The emotional triggers that spark conflicts between intimate partners are well-known: he says he’s going out with friends from work, his husband feels rejected, his partner gets angry; she asks for more time to talk, her husband gets angry and defensive, she feels guilty; she tells her wife she’s disappointed in her, her wife bursts into tears, her partner tells her she’s overreacting. One partner’s action triggers an emotion in the other partner, which automatically evokes a predictable and patterned emotional response from the original actor. I have repeatedly written about this cornerstone concept of Neurodynamic Couples Therapy–mutual emotional triggers are a natural, inevitable, and useful aspect of couple relationships.
The mirror neurons that play a significant role in determining who we will be attracted to as mates include in their coding the ability to recognize (primarily nonconsciously) the presence of mutual emotional triggers beginning at the earliest stages of couples getting to know each other. These triggers are actually a primary source of passion in the relationship, which is largely why we will only mate with another who triggers us the “right” way.
The therapeutic approach to a couple’s mutual emotional triggers is a major feature in the differentiation of Neurodynamic Couples Therapy from other forms of couples treatment. Traditional couples therapy technique encouraged couples to learn how to avoid their emotional triggers. Insight into the transference elements of couples’ conflicts was supposed to help them relinquish a conflict out of understanding that it wasn’t really about each other. Or couples were counseled to change the behaviors and words that triggered each other.
We view the mutual emotional triggers of couples as handing to their therapist “on a silver platter” the roadmap for their treatment, so we want the triggers to be activated. Using the examples at the beginning of this post, in the first couple one partner needs to “out” rejection, and the other needs to “out” anger. In the second example, he needs to “out” anger, and she needs to “out” shame. In the final couple, they both show “I can’t get what I need from you”. Our approach calls for focusing on how helpful both partner’s brains are being in demonstrating these feelings, making them viscerally available to therapeutic intervention. There is no judgment or blame–only praise for their courage.
The mutuality of the triggers is emphasized, making clear that both partner’s right brains have equally participated in co-creating the perfect scenarios for exposing and experiencing the most raw, regressive, and profoundly painful feelings that are awaiting metabolizing. The only behaviors that are directly addressed by the therapist are those necessary to safely participate in the exploration of triggered emotions during treatment. More global behavioral change, leading to the meeting of attachment and object needs between the partners, is the natural and spontaneous byproduct of the empathy and understanding that culminates the metabolizing of triggered emotions.