Driving, crowds, staying too long at parties, and toothpaste. This is just a sample of the items we’ve identified as “trigger points” in our relationship. Each represents a potential flash point in our relationship and has been the subject of more than one intense conversation.
For me a “trigger point” is any situation or environment which may cause me to lose my shit. These trigger points are part of my natural tendency in how I react to the world around me. These everyday activities cause me to be more stressed and will increase my potential to lash out. For me this includes being in crowds, driving, and incorrectly squeezed toothpaste tubes (you all know who you are). When faced with one of these situations my blood pressure increases and I will begin to feel the tension mount. It is an almost Pavlovian response, but it triggers a reaction and puts me on edge.
In early 2010, after many fights and disagreements, we sat down and dissected our last series of fights. We talked about what we fought about, what the situation was surrounding them, how we felt before and after, and what factors could have led to the disagreement. Through the course of these discussions, patterns began to emerging. We were fighting in the car (a classic Talbot fighting ring), in a crowded space (i.e. mall or market), or just before going to a party. It was almost like clockwork – put us in a particular situation and tempers flared and we lashed out.
Armed with the knowledge that we each have these natural reactions to specific situations we could put in place a series of approaches to help recognize the trigger points in the heat of the moment and then both consciously alter how we respond. The result has been fantastic and created far less tension in our partnership.
I loathe crowds. I get freaked out and anxious any time we need to be in a big group, which is more often than I like while we’re traveling. Knowing this we now sit down before we know we’re heading into a crowd and Betsy asks what she can do to support me while we are in the souk, or market, or walking through the train station. This brief conversation is a way that we each use to acknowledge the stressful situation we are heading into and to ensure we are both hyper-aware that as our stress goes up so too does the likelihood that we’ll be snippy with each other.
By knowing this we are each on the look out for the first signs of stress and respond with support when things get tough. If things get particularly tight while walking through a market Betsy will squeeze my hand a bit harder and let me know she is there. This is what I need in order to let out the tension I was holding onto and which would have eventually led to a fight with her. That simple gesture of applying a bit more pressure to my hand or a knowing look is all I need to realize the build up and to let it go.
It all starts with us in that conversation before any stressful experience and has made all the difference in how we approach different trigger points in our lives together.
Time Limited Life of the Party
Since I know Betsy is an Introvert (an enlightening revelation in and of itself for me), I know that parties can be draining for her. For as much as she loves going she also has a limit. I know this now, so before we leave we agree on a time limit when we need to check in as well as code words for when she’s ready to go. We also agree in advance that, depending on the situation, she may elect to go home herself and I stay if things are going well.
By putting in place a plan we are able to go and enjoy the party without any of the worry that Betsy will reach her limit and I’ll be (once again) oblivious to why she wants to leave. Instead, we have identified a clear set of expectations on each of us freeing us up to have a great time until it’s time to head out.
Betsy is a “willy nilly squeezer” and it drives me absolutely bonkers. I’m embarrassed to admit that this was the source of more than one disagreement in our house. I’d actually ask myself in the middle of a fight – “really, we’re fighting about toothpaste?” I was frustrated that she did not honor my methodical approach to squeezing the paste from the tube (which, honestly, is the way that we as a society should approach the sacred tube). And she was annoyed that I was trying to put structure on her every movement and didn’t see why this was a big deal at all.
In the end we discovered a brilliant solution that saved us all the frustration and fighting. We went off to the store and brought back his and hers toothpaste and the angels did sigh and the skies were a bit brighter. It sounds so simple, but if you’ve ever lived in a household with a random toothpaste squeezer you’ll understand the joy I had. Perhaps it was not that big a deal, but we did find one less reason to be frustrated with each other and one more trigger point avoided.
“Driving” each other mad
We both hate how the other drives. I believe Betsy drives like she’s 105, pressing the brakes anytime a vehicle comes within sight. She’s convinced I have a death wish, flying down the road with reckless abandon.
Driving in the car together highlights the different ways that we approach so much of our lives. Betsy is more cautious and careful, focused on what can go wrong and planning accordingly (slowing down the car). I am more “reckless”, saying yes first and then figuring out the details later. Betsy has worn a hole in the passenger-side floorboard pressing her “emergency brake” and letting me know that my driving is not for her.
Neither one of our approaches to driving is necessarily wrong (don’t tell Betsy I said this but her slow driving is absolutely the wrong one), but the tension comes when I am not patient with her driving or she gets scared and lashes out at mine. We each react first and think second, which is a sure start to a heated discussion.
Needless to say, we are not at our best in a car. These 2 different styles of driving and our reactions to them, create a recipe for frustration and resentment. We both find that getting behind the wheel is the most stressful activity we could do together so we made a choice. We did not need to “solve” this one by changing our different approaches, we could remove it completely from our everyday lives. By removing driving we’ve eliminated the #1 boxing ring in our marriage, helped us both get in far better shape (we now walk everywhere), and reduced our individual stress on a daily basis. And the world (or at least our small part of it) is a better place to be.
Recognizing Our Triggers
These types of situations show Betsy and me how different we are. One of us has more need for structure (I’m certainly in this camp) and one of us is more of a free spirit (Betsy has an inner flower child). This is natural, and by identifying the situations where these differences create conflict we are taking creative steps to address it.
I still get twitchy when I see Betsy’s tube of toothpaste, sitting there all gnarled and bent from the constant squeezing without rhyme or reason. However, it’s her tube she can do whatever she wants. I still have my nicely ordered tube available to give me the clean look I like before bed and first thing in the morning. We’ve made huge strides in our partnership by finding simple solutions to those areas in our life, home, or work together that caused us the most angst. We buy a second tube of toothpaste, we seek out ways to avoid driving (our #1 hot button) or set up code words to alert the other at parties.
We’ve identified the trigger points, built a series of tools to address them in the moment, and are quick to see the trigger situations as they approach.