Fight-or-flight and Trauma: My Husband Triggers My PTSD (and 5 Things to Do If Someone Triggers You)
My husband triggers me. As our loved ones tend to do. I told him the other day that it’s like he subconsciously knows what will set me off — like he can feel the energy in the air, but instead of moving away from that energy, he leans into it. And then I pay the price. Well, and then so does he. It took us a long time and a lot of therapy to begin to see that this isn’t something we’re doing because of our relationship — because we are a bad fit or not meant to be — but it is because of our trauma. Because of our past. And in beginning to accept that, we’ve started to understand how we trigger each other. More specifically, how he triggers me.
When I’m triggered by him, it usually starts off as something small and seemingly harmless. Like the other day, he grabbed my butt. Something my husband should be able to freely do. But the timing of it and the way it happened led to me becoming triggered.
We’d been playful all morning, giving each other little pokes and tickles. Being in love. Then, he grabbed my butt with wet hands. Making my pants wet. Something he knows I can’t stand. But I was able to brush it off. To move past it. To stay present.
But then, moments later, he did it again. This time, I was not able to move past it so easily. And my body got stuck in the past.
I was standing up, pushing in the footrest to my chair and folding my blanket as he came up behind me. I felt his presence for a second. Then, I heard him say, “My hands aren’t wet this time,” as he crept closer behind me, and I panicked and said, “Don’t!” But I was too late. He’d made contact. And I was triggered.
I left the living room and went into the kitchen. Pacing. Rubbing my butt cheeks. Trying to make the uncomfortable sensation go away. The sensation that moved around inside of me like something trying to break free. Like a bomb ready to explode.
Noting I was in no place to engage with him, I told him I was going to take a bath. He was feeling down, I could tell. Upset that his actions had caused me pain. I made sure to tell him that he didn’t do anything wrong (something I’ve learned he needs to hear). That it was not his loving touch, but the sneaking up from behind me and not hearing me say, “Don’t,” that triggered me.
Once in the tub, I cried it out. All of the emotional pain. From having been triggered. From my past. From it interfering with my marriage again. All of the physical pain. From having completely tensed up when he grabbed me from behind. From my tailbone and sciatic nerve that now ached. From my skin that hurt. So I lay in my Epsom salt and essential oil bath, focusing on releasing the pain from my body.
Afterward, I was exhausted. Drained. So much so that I barely had the energy to move. So I rested. And it took me a few hours to recover. To be able to move.
But moving is precisely what I’m learning I must do. I must move through the discomfort. Physically, mentally and emotionally. Push the pain through my body — for that’s the only way it truly leaves. I’ve tried to avoid it. To ignore it. To distract myself from it. But it doesn’t work. The only way to get through the pain is to feel it. To acknowledge it. To move with it. And to let it go.
5 Things to Do If Someone Triggers You
If you struggle with being triggered by a loved one or if you trigger a loved one, here are five things my husband and I do that will hopefully help you too:
The number one thing is communication. Even before I knew what my triggers were, communication was the only thing that saved us. This includes knowing when to communicate. And when not to. We also find it useful for my husband to tell me his next steps when we’re in close spaces. He’ll say, “I’m walking behind you to wash my hands,” or, “I’m pulling out a knife and walking around the counter.”
Be mindful of when and how you are physically engaging. Not only does my husband need touch for his own well-being, but it’s how he shows his love. Before I knew what my triggers were, I’d become overwhelmed by his touch often, causing me to become triggered or to have a meltdown. Then, thinking it was him, I’d become angry with him for touching me. And you can easily see how that resentment would build, especially in a marriage. Now, we communicate about touch before it happens, and we know the times I shouldn’t be touched at all: first thing in the morning, and when I have PMS, specifically when it shifts into PMDD about 7-10 days before my menstrual cycle ends.
Communicate when you’re entering each other’s space. My husband is by no means a stealth ninja, contrary to what he’d like to think. It used to be that he’d arrive home — unannounced — walking heavy-footed, talking on the phone, eating smelly foods. And I'd become instantly triggered. Now that we know what happens for me, how easily he can startle and overwhelm me, he tells me when he’s coming home so I can prepare. So my body doesn’t mistake him for an intruder. And so my nervous system can stay regulated, not having to live on edge until the moment he might walk through the door.
Respect personal boundaries and have your own safe space. I am very lucky that my husband respects my boundaries. That he gives me space when I need it. Something I had to learn to do for him. Now, if conversations become tense, we know we can leave the room to cool off without the other following us. It helps to have a space designated in the house where you can go where the other won’t be. A safe space to connect back to yourself.
Get help. My husband and I went through a few therapists before we found one who understood us. Our issues run deep and our fighting can get quite volatile, so we needed someone who wouldn’t shy away. And I can’t help but think that having to conduct our sessions via telehealth has also contributed to our success — we need to be in separate spaces when we discuss our issues. A therapist's office was never big enough to contain the two of us. So now, we make sure we divide and conquer for our sessions. No matter how heated they get, we have the space we need to cool off after. And we are always able to meet back at home and to leave our problems for our next session. Allowing more space for peace and laughter and joy in our marriage.
I wish you safe and mindful interactions with your loved ones. May you find ways to coexist so you can reap the benefits of having human connection and love.
Image by Deflyne Coppens from Pixabay