How Do I Stop Reacting When He Triggers Me?

Morning friend,

This past weekend I had the opportunity to speak at a Good Boundaries and Goodbyes intensive with Lysa Terkeurst and her team. It was a wonderful weekend, seeing women come in feeling hopeless and depleted and leave feeling deeply connected to God, connected to other women, and connected to themselves. I love seeing God at work reviving the soul and giving wisdom and hope to those who sit in the darkness of confusion and pain. 

Today’s Question

I hope to join your Conquer program this spring. Presently I am struggling with trying to move forward in my relationship with my husband. He has had alcohol, spending, and porn addictions in the past to self-medicate.

I am to believe this is over however, he still feels that he has to protect himself from conflict rather than be truthful about things with me. He very rarely talks at all about his needs, concerns, or anything personal or non-personal in his life.

I keep discovering things that he still feels unsafe to tell me. I do understand his fear of conflict however, I cannot see our marriage ever improving if he cannot tell me things and accept that I may be disappointed but that is not as bad as destroying any chance of me being able to trust him and feel safe in the relationship. I am trying to get to a place to talk calmly when disappointed. Unfortunately, when I voice my concerns or needs my husband feels criticized by me just asking for things to be done differently. That is when he throws at me that I don't allow him to talk, I talk over him, and I do not want to hear what he has to say. I just want to blame him. Etc.

I will admit that the reason I want to join Conquer is that when he accuses me of this I raise my voice and try to get back to the topic at hand. However, the topic then just changes to how badly I treat him as I get angry. I know my getting upset does not help the situation. I need to find ways for me not to be triggered and respond in a Godly manner. I have been on this vicious cycle for about 20 years. Kept believing untruths and having broken promises. Prior to Conquer happening can you give me pointers on how for me not to be reactive when the tables are turned onto me?

Answer: You’ve been through a lot in your 20 years of marriage. You say you believe his addiction problems are over, but what makes you think that? A 20-year addiction to multiple self-medicating strategies (alcohol, porn, spending, lying) is rarely changed without serious accountability, support, tools, and a strategy for pitfalls and temptations. And, if he is beginning his journey of facing his addictions and working on sobriety, his long-standing patterns of avoiding conflict with you are probably not the first thing he’s going to tackle. He may still rely on some of his unhealthy protective patterns, even though they continue to cause you to feel devalued and unable to trust him.

Your desire to work hard to repair broken trust and build a better bond with him is admirable. Does he want that too? If so, can you both agree that he needs time and space to work on his sobriety as the first step in his getting healthy? That may mean that he still isn’t capable/ready to dig deep into a vulnerable constructive conversation with you about tough or painful topics. He may not even know how to understand his own feelings yet, let alone put them into words to help you understand. But where does that leave you and your hope for a better marriage?

Sometimes a woman who has been married to an addict for a long time believes there is nothing she can do but wait for him to get better. But that’s not true. Please do not hear me saying that is your fault for any of his addictions or problems. But you can work on some of your own inner healing and growth while hopefully, he continues to work on maintaining his sobriety and healing growth.

You are on the right track when you asked how you can work on better handling your triggers by not reacting in negative and angry ways. You have no control over his healing journey but you do have a say on your own. Here are two important questions to ask yourself. Are my reactions doing more harm than good toward my long-term desire for a restored marriage? Do I regret my behavior (or words) after I calm down or am I proud of myself? Even if your marriage doesn’t make it and you no longer live with your spouse, you always live with yourself. Therefore, you want to learn to handle yourself in ways that align with your best self. 

Reacting is not always the wrong response. There are times it’s the absolute best response. For example, if someone is trying to harm you, your reactive flight or fight response is the way God designed your body to get safe fast. On the other hand, regularly becoming negatively triggered when you’re trying to get your husband to talk to you is creating more negativity in him, in you, and in your marriage.

Here are a few tips on how to stop defaulting into reactive mode when he shuts down and starts to accuse or attack you. First, you must learn to press pause. Victor Frankl, the famous Jewish psychiatrist who was in the concentration camp during World War 2 wrote, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

You must give yourself a moment to have that space. To notice what’s happening before you open your mouth with a negative reaction. In that pause, pay attention to what’s happening both internally and externally. For example, externally you notice he’s becoming critical and accusing. Internally you are feeling tense, frustrated, scared, devalued, and misunderstood. In this pause, where you notice you are being triggered is where you are going to learn to make a different choice. 

For example, instead of trying to argue with him or defend yourself, you are going to attend to you. You might ask yourself, “What do I need to do right now to calm myself down before I blow?” It might mean you leave the conversation or even leave the room. It might mean that you vomit out all of your negative words and feelings into a journal so that you feel better, but not at the expense of negatively reacting toward him. 

How might it play out differently with your husband if you didn’t argue or demand he engage with you when he’s resisting? If you said instead, “When you’re ready I’m open to hearing what you have to say.” And if he does start to talk, what might be different if you just listened and didn’t disagree or argue or defend or question anything? You just said, “thanks for sharing how you feel or what you think or want.”

That doesn’t mean you like what he said or agreed with it. But if you are going to start changing the conversation style between you, it probably will have to start with you. If you listened without challenging him or arguing with him he might feel safer having more conversations. You don’t have to pretend you agree. You can just say, “Thanks for sharing, and let me think about what you said.”

One of the most important ingredients in rebuilding trust in any relationship is safety. Emotional and psychological safety as well as physical safety. If you or he feel afraid it’s very hard to be open and vulnerable. You may not be doing anything to create his fear, but he has his own inner work to do to accept his own humanity. For example, he will disappoint you or fail you. But when you want to talk about it, he’s afraid to face that so he shuts down. As you grow and focus on your work instead of his, he might feel less threatened, and then again, he might not. 

In CONQUER we have a phrase we use, #do your own work. From what you’ve said, you’ve focused all your efforts on repairing your marriage and getting it to the way you’d like it to be. Yet, he’s resisting you and that’s painful and scary. I wonder if you could let go of that goal right now and just work on you getting as healthy and strong as you can. I think many Christian women have mistakenly believed that their marriage and man are to be their #1 priority. But God calls you to be a God-centered woman not a husband/marriage-centered woman. If you put God first, trust him with the outcome of your marriage, and #do your own work to become the woman God designed you to become, I believe you will have fewer regrets and a clearer path forward.

Friend, share your process for learning to stop reacting and instead respond to situations that you don’t like in a way that makes you feel good about yourself, even if the outcome was not what you wanted. 

22 Comments

  1. Caroline Abbott on January 26, 2023 at 9:54 am

    Great post Leslie! Learning to control our reactions is huge. In this case, it may not make a difference to the marriage, especially if he doesn’t do his own healing work. Yet, she will feel much better about herself if she can react in ways that feel better to her.

    • janice francis on January 26, 2023 at 10:39 am

      Yes, I have a feeling of satisfaction , pride, celebration when I see I’m controlling certain “negative” emotional responses. Yet, I am aware it does not take care of the continuing same-old-same-old from him: I.e. the relationship is still a painfully divided.

  2. Helena on January 26, 2023 at 11:02 am

    I’m wondering . I’m sure a lot of others are more ahead in this process but Leslie what do you do if he keeps going once you leave the room ? He keeps talking and talking and saying hurtful things to intentionally trigger you ?

    • Lisa on January 26, 2023 at 2:38 pm

      One thing I learned from my therapist is to use “immediacy” and also I recently listened to a podcast about boundaries that encouraged people to explain how the boundary is good for them(the other person). So for example: “I am feeling disregulated and I need some time to calm down. We can’t have a productive conversation when I feel this way, so let’s take a break and come back to it in X amount of time.” I recently did this and when I was calm enough, I then texted a couple of friends to pray for me as my husband and I talked again. It went much more smoothly.
      Another thing my therapist tells me is that “we teach other people how to treat us”, and I am teaching my husband that there are certain things that I won’t put up with anymore.
      God’s blessings to you and everyone here!

    • Leslie Vernick on January 26, 2023 at 2:41 pm

      Helena, great question. If he keeps doing that then that gives you important information. He’s not respecting your “no”. He’s not giving you the space you need to calm yourself down and feel safe. That he may be anxious in his own self and unable to stop his own reactions OR he may be intentionally putting you in situations to provoke you to react publicly so that he can label you the problem, the crazy one or the bad guy, especially in front of others. Therefore, all the more reason for you to do what you need to do to find safety for yourself (emotional, physical and/or spiritual/mental) so that you ask yourself, “What do I need to do to help myself right now” rather than “what do I need to do to get him to stop.”

    • Leslie Vernick on January 27, 2023 at 12:10 am

      Helena, In this particular question, her husband was not doing that but rather staying silent and not answering her legitimate questions nor engaging with her in a meaningful way (still provoking but in a much more subtle way). When he keeps talking, saying hurtful things, you can’t change him or stop him. So what might you need to do to get yourself in a safe place physically and emotionally so that whatever he’s trying to do to trigger you and get you to act out doesn’t work?

  3. Singing in the Dark on January 26, 2023 at 11:14 am

    The questioner didn’t say she believed his addiction problems are over. She said he wants her to believe they are, and then she admits she still sees evidence his behavior continues. Quoting her, but emphasis mine, “ I ***am to believe*** this is over however, he still feels that he has to protect himself from conflict rather than be truthful…” And then later “ I keep discovering things that he still feels unsafe to tell me….”, so she knows the behavior is not over.

    One great advantage of the misunderstanding described in the answer given to the questioner, though, is that she can present information you meant to correct her with, to her husband, if he ever tries again to convince her he’s done with the behavior she continues to see., and argues against her request he get help. So it still has value.

    However, I am just pointing this out for the questioner’s sake. She was seeking advice about her anger over a problem she knows js continuous and he is hs lighting her about her perceptions, so her anger is justified , even if her expression of her pain is not in her own best interest It may have been more painful for her to be “publicly” corrected for a belief she does not have, and it happened first and foremost in the response.

    With that out of the way, the response to her question about her pain and frustration in response to her husband’s deception and victim-response under his provocation was a precious jewel, though: clarifying, encouraging, and a solid standard for her to stand upon—for all of us, really, in any situation of conflict, be it at home, work, church—anywhere.

  4. R D on January 26, 2023 at 12:29 pm

    If it wasn’t so serious this would be almost funny,
    she says he is PAST his addictions, yet in the answer you immediately go to him needing to fix his”20 year” addiction,
    There is NO mention by her of impending divorce, yet you respond that “Even if your marriage doesn’t make it and you no longer live with your spouse”, WHY.
    The purpose of a Christian Marriage ministry should be to keep Marriages together, yet consistently this blog goes straight to an assumption that men can’t or won’t often do “their work” to change and repair a marriage, so women to to join your ” program ” and be good without him.
    Granted after this there was a few pointer given to answer her actual question.

    • Leslie Vernick on January 26, 2023 at 2:38 pm

      RD, Thank you for your concerns and comments. I’d love to hear how you would have answered her question.

      • R D on January 28, 2023 at 9:19 am

        As there is never a complete story in a blog question, it would be teasonable to take what is there at face value. His PAST addictions and self medication should be viewed as PAST as stated.
        Maybe ask why this is brought up in the question, why did he start these addictions ?.
        Then it would be important to address the actual question, why is she so triggered? He has hurts that limit him from being open to share, he doesn’t want “conflict” sounds as if she jumps to conflict when triggered which just closes him off more, and resets the cycle.
        After 4 or 5 paragraphs of going after his addictions that you evidently somehow know are still there, and throwing out ( of know apparent reason that this marriage may not last) you then answer her question with good ideas to get calm conversations opened. This is what is needed, she is clear she loves him, she must now extend Christ like GRACE to her husband and gently build his trust in her that he can open up without an impending conflict. Proverbs 15-1

    • Leslie Vernick on January 26, 2023 at 4:41 pm

      RD – I would love to ask you to re-think your belief that the #1 goal of any Christian ministry should be to keep marriages together. I think the purpose of any ministry first and foremost is to honor God. Does it honor God to keep a marriage together that is filled with abuse, deception, abuse, with no fruit of repentance? Or does it honor God to walk in truth, even when it’s hard and ugly. I don’t believe keeping the marriage together is our highest priority. Living in alignment with God’s word in his truth is our highest priority. Jesus loves everyone, but he says “Your sin separates us”. Jesus doesn’t “pretend” to have close relationship with people who do not repent and seek God’s help. Does he ask a wife or husband to be in close relationship with a spouse who hasn’t repented of his or her sin when that sin has been repetatively destructive and has done harm to the person and marriage relationship itself?

      • R D on January 28, 2023 at 10:00 am

        Yes and to honor God would mean to Honor Marriage, God clearly honors marriage!.yes it does honor God for a Christian to stay in a marriage and to even suffer for Christ’s sake, (absolutely SEPARATE for safety, yet seek healing and reconciliation).
        Interesting you admit “I don’t believe keeping the marriage together is our highest priority.” Clearly it is not. There are great ministries like Rejoice Marriage Ministry that do hold healing the marriage as the highest priority and with results that Glorify God often in miraculous ways.

        Your last question makes me ask you if you actually believe the whole Word of God.
        Paul, (inspired by the HS) in 1 Cor 7 tells us to STAY with an unbelieving (unrepentant) spouse.
        In Mark 10 Jesus says “what God has Joined, let no man separete” in this passage He doesn’t even add the “escape clause” for adultery.
        In Matthew 19 the escape clause is there, however, Jesus is clear in the context of this and His other teaching that Grace and Forgiveness should supersede even adultery.
        I personally know of many couples who have restored marriages after adultery and have even turned that into a ministry to bring God Glory.

        So after Re-Thinking I will stand by my belief that any ministry that proclaims the Bible as authority and Jesus Christ as Lord should certainly have a primary goal of keeping marriages together (again, separate for safety). This should be the goal, however, yes the unbelieving spouse can choose to leave and an adulterous spouse can be brazen and unrepentant, in these situations the Bible and Jesus are “allowing” but not encouraging and suggesting divorce. Reconciliation thru the healing power of the Spirit will Glorify God.

        • Leslie Vernick on January 28, 2023 at 3:52 pm

          R.D. you say to honor God means to Honor marriage. I agree, I honor marriage. I’ve been married 47 years to the same man. Marriage is God’s gift to human beings. Just like the Sabbath was created for humankind to be restorative, loving and good. Marriage was created to be the safest relationship of all – where two people uniquely trust one another to do them good not harm all the days of their lives. (Proverbs 31). Yet, in our religious rule keeping, sinful humanity distorted theSabbath and turned it into a legalistic and oppressive day for people. Jesus continually contradicted the Pharisee’s “honoring” the Sabbath rules. I believe God’s word is the authority in our lives. You and I just have a very different picture of God’s character and his purposes. I do not believe that a marriage that is oppressive, deceitful and abusive is honoring to anyone, especially God, but also to the people in it, including children who pick up these same sinful destructive patterns and pass them to the next generation. I believe it’s honoring to God to expose the unfruitful deeds of darkness, including those in marriage. I believe it’s honoring to God, to not allow the best of who you are to be crushed to enable the worst in someone else. I believe God hates when a man treats his wife treacherously and we are not to ask her to “endure” or “suffer” nobly, we are to speak out against what he is doing and if he claims to be a Christ follower, call him to repent. I believe it’s honoring to suffer and sacrifice oneself, even one’s life for someone’s highest good, not to enable their lowest self to continue to cause harm to themselves or others. I believe in reconciliation but not lying, faking and pretending to be reconciled when there is not true reconciliation or repentance from the who has caused the separation or alienation or hurt in the other. Thank you for this conversation and I hope you might expand your understanding of what is honoring and dishonoring to God and to ones self.

    • Moon Beam on January 29, 2023 at 2:50 pm

      The most sensible thing is to not live with someone who “triggers” you. I don’t understand any reason what so ever to not make an exit plan from such a relationship. The crazy relationship dynamic is not worth your very precious life. Why trade your life in for trauma triggers when you could live freely? Do you see him denying himself HIS best life?

      • Nell on January 30, 2023 at 9:50 pm

        Moon Beam,
        Yes! Life is too short to spend it with someone who continues the lies, deceit and dishonoring you. These are things that someone who hates you does, not someone who loves you.

  5. ET on January 26, 2023 at 10:55 pm

    Leslie,
    This is just a quick note of gratitude intended both for you and the friend who shared her story. This is very timely for me, and your response echoes the advice I’m receiving from friends and my therapist, advice I understand but still struggle so much to follow in the moment. I needed to hear it again. Thank you for your ministry and support of women in difficult situations.

  6. Joy on January 27, 2023 at 1:18 am

    I agree with most of Leslie’s response to this question. 👏 I am living this. I forgave his unfaithfulness , yet, yeara later he still refuses to do the work. He can’t communicate and isn’t ” safe” for me to communicate with, as he gaslight, gets defensive, and goes into a deep funk, which effects the whole house, kids young and old included. I feel it’s his way of controlling me, us, even after being forgiven of so much. I can see now, covert narcissist traits. He drinks to cover his shame and what ultimately happens when they mask shame, is they also paralyze the healing process for themselves, and their marriages. I feel a deep heartache for the woman who’s asked this. I believe, she, like me, may be a very sensitive person/ empath/ or recovering people pleaser. I also 🙏 she doesn’t feel guilty about wanting to process her heavy pain, with her spouse. She is reaching out when she is seeking answers, not provoking a fight. HE needs to do the .work on him ( trauma work,.counseling, seeking recovery group etc.), before they can work on their marriage. Secrecy is not safe on any level in a Covenant marriage. Keep praying for God to expose, and untangle the mess. He is the Revealer and the Healer. Love, a fellow wounded ❤️

    • Moon Beam on January 29, 2023 at 2:52 pm

      It seems you are still being actively abused. What are you planning to do about that?

  7. Hope on January 28, 2023 at 12:23 pm

    Leslie, Thank You for your Biblical, balanced and compassionate help for those of us who’ve been caught (sometimes for decades!) in destructive marriages that don’t ever change, no matter what. As a Christian woman I felt I had so few options and felt utterly trapped as I tried harder and harder to make things work–while my sense of self, value, safety, and health were gradually crumbling. Your many insights on whether I could stay and stay well or I needed to leave and leave well to preserve myself and my sanity were life-changing. Knowing it’s godly and good to protect myself and that God cares more about me and my husband as people than He cares about preserving a marriage changed my whole mindset as a Christian woman. And brought me so much peace. I believe yes, sometimes separation or divorce can be a life-saving surgery that keeps something destructive and wrong (and breaks God’s’ heart) from continuing. Women who are being damaged need to know that they have these redemptive options. Oh God bless the freeing ministry you and your team are doing, Leslie!

  8. Joy on February 2, 2023 at 11:27 am

    Me? I don’t know, I am praying and reading a book about boundaries now 🙏 ✨️ healing in an Affair Recovery group, and helping others heal, in spite of…

    • Joy on February 2, 2023 at 11:28 am

      This was in response to Moon Beam..also, thanks for asking 🙂 helps not to be alone in this. 3 kids ages 13 and under battling it with me…sponges. that’s thr part that is spurring me on to create healthy boundaries

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