know that you’ll be back and you can discuss it then. (Don’t just leave them hanging.)

And make sure you actually DO discuss the trigger—especially if you’re with a long-term partner. This isn’t something you want to sweep under the rug. Otherwise, resentments can build up.

Dig Deep into the Trigger on Your Own Time


Sometimes you need to spend time alone, journaling and processing what happened. You can ask yourself reflective questions and write down your thoughts:

  1. Why did _____’s comment or behavior upset me so much?
  2. What do I need? (Or what need of mine isn’t being met?)
  3. What am I feeling?
  4. What does this remind me of from childhood?
  5. What emotion do I want to feel instead?
  6. What do I need to feel safe/happy/at peace/etc.?
  7. How can I create that feeling in me?

A Trigger Represents Your ‘Growth Edge’


When a trigger happens, it signals your next area of growth.

You can say: “Ok, I’m being triggered. This situation is clearly upsetting me. But it’s happening FOR me. There’s a lesson on the other side of this. What am I meant to learn from this? How can I grow from this? Do I need to let something go?”

Start getting curious about what the lesson could be. What is the situation teaching you? What is it teaching you about yourself or your partner? Is there a juvenile habit or tendency you need to let go of?

Ultimately, you want to be able to work through any triggers with your date or partner and use them to create deeper intimacy and vulnerability. You want to be mindful of each other’s triggers, communicate what you both need in a respectful, loving way…and meet those needs like adults.

Recommended Reading:

Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott

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