Let’s talk about triggers. They are nasty, mean, persistent little buggers.
For those of you that have no idea what I’m talking about, a trigger is something that reminds you of a trauma you’ve experienced, and brings back the emotional and physical reactions to that trauma as if it’s just happened. And they come in all shapes and sizes. There can be big triggers, such as an actual location, or a person, or thing closely associated with the trauma. Or they can be the most tiny minute thing, such as a smell, a taste, a phrase, or a sound. Sometimes you see them coming, so you can be somewhat prepared.
One example of that is when I hear of another person going through the aftermath of infidelity. Hearing their story, and seeing those emotions could sometimes be a trigger for me. But over time I have learned how to prepare myself for those interactions so that they don’t affect me in a negative way and I am able to engage with and empathize with the person and offer help and support without it taking me back too deeply into my own place of grief. It’s a trigger that I believe I’ve conquered in large part because of my desire to be that lifeline and that ray of hope to others that are going through what I went through, and my desire to see them find healing and happiness too. It’s actually therapeutic for me to know that what I’ve been through can be used to help someone else. So that’s not really a trigger at all for me anymore.
With some of the bigger triggers, such as places or people, you just know to avoid them if at all possible. For me, there’s the hospital parking spot where he would meet her at night after work to tell her goodbye. That one I had to drive by daily, so I’ve trained myself not to let my eyes look that direction when passing by, because if I did, I would see them there in my minds eye, and imagine their kisses goodnight. Not a good visual for me.
The city park is also a big trigger for me. I still have yet to go there. Unfortunately for me, due to the location of my work, I had to pass the entrance to it on a daily basis too up until a few weeks ago, and it always bothered me on some level. But over time I’ve learned to ignore it and just not look that direction if at all possible. Will I ever be able to take the next step and actually go into the park? I don’t know. As of now, I can’t think of a reason that would really require me to have to. There are other locations that I can’t bring myself to go to either. I don’t know if I’ll be required to actually go any of these places and have to overcome these triggers at some point in the future. I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it, but for now avoidance is the way I handle those types of triggers.
Then there’s the small ones. Those are the ones that are really unavoidable, and also the ones that take you by surprise. Sometimes it’s a smell. Such as the way Jeff’s breath smells after he has a certain drink. It triggers memories of times I would smell a hint of it and taste it on his breath and ask if he had been drinking, and he would say no, it was this chapstick he’d used or something of the sort. But in reality it was the smell of their favorite drink, and it was on his breath because he’d been drinking it with her. So now when I smell that it takes my mind back to those moments. To thoughts of him spending hours with her, drinking and… and this is the point where I have to stop the thought right there or my heart will start racing, the feeling of being punched in the gut overtakes my stomach, my entire body tenses up and my breath gets shallow and the feeling of panic and then grief and sadness washes over me from head to toe.
Sometimes it’s a situation, such as him working late. Those aren’t too bad anymore because he is so, so good about letting me know where he is at all times and checking in regularly to ease my anxiety in those situations.
A trigger can also be a certain date, or time of year. Even when a good bit of time has passed and even if you’ve had a lot of healing, our bodies and minds can sometimes retain what’s called cellular memory. It literally means that our bodies recall the trauma on a cellular level and will react to those stimulators whether we like it or not. And we may not recognize on an intellectual level right away that those cellular memories are the cause. Like now for instance. My triggers and bad thoughts and the effect they have on me were a little worse this past week. This is around the time of year that his affair started. So the simple act of looking at a calendar or the similarity in weather patterns can be a reminder.
Sometimes it’s a song. Maybe it’s just that it was overplayed during that time period so it takes me back to those emotions. Or it’s the actual lyrics. Like the one that gets played constantly that says “baby pull me closer in the back seat of your rover” that instantly brings images of him with her in the backseat of her SUV to my mind, since that was where their encounters took place.
It can even be an analogy that the pastor uses in his sermon during Sunday service. Like the time a few weeks ago he was asking the congregation if they remembered their last first kiss, the excitement and the passion and the feeling you got in your stomach. And all I could hear in my head was “Jeff’s last kiss was only a little over a year ago. And when he thinks of his last first kiss, it won’t be me. I will never be his last first kiss again.” And it took everything I had not to burst into tears in the middle of the service.
My point in telling you all this is, that the triggers are literally everywhere. You can’t escape them.
The big question is, how do we deal with them?
I know that I’ve come a long way in dealing with the triggers and the flood of emotions they bring.
In the beginning, they weren’t just a daily occurrence, but a constant torment. Literally constant. Every minute of every single day was a constant struggle with the chaos and pain that had become my mind.
Everyone that’s gone through the trauma of infidelity experiences this on some level. For some reason, it’s worse for some than others, and in scientific circles, it’s thought to be worse for some because of how your brain reacted to the trauma and rewired itself in response. The pathways that process your thoughts affiliated with the trauma actually become altered. They call it Post traumatic infidelity disorder, and the effects are much the same as post traumatic stress disorder that soldiers or victims of other types of trauma experience. There is more and more research being done and for the people that this affects for an extended time past their trauma there are treatments that can help you retrain your brain to process these memories in a way that helps you to be able to recall them without that uncontrollable flood of emotions and pain. It’s called EMDR, and although it’s slightly strange, it appears to be a very promising treatment. So for those of you that are really having a hard time keeping the triggers at bay, it is something you may want to do more research on too. I’d love to hear from someone that has tried it and if it has been helpful or not for you.
Outside of that, the best way to handle the triggers is to get better at refocusing on something good in the current moment and then finding a way to keep your mind there.
As time has gone by, my triggers have gotten progressively less frequent, and less powerful.
And like I said, I know the key to overcoming them is my thought process, and gaining control when the triggers hit me. I’m so thankful for Jeff’s life coach and for our church who have taught us both the power of positive thinking and how life changing it can be, and I attribute so much of our success and ability to get as far as we have in this healing process and in the rebuilding of our marriage to that very thing.
In some ways, I’ve gotten really good at it, the replacement thinking, and that is evident because of the decrease in the occurrence of the triggers.
But occasionally one will still hit me really hard. Especially if several triggers happen back to back. I might bat off the first one pretty easily, but then a second one pops up and maybe a third, and that tension and anxiety builds and it’s harder to fight off the flooding of emotion and thoughts that start firing off and carrying you down rabbit holes of grief and questions and doubt and mostly, just pain. And once it’s gotten that far it takes a good bit of effort to pull yourself back out of that spiral.
The secret is to be able to recognize the triggers right when they happen so you can grab control and redirect those thoughts immediately. It sounds simple, yes. And it is when it really comes down to it. But just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean it’s always easy. The problem is that sometimes, when the trigger is subtle, you think you’re ok, so you just kind of let that first one ride. But then sometimes another one comes right behind it and before you know it you’re sucked in and your thoughts are suddenly dragging you forcefully through the mud.
The replacement thinking works, and I’m able to do it a good bit of the time, but I obviously have not completely mastered it yet. So this is something that I’m going to continue to work on.
This healing process is not something that happens overnight. And sometimes you may feel like so much time has gone by and you’re doing so good and something, even something small can seem to pull you backwards. And it can be so discouraging to feel like you maybe haven’t made quite as much progress as you thought. So you have to be intentional. You have to be aware and vigilant and learn how to see the triggers coming, and how to deal with the ones you don’t see coming, and continue to take care of yourself and put in the work and read the books and do the research and talk to whoever you need to talk to.
As much as we might wish it could be, the healing is not instantaneous. You don’t just say “ok I forgive you and we are all good”, and magically have no recollection or lingering effects of what you’ve been through. I wish it were that easy. It’s a process and it also has to be maintained in order to stay healthy. So I’m going to do my best to make sure I stay focused and continue to learn and find ways to improve my ability to control my thoughts and heal my heart and mind.
As for the spouses out there, the ones who were unfaithful. I have some really, really important advice for you. And it may be a little harsh,so brace yourself. If you truly want to accommodate your spouse’s healing and the rebuilding of your marriage, this advice is imperative. And at its core, it’s only two words.
We get it. It’s not easy for you either. You’re tired. You’re frustrated. You’re not proud of what you did, and you’ve done your best to try and make amends. You really desperately just want to forget it and put it all behind you. You wonder if we will ever really just get over it.
I hate to be the one to break it to you, I really do.
But, the answer to that question, is no.
We will never just get over it. Not in the way you are imagining it in your head anyway. And you would do very well to never, ever, ever say those words to us.
We will never just get over it, but if you will be patient, and kind, and empathetic, and truly remorseful, and supportive, and open, and honest, and willing to do whatever it takes to make us feel secure, and if you will be attentive and comforting and most of all just love us with everything that you are, we CAN move beyond it. We CAN learn how to control the triggers, we CAN find a way to forgive you, and we CAN be filled with gratitude for the person you have become and the amazing marriage that we have now.
So my best advice for you when you are feeling frustrated and maybe even a little angry that even though you’ve changed and you do your best to be the best husband and person you can be that you still have to deal with the aftermath of what you’ve done, is to take a deep breath. Do a little replacement of your own thoughts. Reroute those thoughts of frustration and anger you are having, such as: “This is hard. Seeing her still in pain after all this time is not fun and makes me feel as though I can’t win, that no matter what I do she will never be able to let it go. She just needs to forget about it and move on.” and turn them to thoughts of gratitude and love: “I put her through so much. It must be so hard to be bombarded with the tormenting thoughts and memories she has to deal with. She’s the love of my life and I’m so thankful that she didn’t give up on me. That despite the pain and heartache, she still loves me and fights through the pain, and being a part of her life is a gift.”
If you respond to one of her (or his) emotional responses to a trigger with anger and frustration, it’s just going to give those bad thoughts of doubt and insecurity and pain she’s having more power and make it harder for her to fight her way out. Try to remember that she didn’t ask for this. She didn’t want this pain. She doesn’t want to remember it any more than you do. As a matter of fact, selective amnesia would be a welcomed malady. When you feel yourself wanting to get upset or frustrated that she isn’t moving on as fast as you think she should or as quickly as you’d like, take a minute to remember that it was your actions that caused her to have to fight this battle in her mind. It was your actions that broke her mind, her spirit, and her heart. And for you, who has never been on this side of it, to decide that you think you can judge how long it should take to heal, is absurd, and quite frankly unfair and maybe even a little selfish and mean.
So don’t do it.
Be patient, and be grateful that she is making the effort at all.
During the triggers and the flooding of thoughts and emotions the betrayed spouse is experiencing, what they need from you the most is comfort and security. They need reassurance that your love is real. That your remorse is real. And that your commitment to your relationship is real and that you are willing to be humble and kind and understanding even when it’s not easy. And they need your help in being reminded of how good a place your marriage is in now. Of all the goodness in this present moment. And all the goodness that’s still ahead.
This week’s post has been heavy. But I hope it has also been helpful to some of you that are making your way through the healing process too.
In keeping with my belief system that all negatives need to be replaced with a positive… let’s end this on a positive note. I successfully pulled myself out of my emotional spiral this past week. It took longer than I (and Jeff 😉) would have liked, but that just helped me to see that I need to do a little more work, and that’s ok. I want to get stronger in my ability to control the triggers and the way my brain and body reacts to them, and I’m “positive” that I’m going to find a way to do it. 😊 And as far as my regular, everyday life goes, it couldn’t be better. I have beautiful healthy children, an amazing husband that makes me laugh and is a better husband than I ever could have imagined him to be, and I have a new job that I absolutely love. I also finally have a beautiful, working double oven , which nearly completes our kitchen renovation!
Life is good. It’s really, really good.
Amy Thurston Gordy