This blog is in honor of my little brother (Doug) who would have turned 41 in February of this year and who died 30 years ago this month. 11 years of life. 30 years of grief. But, no, this isn’t a blog about grief. It’s about #couples dealing with #triggers and what Sue Johnson calls #rawspots (grief is just one example that invites all sorts of triggers).
“Raw spots” are what most of us walk around with in varying degrees stemming from a variety of relationship based stories (grief/loss or other relational traumas, unmet relationship goals, broken promises, betrayal, abandonment, hurt feelings from misguided words, etc). Sue Johnson defines it as a “hypersensitivity formed by moments in a person’s past or current relationships when an attachment need has been repeatedly neglected, ignored, or dismissed, resulting in feeling emotionally deprived or deserted”. These relationship stories can include those connected to parents, guardians, siblings, and past or current partners/lovers.
For some, the soreness from the raw spots barely interferes with life and the relationships you’re in. Perhaps your relationship challenges and raw spots have been minimal, or you have strong resiliency, or you’ve spent time doing healing work. For others, the soreness is overwhelming and when triggered, the pain can transport you to the original wound so quickly and those in the wake of that emotional tsunami are left confused and shaken.
Y’all know the acronym “SBD” used to describe a particularly foul bottom burp? The kind you run away from for fear it will choke the life out of you? Doug, in his sweet childhood silliness, used to call this funk “silent but deadliNESS”.
Here’s the thing… relationships have SBD’s… they are the often “silent but deadly” killers that erode your love over time. SBD’s are the triggers that awaken the raw spots.
*An eye roll
*A misplaced or ill perceived word
*A missed opportunity to physically connect- a hug, a snuggle sesh, or a “let’s get it on” time, etc.
*A missed opportunity to emotionally connect- actively listening to partner share a story about work, a compliment, a thoughtful gesture, etc.
*A late arrival home past the time expected with no call to explain
*and many more
These SBD’s are so dangerous because they touch on a raw spot within your love’s internal world. When that happens, they might react with seemingly unexplained angry outbursts or the chilliest of withdrawals. And, then, the partner responds to the ANGER or WITHDRAWAL (verses the initial trigger or raw spot) and their subsequent response (defense, minimizing, questioning, accusing, retreating, or amping up) further rubs the sore spot…and off we go down the crazy cycle of unhealthy conflict. A tennis match of accusations and assumptions occur and before you know it, you are fighting about how you are fighting instead of the initial issue and that sneaky SBD drifts on by sadly undealt with.
This is partly why most of the couples we see share some version of this: “We never seem to be able to resolve anything”.
Well, what do we do about it?
1. Be aware of the SBDs! Each partner needs to do the work to be aware of their external (people, places, things, etc) or internal (thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, etc) triggers that touch those raw spots. For example, reflect on the circumstances that tend to make you feel minimized, undervalued, inferior, unappreciated, unsafe, alone, unloved, unlovable, undesirable, unseen, not sexy, insecure, foolish, ashamed, guilty, lonely, unproductive, disorganized, etc.
Ex. In the midst of a conversation, an eye roll from your partner signals an internal narrative of inferiority and you immediately feel disconnected from your partner.
2. Each partner needs to practice responsibility and self-awareness by understanding the story/stories attached to their raw spots.
Ex. Thoughts of inferiority stemming from frequently being dismissed and told you should be “seen and not heard” as a child.
3. Each partner needs to practice responsibility and self-awareness by understanding their typical unhelpful responses to the SBD.
Ex. You respond defensively, harshly, with bitterness, and amping up your tone (I WILL BE HEARD) or you shutdown and retreat (FORGET IT, YOU NEVER CARE WHAT I SAY ANYWAY).
4. When an SBD occurs, pause. Don’t respond right away. Chances are, it’s not gonna kill you. It just feels like it for a moment. Sit in the funk for just a second and breathe deeply. I know, it’s STANKY. It will pass. And, as you breathe, your body will begin to naturally self-regulate and free you to begin to consider how you want/prefer to react. Pausing helps position yourself emotionally and physically to speak on the SBD from a place of seeking connection (verses reacting to the SBD in a way that voids connection).
Ex. Pausing frees you to consider alternative thoughts. You might realize it had nothing to do with you. Maybe your partner had an itchy eye because of a flying bug and was moving the eye around to move the detached wing away from the iris. Or, pausing helps you react differently. Maybe your partner did roll the eye in a moment of exasperation (bc they are human and not perfect and maybe even super tired). And, talking about it differently gives you both an opportunity to own your responses, correct, and then reconnect.
5. Talk about what happened!
How do we talk about it though?
Well, the details of that is for another blog or a therapy session. But, the quickie version is OWN your stuff. Begin softly and lead with your feelings, share your thoughts, and make a request that reflects your preferred outcome. And, yes, this requires vulnerability.
Ex. I just felt this rush of shame when I thought I noticed you roll your eye. All my thoughts of insecurity and inferiority came up. I wondered if you cared about what I was saying or if you are bored with me. I was tempted to shut down. What I really want is to connect with you and be able to finish sharing my story. It’s helpful and encouraging to me when I notice you activity listening like when you nod your head or maybe even ask a question. Are you in a place where we can do that now?
Sounds a bit foreign right? We’re not often taught to speak our most authentic and vulnerable truth. It takes bravery, patience, and practice!
Raw spots tend to develop from missed opportunities to experience safe, secure, consistent and predictable #support, #attention, #affection and #love in our past or present array of relationships. Triggers (those nasty SBDs) are the things that bump up against the raw spot and reopen the wound. Vulnerability infused responses to raw spots and triggers include speaking on the emotion and the related stories (verses suppressing). And, ultimately focusing on the preferred outcome of a safe, secure and loving connection becomes the lighthouse that guides you there through a healthier dialogue of what that could look like.
Cheers to working through the “silent but deadliNESS” moments in relationships.