What to Do When Your Spouse Triggers You

When our spouse does something frustrating, hurtful, or wrong, it triggers us. And it’s so easy—even so natural—to react without thinking. And here’s the biggest problem: There can often be nothing between what triggers us and our reaction. 

Let me geek out for just a bit with a little neuroscience that explains what happens when we’re triggered, and why it’s so easy to get in conflict. 

There’s a set of structures in your brain called the limbic system. The limbic system is where emotions begin. There’s a part of the limbic system called the amygdala. When we’re triggered by our spouse, the amygdala often jumps into action. The amygdala is a great thing—it’s the part of our brain that makes us take our hand off a hot stove without having to think about it. But the fact is, when it comes to marriage, the amygdala is too efficient because we often react before thinking. 

Our amygdala reacts before consulting the part of the brain responsible for thought and judgment, which is called the cortex. This is the part of the brain that thinks and remembers logically that getting angry doesn’t work and that issues are never resolved by fighting. Our brains are hard-wired to react before we consider the consequences. 

Whether you are a follower of Jesus or not, this next verse gives you very specific directions for the next time you are triggered. 

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires”

— James 1:19-20, NIV

James gave us really specific pointers on how to learn to pause when things are all happening at once. 


Be quick to listen. 

When we’re triggered, it’s natural to immediately stop listening, to start talking, and to defend ourselves. We’re not quick to listen—we’re quick to stop listening, to stop hearing what our spouse is trying to tell us. Listen.


Be slow to speak. 

Okay, don’t miss this. If you get this part right, it could revolutionize your relationship. When you’re triggered, don’t talk. Don’t say anything negative with your words or your body language. Studies show that 80 percent of communication is non-verbal. So, pause, take a breath, and do not talk.


Be slow to become angry.  

Don’t miss that word: “become.” This is why pausing is so important. You don’t want to become the spouse you don’t want to be. You don’t want to be the spouse who says whatever they want, and acts like whatever they want when they’re angry. Choose calm. Choose to love. 

Learning to pause conflict before it gets out of hand can be a game-changer for your marriage. And, come on, you know how to pause. You know how to pause Netflix. You know how to pause YouTube. You know how to pause Sponge Bob because Sponge Bob demands to be paused. You know how to pause. The pause symbol is everywhere. So, this week, when you see that pause symbol when you use a pause button, remember that pausing is what happy couples do and any couple can learn how. 

You got this. 

Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Be quick to pause. 

This post originally appeared on MarriedPeople.org and is reprinted with permission.

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