On dealing with triggers

Yesterday, Joep was cranky. Nothing on the computer was working. He got progressively more upset. This is a trigger for me. We both know this and deal with it when it happens. This time, I decided to move my laptop to the bedroom and sit and work from there. Joep was raising his voice at the computer more and more. Then, he saw me get up and asked “Are you leaving because of me?”. Honesty is the best policy: “Yep.” His response “Oh, great, and now this.”

Just writing down that sentence doesn’t do it justice. That’s because you can interpret it in many ways, especially when written down like this. You could interpret it as an announcement for a catastrophe. As if it’s a prelude to some horrendous fight coming up. It’s not. We never fight. We can be upset, sure. We can bicker when we disagree on decisions for our company. But we never fight. I interpreted it like this, and I’m pretty sure it’s accurate: “Oh great, nothing is working and now I’ve made you upset.” Doing something that makes your partner upset is a godawful feeling, especially if it’s something you both can’t control.

I wasn’t upset in that moment, though. Sometimes I can be, for sure, but in this case, I think I realized I was triggered. So I stayed calm, because I realized it was a trigger.

Joep sat down in the couch and stared out the window.

We’ve watched Mark Gungor’s Tale of Two Brains and I dare say we picked up some stuff from that. In that moment, as I realized I was triggered and saw that Joep was angry at the computer and miffed that I’d been triggered, I heard Mark Gungor’s voice. “He doesn’t want to talk about it! He’s not a woman! Leave him alone!”. I started to turn to walk away. But Joep asked me if I could come over. So I sat down on our salon table, with my feet on the couch, right up against his butt. He told me how frustrated he felt. He’s trying to figure out how Docker, Rails and Ruby work. I can’t help him: I have no idea. All the stuff he finds online is horribly incomplete or contains mistakes. As we sat there, he vented and I listened. I tried not to offer advice, but did mention how he’s been here before, when he learned React. I’m sure he’ll get there. But it’s frustrating. He felt like he had lost a whole week already.

Later, he went out to dinner with his sister, who would stay the night. I stayed home and mucked about with some stuff online. They came back. We talked a bit and all of us went to bed. Well.. after trying to console an upset cat who doesn’t like visitors… Jasmijn managed to sneak into the bedroom, trying to get away from Joep’s sister. Then, she couldn’t get out, because we had closed the bedroom door and then she panicked a little. Joep let her out of the bedroom again and this night, we left the bedroom door open for once. Jasmijn really doesn’t like visitors! When Joep’s sister got up this morning, Jasmijn ran into our bedroom and dove under my covers and scurried her way down from my shoulder to my feet.

That’s when my body came online. Everything hurt. I was having a lot of physical pain. It’s becoming more and more accepted in modern medicine and mental healthcare that trauma is stored in the body. I might be getting a bit better at interpreting this now (at least I hope so). I tried to feel what the pain was about and with the help of a tune my right brain was humming I figured out it was about yesterday. I was still tense from that.

I’m glad we talked yesterday. It was a good talk. I prefer it over an alternative scenario, where Joep is cussing at his PC and me sitting there, frozen behind my laptop. My getting up to leave was good, because it signaled my discomfort and I listened to it. Joep asking me to sit down with him was good. It signaled his need to talk about what was bothering him. Me and him not fixing the issue either of us had, was good.

This morning, my body hurt. “I know, I can see it” Joep said, right after he had reached over to hug me. “How can you see it?” I asked, lying rigidly in bed, frozen like a plank, staring straight ahead at the foot of the bed but seeing nothing… In hindsight this is funny 😉 “I can see in your face that you’re in pain.”

Joep held me for a while and then said he wanted to get up to greet his sister, who we had already heard get up. I think I wrote about this before: When I’m stuck sometimes nothing works. If I’m not getting up, it’s okay to let me lie there. Just go and do your thing. It’s no use if two people become upset. But this morning, I asked if he could stay a little while longer. He did, and that’s when I figured out that my body was still responding to yesterday. We talked it through.

My body sees this (Joep being frustrated at something) as: “OMG RUN! This is the same thing that happened with dad!!!” Bodily panic, to the max.

It’s not the same situation at all. My father did not want to resolve his issues. He didn’t want someone to just listen while he himself would figure out what to do about it. Nope. Besides the fact that he was the adult and I was the child and adults don’t bring their problems to their children.. he just didn’t want to resolve anything. He just wanted to bitch and moan. And then, after he had word-vomited all his issues at me and I had tried to calm him down, he would often still take it out on us and attack us that very same evening. I could just see him short-circuit and my nervous system has become so hypervigilant it’s just not funny anymore (never was, but you get the point.)

For Joep, his stubbornness and his frustration is his drive. And like me, he’s hard on himself and sometimes a bit impatient. His anger at a computer stems from a desire to get things done.

We know we trigger each other. It’s apparently normal. You seek out a partner with whom you will replay scenes from your childhood. Some say that you subconsciously replay them until they are resolved. I like to rephrase it: until you’ve found a better way to deal with it. We practice, practice practice to find what works. But in order to do so, you have to replay it. You dance the same dance over and over again until you slowly start placing your feet in better places and start to get it right. And that can be really painful, especially if you have a relapse into an old pattern.

We talked about attachment theory and both of us know what our own attachment was like. In my case it’s disorganized attachment. I never knew what was coming in my family of origin. A bomb could go off at any time. One of the things that works when your primary caregiver is mindblind, is to TURN UP THE VOLUME. I mentioned it in a previous post. I had to do this to be heard by my mother, I had to be explicit about everything and even then she often wouldn’t get it. At the same time, my father would turn up the volume to me, to get his needs met. He would sulk and sulk and pout and moan until he got his way. And on the other hand, the bomb could go off: my mother could have a meltdown or my father would explode in rage. So turning up the volume to get my needs met, was necessary but could also be met by meltdowns or rage. It was highly unpredictable. If fight, flight or freeze don’t work, then what? Then you fawn. And what if you want to unlearn fawning?

Joep has his own story and so what happens between us can be a tricky dance. I can’t handle anger very well. Neither my own (I can’t express it, either I freeze up, push it away or I start shaking and tears stream down my face) or someone else’s. My nervous system can’t really see the difference between disapproval, frustration, anger and blind rage. It’s all the same to me, because it was all the same in my family of origin. So even something like friendly disagreement or mild frustration is a trigger.. 🙁 When triggered, I either become unresponsive, which could remind him of something and we could end up replaying one of his dances. Or I jump in to fix it, which replays a dance from both our childhoods. Or I could go into a hyper vigilant anxious mode where I just talk and can’t shut up or can’t stop working.

Yes, we seek out a partner who will do that dance with us. This is painful stuff. But it has to see the light in order to heal.

The pattern isn’t the problem per se. It’s fine to be cranky. It’s fine to hate crankiness. It’s fine to want support. It’s fine to want consolation. It’s fine to want to give consolation and support. It’s more than fine in fact, all emotions and needs are necessary to live a full life. If you didn’t have the crankiness and the need to be consoled and the desire to console each other, you don’t really have a relationship. Trust me on this… I’ve been in a relationship where I was so stunted I could not express anything and I’m pretty sure he couldn’t either. I 1000% prefer being triggered over putting everything behind a screen.

We were still in bed and I felt a bit calmer after having given voice to the emotions. “If you want to get up, it’s okay”. And then he said “I lubs you.” This is a topic for another post. I did my cold shower, which also really helped.

I lubs you too, honey.

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