FAMILY AND MARRIAGE: Hot buttons and triggers
“It usually takes two people a little while to learn where the funny buttons are and testy buttons are.” – Matt Lauer
“Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” – Bible
Tom arrived home late that night; it had been a long hard day. Tammy greeted him quickly and loudly. “Dinner is cold! You are always late! You never call me and let me know!”
Tom’s response matched her greeting. “It’s not my fault I had to work late again. And even if I tried to call you I couldn’t reach you; you are always on the phone! And look at the kitchen! Why can’t you ever keep anything clean!?”
Tom and Tammy have fallen into the trap of using words which are hazardous to any conversation.
For the sake of this discussion we will call them Hot Buttons and Triggers.
Hot Buttons are those words which, in general, upset the average person.
For example, the words “always” and “never” will usually cause a negative reaction when used in situations such as the above scenario.
Most of us are seldom “always” or “never” anything. And so when someone accuses us of “always” being bad, we get angry.
We may be bad some of the time, but not all the time.
Suppose Tom accused Tammy of overreacting in the above scenario. The word “overreacting” can also be a Hot Button.
Tom is, in essence, telling Tammy that her feelings, her “reactions,” aren’t really that important, and she should get over it.
Hot Buttons also are a way of avoiding the specific issue, hence making it very difficult to deal with the concern, even if the recipient wanted to.
Instead of saying “you are always late,” Tammy could have said, “You have been late for the last three nights in a row, and I am beginning to feel like you don’t appreciate my efforts in preparing dinner, and maybe even that you don’t want to eat dinner at home.” She lays out the specific issue and also how it is affecting her.
Often we use Hot Buttons to help us emphasize our point, but the emphasis usually hits the other person in the wrong way.
For example, suppose Tom leaves his dirty socks on the floor some evening. Tammy may say to him, “Tom, why can’t you ever pick up your socks?”
In fact, he may usually pick them up, but he does forget periodically. However, Tammy has had a difficult day and unconsciously is taking some of it out on Tom.
So she elevates a minor issue to a major concern.
We all are guilty of using Hot Buttons from time to time.
The best solution is to try to be conscious of generalities or words that exaggerate and to “never say never,” as the saying goes.
Triggers, on the other hand, are those words or phrases that bring about a reaction in the recipient because of some other and usually specific connection.
Triggers are probably more difficult to recognize and yet more crucial in developing and maintaining healthy relationships.
Dr. Diane Kramer, a psychologist and marriage counselor, said a trigger “sets off a person’s amygdala, a part of the limbic system in the brain that is the center of a person’s emergency reaction system. This emergency reaction system is called our fight or flight system, anxiety or stress reaction system or sympathetic nervous system.”
Simply put, something in our personality or our past causes us to react in a certain way when we are confronted with certain words or events.
In the above scenario, Tom’s comments on the dirty kitchen could have triggered a very negative reaction in Tammy if she had grown up being told constantly that she was disorderly and unkempt.
Tom’s preferred reaction in such a case should not be to fire back in anger but to try to understand why she felt the way she did.
Remember, every word we speak reaps a reaction of some kind.
The Family and Marriage Coalition of Aiken, Inc. (FAMCO) provides resources for you to succeed in your marriage and families. Roger Rollins, executive director of FAMCO, can be reached at 640-4689, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.aikenfamco.com.