The other day my wife said something to me in front of a friend who was staying with us that triggered the whole shit outta me. Some of my deepest childhood hurt is about not feeling seen, heard, or respected, feeling like what I have to say doesn’t matter, and feeling like a burden to those around me.
The details of what she said aren’t important, but it felt like she spun a twenty-pound bowling ball straight down the center lane of my psyche, and BOOM! — exploded all the bowling pins for a clean strike.
I was fuckin hot!
The thing I tend to do in these moments is withdraw. Shut down. Go silent. I mean, I’ll often fire off some kinda passive-aggressive “Oh, no one wants to hear what I have to say? Ok. I got you. Say no more.” But afterward, you can expect curt cordiality to thinly veil my seething resentment.
I usually need time to both simmer down and process what happened.
Don’t Let It Simmer Too Long
After having a heated debate with my wife in the shower, all by myself, I knew that we needed to actually talk — sooner rather than later. I still felt pretty charged up about it though, so I took my demons out onto the porch to sit still and listen to the breeze blow through the palm trees.
Just breathe, Adam. Be here now. How many different birds can you hear? Feel the sunshine on your skin. What’s happening in your body?
The stillness held my stormy emotions like a crying baby, tentatively considering the possibility that it might be safe.
Just then, my wife came out to talk about dinner plans (she had no idea I was having a nuclear meltdown) and immediately noticed how shook I was.
“Are you ok, love?”
“No. I’m super triggered right now and I think I need to tell you about it. Can we talk?”
Have The Conversation You Don’t Wanna Have
I started by identifying some of my big triggers from childhood — feeling like a burden, like I don’t matter, etc. She knows these things about me, but it was important for me to set the stage and let her know I was under no illusion that my emotional reaction was somehow her fault.
When it’s hysterical, it’s historical.
Then I told her what she said that set off all my fire alarms. I assured her, “I am one hundred percent certain it wasn’t your intention to press those buttons, but when you said that shit, I instantly felt like a pesky child that no one wants around. Every cell in my body is screaming fuck you right now, and I want nothing more than to run away and be alone.”
Obviously, this isn’t the winning solution. What I really want is to feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure. But distance is the next best thing.
I continue, “Either I need to process this thing and come out on the other side, or ya’ll can have a girls’ night and I’ll go grab a pizza or something.”
My wife holds my hand and tells me that I’m never a burden to her and what I have to say is definitely important. I say I know and I believe that, but it literally just doesn’t feel that way in my body. She understands.
By this point, we had established a pretty healthy conversation with no defensiveness, contempt, blaming, shaming, or fecal projectiles, so I proceeded, “Do you wanna share your side of the story?” All I had was my triggered-ass docudrama rerun to go off of, so I figured I could probably use some more accurate and up-to-date information from an outside source.
She told me what was going on for her at the time — what she was thinking and feeling that prompted her comment. I could see where she was coming from. It made sense, and she clearly had nothing but good intentions.
I make a proposal, “Maybe we can come up with a discreet signal or gesture that you can use if I’m fired up about something and perhaps speaking too loudly or too much about a certain thing. Or even if I’m totally fine but you just feel overstimulated and need a little quiet time. How about you grab my hand and squeeze it gently three times?”
She likes the idea and tells me she was, in fact, trying to do something like that before she resorted to words. I can neither confirm nor deny these allegations, but it certainly seems plausible.
We had a good laugh.
“Ok, let’s make it official! Three squeezes will pump the brakes. It means I love you dearly… AND… I need less noise in the air right now. How about that?”
All parties agreed and we hugged it out.
Elements of Successful Emotional Discourse
First, I had enough self-awareness to know that I was triggered, what triggered me, and why. Thankfully, I had enough skills in my toolbox (grounding techniques, nonviolent communication, self-compassion, etc.) to keep this from becoming a full-blown, petulant man-tantrum.
I got to share my hurt-ass feelings out loud without making it her fault. She didn’t assume responsibility and subsequently get defensive about it. I got to feel seen, heard, respected, and valued. She got to experience my authentic, vulnerable self — something that cannot exist in the absence of deep trust, love, and honesty.
We shared both sides of the story and actually fucking listened to each other. Next, we looked for an actionable win/win solution that felt safe and respectful for both of us. And eventually, I felt like what I had to say did matter. That I wasn’t a burden to her. Not because she said so, but because she showed me with her actions. With her presence. Her sincerity, time, and attention.
Then we made some bomb-ass enchiladas with a downright heavenly cilantro-lime-avocado sauce and enjoyed a splendid evening with our dear friend, Becky.
When You Choose Distance
Distance often feels like the safest option for traumatized people. Trust me, I fully understand that shit. Physical distance. Emotional distance. Substance and process addictions. Escapism, self-medicating, workaholism, self-sabotage, perfectionism, chronic discontentment, rage. There are countless vulnerability avoidance tactics and distancing techniques to choose from.
But I want you to know that every time you choose distance, you’re usually settling for the next best thing.
Many people never got a complete template for healthy human connection because of trauma, abuse, abandonment, neglect, enmeshment, or whatev. That’s not your fault, and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. But that shit is definitely your responsibility now.
I’m a far cry from perfect and I don’t do this stuff flawlessly on most days. But I never would’ve made it this far without a lotta help from a lotta people. If conflict in relationships turns into a flaming shit tornado for you every time, please find yourself a trauma-informed coach or therapist to help you heal.
The healthy and loving relationship you always wanted is on the other side of some real uncomfortable conversations.