Recognizing your triggers in a relationship

Surprise! Your relationship problems are tied to your childhood wounds.

Do you ever find yourself getting pissed off at your romantic partner for the tiniest things? You know you’re acting unreasonable, but you can’t stop yourself from feeling so upset by this thing your partner is doing that feels so inconsiderate. 

Since we moved in together around two to three years ago, I’ve experienced this countless times with my boyfriend of six years. (I know this sounds mean but just stick with me here)

When we first moved in together, I was scared thinking that we had spent years doing long distance only to find out that living together wasn’t what I’d always imagined. Instead, I felt annoyed with him over the littlest things. I also felt like we were in a power struggle where I had to hide my bad behaviors from him because I didn’t want to be judged.

In 2017, my boyfriend Nate and I had agreed that we both wanted to eat healthier and exercise regularly. Before Nate moved to Guam to live with me, my diet consisted mostly of instant ramen, fast food, and endless snacks (especially right before bed). I was exhausted and stressed from my job, so I had created a habit of binge eating junk food at night.

Nate is very committed to his goals. Once he decides he wants to make a change in his life, he’ll actually stick to it. Unfortunately for a lazy person like me, he expects me to stick to my goals too. So after the first few weeks of healthy eating, I started to drift back to my old habits and Nate tried to get me back on track. 

At night, Nate would hang out in our bedroom and watch YouTube videos on his own while I stayed in the living room. I probably told him I was writing or watching something on my own, but I mainly stayed in a different room because I wanted to snack without judgment. And when I say snack, I don’t mean just a little bag of chips. I would gorge myself on rice crackers, candy, baked desserts, chips, and ice cream until I was too tired and full to eat anymore.

Sometimes Nate would come out of our room to go to the bathroom and he’d catch me on the couch with my pile of snacks. We’d laugh about it, but he would ask me if I was sure I wanted to be eating all that because of the fitness goals we’d set together. Every time he asked me if I was sure I wanted to eat some junk food, I got mad. I felt like he was judging me for overeating, and I was already insecure about my weight (I had gained about 15 lbs since I moved back to Guam in 2016). I also hated feeling like a man was telling me what to do.

I knew that he was just looking out for me and trying to help me stick to the goals I had set for my health. But still, I couldn’t help feeling so upset every time he made a small comment to keep me accountable for my own goals and nutrition. I felt like I was living with someone who restricted me from doing what *I* wanted to do. I started to resent him for this, even though from his perspective he just wanted to help me. 

I didn’t understand back then, but after seeing a therapist on my own, I realized that I wasn’t really mad at Nate himself. I had subconsciously recreated a scenario similar to what I’d experienced since my childhood. 

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve used junk food to make me feel safe and at home. I remember after my parents got divorced, when I first started getting to know my stepmom’s family, I always felt happier and more comfortable because they had foods like Pop Tarts and other snacks at their homes. Then when I was around middle school age, my dad and stepmom stopped buying me and my siblings junk food to eat at home. They wanted to give us more nutritious foods, which is understandable to me as an adult. But at the time, I felt like I was being controlled and restricted from something that gave me a sense of comfort when there was a lot of turbulence.  

Especially when we were living in different houses and unfamiliar places, I relied on those snacks to make me feel safe. I started sneaking candy bars in my backpack when I’d go to my dad’s house. I remember opening my bag and sneaking small bites throughout the weekend. It sounds silly and strange looking back on how much I needed that Snickers to get me through the days at his house, but it makes sense to me now that I’ve worked on healing.

So when Nate and I moved in together, it was a big change for me. I had never lived with a boyfriend before, I had never had my own apartment and paid for all my living expenses, I had never had to balance my relationship and career, I had never gained this much weight and didn’t know how to get back to a healthy place, I was going through clinical depression, and I started taking medication for my mental health issues. 

That was a lot for me to deal with! It’s no wonder I fell back on snacks to soothe myself during this transition. And when Nate was just trying to help me develop healthier habits, my childhood wounds stirred up and made me feel like he was my dad: depriving me of my self-soothing method when he meant to look out for my health. My subconscious recognized the similarities and lashed out because I felt like someone was trying to control me and take away my security blanket again.

It’s not just limited to scenarios where you feel like your partner is taking some kind of control or depriving you of something like when you were a child — triggers of your childhood wounds can arise in many different ways.

What are the things that bother you most about your partner? Obviously I’m no professional psychologist and I don’t have a degree in this field. But just talking to my own friends and family members about what bothers them most about their romantic partners — I see how everything can be traced back to childhood wounds and issues with our parents.

Your boyfriend puts his friends above you in most cases? It probably bothers you because you felt like your parent prioritized their own career, social life, or needs over yours when you were younger.

Your girlfriend doesn’t respect your privacy and goes through your things? It probably bothers you because your mom didn’t respect your autonomy or privacy as a child.

Your boyfriend likes to stay out all night and doesn’t check in with you? It probably bothers you because one of your parents did the same thing to your other parent while you were growing up.

So the next time you get into a fight or feel betrayed with your partner, ask yourself these questions:

  1. What is the earliest memory I have of feeling this emotion or betrayal about this type of scenario?
  2. How did my parent make me feel at the time?
  3. What are some other times my parent made me feel this way?
  4. What are some other times in my life I experienced this type of conflict? Have I felt it in past relationships?
  5. Does this emotion and thought pattern still serve me? Or is it something I would like to let go?

I was able to figure out my struggle with Nate and binge eating by tracing back my earliest memories of using junk food as security and comfort. I thought back to all the times in my life when I was going through a difficult transition (moving to a new place, starting at a new school or job, living with a romantic partner for the first time). I realized that every single time, I went through a period of binge eating junk food — and often hiding my binge eating from the people around me.

Until we learn to look inward, notice our patterns, and confront the uncomfortable truths about our past — we’re going to keep living in cycles based on our childhood wounds. The patterns reveal the spaces in ourselves that need healing. It’s hard and scary to admit that our parents (as much as we love them) weren’t always perfect, and that we still may be suffering from things they did to us as children (especially because they didn’t mean to give us these issues). It’s also hard and scary to admit that we’ve chosen partners to replicate these painful cycles from our childhoods (as much as we love them too).

The good news is: everyone goes through this too, and you can heal yourself. But you’re going to keep repeating these cycles (no matter if you’re with your current partner or a new one) until you learn how to recognize them. The first step is noticing. Next time you get mad at your partner, look inward and think about what specifically is bothering you. What does the sensation feel like in your body? What are some times you’ve felt this in your past? The more you practice this process of noticing and tracing back through your past, the easier it will get.

It’s taken me two years of work, but I’m proud to admit that I’m getting better at noticing my triggers and handling my reactions. I try as much as I can not to snap at Nate over little things, and instead turn inward to figure out what exactly is bothering me and where it’s coming from. After I take some time to process (I like to write in my journal or take a shower and think back to my past to find the source), I tell Nate about my thought process and how I came to realize what my trigger was and where it came from. Now that I’m getting better at understanding my reactions, I’m able to communicate better and connect with him on a deeper level. 

I don’t blame my parents at all for the issues I struggle with. In fact, I’ve had many conversations with my dad about childhood wounds and how they affect romantic relationships. He gave me a copy of “Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples” by Dr. Harville Hendrix, which explains these concepts in detail (I highly recommend it to anyone looking to heal themselves and their relationships). Healing my relationship with my dad has been so helpful in my own self-healing, and deepening my relationship with my partner.

When I work on healing my childhood wounds, it’s not just for my relationship with Nate. I want us to have an even healthier relationship by the time we have children of our own. There’s no avoiding giving your children some kind of emotional issues, but I’m doing the best I can to make sure I am a more conscious and intentional person with my words and actions by the time I do have kids. When we heal, we do it not only for ourselves, but to heal our lineage — past, present, and future.

This is an excerpt of my ebook draft about long distance relationships. In the book, I explore these topics in greater depth and share more of my personal experiences. For more writing updates and my future book release, follow me on Instagram @mestisachamorrita.