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

Sex can be a more difficult topic to talk openly about than others for a lot of reasons, but having an overall baseline of comfort and security in discussing personal topics can help make it as approachable as possible.

Think about how your communication works overall in the relationship – do you regularly discuss your likes and dislikes, or why you feel the way you do about things? Are you both comfortable sharing (and hearing) a strong preference? Does your relationship allow for saying things like “actually, I don’t think I feel up to cooking tonight, can we change plans?” or “I think I want to change careers”? Working to make sure you both feel free to share anything with each other without fear of backlash or judgment will go a long way in making your communication about sex healthy as well — and empowering you both to step out of your sexual comfort zone.

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

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