Episode 94: Clashing Triggers

It triggers you to open the relationship but it triggers your partner to close it. Is there any way to solve it?

It triggers you to open the relationship but it triggers your partner to close it. Is there any way to solve it?

That’s what’s on this week’s episode of Non-Monogamy Help.

Discussion Topic:

Do you know triggers you in relationships?

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Thank you to Chris Albery-Jones at albery-jones.com for the theme music and a big thanks for the podcast art to Dom Duong at domduong.com.

Podcast transcript

I have been in a monogamous relationship with the love of my life since I was about 16. So 23 years. And last year, we opened our marriage, mostly because of my, my request and and wanting to enrich our relationships and really try to, you know, deeply bond, I think we developed a very

codependent relationship growing up because we didn't really have

family systems modelled to us that were, you know, that taught us any other way. So we kind of created a way.

And I think that as it happens Non-Monogamy can also expose some pretty incredible trauma. And we both realize that our job is pretty overwhelming irony is that my trauma is triggered by my partner opening relationship with other people because of deep, deep abandonment fears. And his trauma is actually triggered by not being able to have those relationships with.

And so you're kind of in a conundrum, because I love him so deeply. I was just wondering, if you think that there's any hope for the two of us being in a non non monogamous relationship when we are triggering each other's traumas constantly. And I feel like I'm dying can I do all about attachment and regulation and everything, and I'm just working really hard, but I just I don't feel a lot of hope.

And I really want to make this work. And I really want to be able to find myself and be secure in my own life. And I want that for him too. So I just wondered if you had any tips or ideas for how you might be able to work through that. Thank you.


Firstly, I want to say that I'm really really sorry that you're going through this I can obviously tell by the sound of your voice that this is incredibly upsetting and incredibly difficult. And yeah, I'm sorry that you're going through this. There's no other way I can kind of express that other than I'm really really sorry.

The first thing that I thought of when I listened through your question is relationships are triggering. In general. It makes sense that they are going to be triggering. I don't know what your partner is feeling in terms of this, but you're not going to find a relationship that doesn't awake something in you.

And that is for anyone whether or not they really identify with having quote unquote, trauma or not. It makes a lot of sense that relationships can stir things up in us. We are relational creatures. We grow up in relationships, we survive because of our relationships. And we have very, very strong instincts to have relationships, maintain them and for a very big part of our overall development as a species, if we were excluded from our group, we were dead.

So it makes a lot of sense that a lot of the issues that we deal with are pretty much relational. That makes sense. So if you and your partner are thinking that non-monogamy itself is going to be the issue. I think that obviously it does bring up certain things as you mentioned, but any relationship is going to be “triggering”. And even though you tell me that your partner's trauma is “activated” or I can't remember the specific word you use by not being able to explore non-monogamy which I guess for him he has some sort of commitment issue or a little bit maybe a FOMO thing something about missing out on that. I don't necessarily think that that is just going to instantly be solved by being non-monogamous just like you being monogamous wouldn't necessarily instantly solve any of your issues.

So that's one thing that I think would help ground you both is that the issue here is not necessarily just a simple matter of opening the relationship, but that any relationship you pursue even if you were to break up would likely continue to trigger that problem. The issue isn't necessarily you being together, although obviously I don't have the full info of what's going on within your relationship.

If you are happy relationally with one another, if you enjoy your time spent together and you see this being issues, regardless of whether or not it's you two together, then I do think that that can be somewhat of a grounding thing first to realise that relationships are triggering, regardless of what type they are. And you can't necessarily escape that. The thing that I'm kind of wondering about the trajectory of your relationship, and what might be worth thinking about -- because I very much disagree with the idea of closing relationships to solve problems.

Quite often I think that people are monogamous. They open their relationship. It doesn't go exactly the way that they planned. So they close it to “fix the problem” and it doesn't fix the problem because they essentially have to learn how to solve the problem whilst they're in the relationship. I really wish I understood cars and how it worked. But let's say that like something— your engine light wasn't turning on, or was turning on or something was happening whilst the car was running and you brought it into the mechanic and they just decided to keep it off and never turn it on.

Well, if the problem is happening whilst the car is on, then you probably have to keep it on in order to see what the problem is. So I don't always necessarily agree with closing the relationship. I think sometimes that just delays the inevitable. And sometimes I think that creates this cycle where opening the relationship causes a lot of fear, causes a lot of anxiety. People aren't prepared for that. They close the relationship, the anxiety goes away, because technically the threat that caused the anxiety is now gone.

But then when you open it, it's right back there again. It's kind of like you know, when you have a tattoo, I think that's the that's the thing I know about. If you have a tattoo and you have a little bit of a break, it doesn't necessarily mean that the rest of the tattoo is not going to hurt. So I don't think that that is a helpful thing. However, in your specific case, what makes me really wonder is that you said that your relationship was codependent and I don't know if that's your personal definition or how your partner feels about it.

But it makes me really wonder that if you think your relationship is codependent that to me means that there's a problem foundationally with the relationship that you're in, and if there's a problem foundationally within the relationship you’re in, would you decide to have a child? Would you decide that that was a good time to start a family? I think that sometimes people think that opening a relationship is not as big of a deal as a child but actually it kind of is sometimes.

Having a child and introducing a child into a relationship, whether through adoption or any other means is a relationship stressor. That's not to say that it's a bad thing, but it is something that stresses the relationship because it changes your lifestyle. It changes how you have previously related together and it redefines a relationship in a lot of ways. Opening your relationship is also a stressor. So when you already have a foundation that is not a way that you would prefer it to be I assume you don't want your relationship to be codependent.

I'm not sure why opening it would then be a good idea. Now it may be that you didn't really think about that at the time. It seemed like a good idea yada yada. It wasn't necessarily that opening the relationship would “solve” the codependency. But I do think that if both you and your partner considered your relationship before you opened to not be great or to have some foundational problems, then you have those foundational problems and you will have them whether or not you are open or not.

And that is something that needs to be worked on. My question is — I can absolutely understand if you both want to be together and if you both see a future with each other and you both want to work hard to be together because not all relationships are happiness and rainbows and as much as I do believe in relationships absolutely fulfilling your life. That doesn't mean they don't take work. And that doesn't mean there aren't downsides and I'm sure you know that. If you both are looking at this as a part where you need to work together to make things better. Is he willing to work on those problems?

Or is his solution just “I have to open this relationship up because it not being open is triggering my anxiety or or triggering my trauma”, whatever that specifically means? I'm not quite sure what exactly that specifically means. And the thing I kind of worry about a little bit is that and I'm not saying your partner is doing this, but I do worry that in just saying things like “this is triggering my trauma” like I wish to be more specific about what that means.

Because just because something causes us to have a reaction doesn't mean we are beholden to that reaction. And it doesn't mean we have to basically act in a way that appeases that reaction or else. So is your partner willing to work on this with you? And is your partner willing to work on this whether or not you are open or not? I'm not going to say whether or not you should stay open or not because there's a lot of other things to consider.

But I would be really, really concerned if this was clearly an issue and it was an issue before we opened and I had a partner who was more concerned with making sure their trauma wasn't being “triggered” then fixing the original problem with the relationship that was there before you opened, which was that you were codependent according to your own description. If you initiated the opening of the relationship there's no reason for him to necessarily believe that you wouldn't be interested in that again.

I could understand if he initiated the opening. And then you had an understandable freakout for whatever reason and then you asked to close and he didn't want to because you maybe don't want non-monogamy and that can cause a lot of issues there. But he didn't initiate it from what you said. You initiated it. So there's a reason to trust that even if you are focusing more on repairing your relationship together than trying to get new dates, that this might change in the future.

Maybe you don't have to decide whether it's open or closed right now, but you do need to decide if you're going to actually devote some time into addressing this issue and if your partner is a little bit more concerned with spending nights out on dates, then committing to working together on this then I would be a little bit concerned. I'm also concerned a little bit with the story that you're telling yourself because I see this happen quite a lot in non-monogamy communities and sex positive communities in queer communities.

I see basically people creating a narrative of themselves that perpetuates a type of learned helplessness. And there's a really great account if you are on Instagram, called yourdiagnonsense, and it's a psychologist named Todd and he has some really great posts about attachment theory and about how basically abandonment as an adult is not the same as it is for children.

When we are children we rely on adults to take care of us therefore we can be abandoned because we rely on them for survival. As adults, we don't rely on them for survival. And all of our adult relationships are inherently insecure because the adults in them can leave at any time which is their right. So creating the story that you are a traumatised person that is being triggered by abandonment.

I wonder if that is necessarily helping you because it might just be characterising you as an entire person by something that is probably a result of how you grew up or what you've been through and creating an entire identity around that or telling that to yourself as a story repeatedly might be keeping you back a little bit. I'm not saying that this isn't happening to you. I'm not saying you don’t— I'm not saying that abandonment isn't something that makes you feel afraid or the idea or perception of being abandoned.

But I want you to think about maybe paying more attention to the story that you're telling yourself because sometimes in telling yourself a certain story, you are sometimes limiting yourself in terms of your response. And I know personally that the expectation that I'm going to feel jealous or when I have had partners that treat me as though I'm this sort of delicate button that you know if it gets pressed it's going to explode. I hate being treated that way because the expectation that I'm going to be too emotional or have a problem sometimes already makes me feel uncomfortable.

So I don't like telling that self telling that story to myself. And I think it might be worth you thinking about that. Now when it comes to what you can do. As I said, the biggest thing that matters is is your partner willing to work on the problems that you've had since the beginning of your relationship? Are you both committed to being together for the long haul, however long haul that might be? And if you are committed to that, is your partner demonstrating through actions rather than through your fears that he is committed to that?

Can you both maybe look for a couples therapist that you can go to to talk through some things? I think that there is a very bigger need here beyond just an advice columnist. I think that there is a need here for a therapist to talk through this story you're telling yourself about being afraid of abandonment. I have no doubts that you have a fear of being abandoned. I'm not trying to discount that. But I do think that even the “healthiest” person mentally deciding to try non-monogamy even if they want to try it, I do very much think they will feel anxious and I see a lot of times when it comes to trying non-monogamy especially from the people who have initiated it, and especially from the people who want it they often have the expectation that they will not have any struggle or difficult feelings.

And when they do have those feelings, they feel immensely guilty and struggle with it almost more than the people who expect themselves to be anxious because they're the ones that initiated it and they have no idea what to deal with the fact that now they are in it. They're really really struggling. And really sometimes what it is is a false expectation of themselves in that they believe that they should as a person who has grown up in a monogamous society (and I assume that you have and if I'm wrong, I apologise) they expect that they should just be able to be non monogamous with no issue and no feelings and no fears.

And sometimes they over assume that because they have issues and because they have fears that can't do non-monogamy or that they're deeply flawed, when actually I think that it's very, very normal. And very, very— as much as I hate the word normal — it's very very typical for people to experience fear of their partner leaving them in non-monogamy, fear of losing their partner. This is so freakin normal. So I wonder if you painting this picture of yourself of someone who is terrified of abandonment — Is this maybe a normal reaction to a person who has grown up in a monogamous centric society facing the fact that they are not monogamous anymore and having to deal with that and cope with that?

There are going to be people who take to non-monogamy like a duck on water and don't have very much fear. And I don't know what your situation is like I don't know if you open the relationship and your partner happened to find partners really quickly but you didn't so maybe it's super easy for your partner to be mentally okay with it because they haven't had to see you go into a different relationship yet so — but you have and now it's all kind of hitting you in the face like a sack of bricks. I'm not sure but it's very, very normal for you to feel scared.

It's very, very normal to be afraid of your partner leaving you even if you're monogamous. It's very, very, very normal. And there's lots of reasons for that. I do have a one on one article on my site. Non-Monogamy help.com. Also in my book, The Anxious Persons Guide to Non-Monogamy goes through the process of what I call finding your anchor. And that is one of the beginning things that you can do that helps you ground yourself. And I also talk a lot about the fact that you are going to feel afraid.

And sometimes the expectation that you shouldn't feel afraid sets you up for failure. So maybe you aren't necessarily someone who is terrified of abandonment. Maybe you're just a normal person who is experiencing a huge fear of losing their partner in a very understandable way. There's another thing I talk about in the one on one article that might be really, really helpful for you, especially if you very much identify as a person who's afraid of abandonment.

Generally speaking, and it'll be different for every single person because obviously everyone has their individual issues, most people are going to be afraid of losing their partner or they're going to be afraid of being replaced. And this is for a lot of reasons. Primarily, like I said, we live in a monogamous centric society. Not only do we live in a monogamous centric society, but we live in a society that tells us that we must compete to find the right partner. We must consume the right things. We must look a certain way and that this whole process of finding a partner is a game that we must win, and we won't win it if we don't consume consume you know.

And so that paints a picture and is exactly why I find it really competitive and am really competitive at the beginning of relationships, as I said in the discussion question, but that whole setup really encourages us to create a hierarchy and monogamy can be the ultimate hierarchy, right? But the thing about a hierarchy and even when people create hierarchies within polyamory, is that if you can be the queen on the top of the hierarchy, you can also be knocked down and replaced and so it makes sense to feel a certain amount of threat by the idea of non-monogamy because the entire point of you know, being on the top of that totem pole and being the one who gets appointed is that you're the only one your partner has a romantic interest in.

You're the only one your partner has sex with. And so when that becomes not true, that really sends the whole system into chaos. And your brain which is programmed to help you survive, is programmed to keep you from being socially excluded, is programmed to literally I mean, I don't know the exact scientific study but look it up. When humans experience social exclusion, it activates the same centers in our brain that pain does. We have very, very strong drives to be with a group and be with relationships to be in relationships.

So it makes total sense that that in and of itself will cause you to be afraid. Furthermore to that. I personally believe that if you grew up in a situation or experienced very long relationship where you didn't get the attention you need, you were abandoned at that point, then it makes sense for your brain to go, “Okay. The parent or caregiver” — and this is specifically for parents, not necessarily for other long relationships. So I think sometimes it can have a similar effect depending on the culture.

But if you have a parent that isn't giving you what you need as a child and is abandoning you, then your brain goes, “Okay, well, we need to survive. And what makes the most sense? If we do certain things, maybe we can keep that person around. Maybe the parent will pay attention, maybe the parent will start to care”. It makes sense for your brain to go to there instead of going, “The parent will never support us and therefore we are hopeless” because your brain is trying to survive. It's not going to tell you something that's just going to completely and utterly destroy you.

There is usually a method behind madness and your brain trying to say “Okay, there's something we can do to change the behavior of our caregiver” and sometimes that works. Sometimes depending on the caregiver. If you do certain things you will get attention and that reinforces that and that helps you survive in the moment. That helps you understand that there is something I can do. I don't have to give up. Not everything is hopeless, and that is much better than being completely and utterly hopeless.

And so when you take that on into adult relationships, which as Todd Baratz says which I agree with are insecure by nature, because partners are grown adults, you’re a grown adult and if they don't feel that the relationship is working for them, they can leave and they should leave. Then you are going to believe that you can do something to prevent partners from leaving. And you can go through many relationships believing because it makes you feel better that if you do X Y Z my partner will stay. If I do this, my partner will stay and the culture that teaches you that you must compete reinforces this, if you do XYZ if you look XYZ if you consume XYZ you will be more attractive, your partner will stay blah, blah, blah.

But the truth of the matter is and what I talk about in the 101 and 102 articles, is that there is only so much you can do to keep someone in your life. Should you be a nice person? Yes, you shouldn't go up to your partner and tell them that they're ugly or something horrible. Like, I'm not saying that, you know, it's never your fault. If someone you know leaves you especially if you've been nasty to them. I'm not saying that.

What I'm saying is that short of doing your best to be a partner who is devoted to you know, giving the proper attention to the relationship, caring about your partner, being kind, showing them compassion, empathy, paying attention to them. You know, and you're probably already doing those things. You can't always control that. You can't keep your partner there. You could give them every bit of compassion and empathy and do everything by the books and never ever do anything wrong.

You could take to Non-Monogamy like a duck on water and you could never have any jealousy whatsoever. That in and of itself is not a guarantee. And this is another reason that non-monogamy can be so triggering for lots of people is because the system that is given to us within monogamy is socially encouraged it is with a script, a cultural script that tells you that if you do this, if you do this, this, this. You know, you get married, you have kids, you do all of these things and that reinforces a sense of safety within you that reinforces the idea that, “okay, we've done this and now we're together and things are okay”.

When really that's not necessarily true. There's nothing about getting married, that means that you're going to be together forever. There's nothing about having kids that means that you're going to be together forever. But because you're following a cultural script and because you have all of society going like “This is the right thing to do”. You definitely have a sense of security there. When you're in non monogamy. You have no such thing you have no security there. You have to create that security within yourself and you are not given any tools to how to do that.

You have to completely come up with that on your own. Of course you're frickin afraid. Of course you are. Why wouldn't you be? You're now doing something that you have no cultural script for. There are no romance movies about non-monogamy. There is literally nothing. You've spent most of your life probably imagining yourself in a monogamous relationship because that's what you've been told you should have. And then now you're trying something completely different. Of course, you're freaked out about that.

Of course your brain is like, “Oh my god, we're gonna be left. This is everything against what we've been told that we're supposed to do. We're going to be left alone and scared and I don't want you to be in a bad place. So I'm going to freak out so that you pay attention to this because this is new and I'm scared” like, of course you're freaked out. So the thing that really, really helped me with this is releasing myself from the responsibility to keep anyone in my life and that again, doesn't mean that I am a dickhead to anybody.

I still try to be a nice person because I want to be. I still do things for people. I still want to have good relationships, but I understand that the decision for someone to leave me romantically, the decision for someone to reject me, the decision for all of that is not something I can control by being good — or as Clementine Morrigan says the problem can't be solved by me being good because the problem is not that I am bad. If I said that correctly, apologies to Clementine, if I paraphrase that horribly. You can't fix the problem of your partner leaving you by behaving in a good way, because that is not what controls that.

If your partner wants to leave you, if somebody wants to leave you, if somebody wants to reject you there are lots of complicated reasons why they might do that. Yes, if you decide to call your partner names and spit on them when they haven't consented to that they might leave. Definitely. And you can control your behaviors. You can control your actions. You can control how you treat your partners and how much energy and you know care and love you show them but you can’t ultimately control whether or not your partner decides to stay.

That is their decision. And that is why adult relationships are insecure because your partner doesn't have to be there and doesn't require — you don't require your partner to be there to you know, raise you as a child does. So really being able to understand that it's not your responsibility to keep someone around and that you can't fix that by behaving well is extremely relieving. Because the thing about this survival mechanism in your brain is that yes, temporarily believing that you can control somebody's behaviour relieves some of the stress in your head.

If you believe that you can attract the right person by just putting on a hat or doing something that makes you feel a hell of a lot better than feeling like it's hopeless. But if you inherently buy into this belief that you can control whether or not somebody stays through your behaviour, you can't do that without also blaming yourself for every time somebody else left. And that isn't helpful for your brain in the long term. Right now your brains just trying to survive. You're trying something brand new. And I mean, I don't know maybe you did grew up in a non-monogamous household. I could be wrong.

But for the vast majority of us, we grew up in a monogamous centric society that gives us a very specific cultural script of how we're meant to grow up and meet somebody and fall in love and do this, that and the other thing and when we don't follow that cultural script, we have to figure it out within ourselves how we define a milestone. What does it mean to be together? And so it makes a lot of sense that you would be afraid to be left or abandoned or for your partner to go and you've had this relationship for a long time.

You've mentioned that you describe this relationship as codependent so there may also be other issues there. Of course, you're going to be afraid of losing this relationship. But another thing that I share in my book that I also feel helped me a lot when it came to my own anxiety is when I'm anxious about something I'm not actually anxious about the thing that I'm anxious about. So for example, if I'm anxious that I'm going to have an allergic reaction to something and my throat is going to close or something like that, I used to have really bad anxiety around that.

I'm not actually anxious about that. And that seems crazy. Like what are you talking about? Of course, it's my throat closing that I'm afraid of? What? What I'm actually anxious about is that I'm not going to be able to handle it. That's really at the core of the vast majority of anxiety is a lack of self trust. It's “I’m not going to be able to handle this”. And so when you are able instead of trying to argue against anxiety, which is why I feel like a lot of beginner non-monogamy resources are unhelpful Is that what it tells you is like “tell yourself that you're unique and you're beautiful, and there's nothing that another person can give that you can give because you are so special”.

And I think that that's great and that probably does help a little bit. But that isn't addressing the disease, that's addressing the symptom. The disease is that you at a core may feel like losing this relationship would be incredibly difficult for you to the point that you don't feel like you could be there for yourself, or you don't feel like you could handle it, but actually you've handled a hell of a lot of things. I'm pretty sure that from the sound of what you've just said, you have dealt with a lot.

And if you have any form of anxiety, then you definitely deal with a lot all the time. And part of the way that you can address anxiety in a way that's actually helpful instead of trying to reason with it is to say to it, “Okay, but I've been here before. I've been through this before”, and that can be extremely helpful. It doesn't mean that anxiety doesn't ever come up. Like you can definitely be in situations — and that's why I said relationships are triggering regardless because you're definitely going to feel scared.

You're not going to just suddenly be unafraid. And if you're expecting that of yourself before you open or to be perfectly happy all the time. I think that that's not fair on yourself to expect all the time. But you can get to a point where when you are afraid, then you know how to sit with emotion. Let it pass you and it doesn't have to upend everything and that comes with time. And that comes with therapy in my experience.

So, to sum up, first things first, if you or your partner are expecting relationships to not “trigger” or upset you, I think that you are unlikely to find a relationship that doesn't so this being something that is upsetting you both isn't a reason to give up. Second thing is that if you've described a relationship as codependent before you open your relationship I think that it's worth recognising from you both that foundationally you have an issue and that needs to be fixed whether or not you describe your relationship as open or not.

Third thing is I really hope that your partner is willing to work on that foundation. Are you committed to each other regardless of the definition of your relationship? Are you committed to each other and if you are, can you both make steps towards maybe finding a couples therapist? Maybe talking about some of your issues? I do kind of really feel like there's a couples therapist needed here. I don't think that this is a problem that might be able to be solved by you both because it seems like you both are really upset.

So I think that if you're both willing to pause things for a bit, and I normally don't say that that would be a good idea. But I think that if you initiated the opening of the relationship, then there's no reason to feel like you would always want it to be closed. And if you can work on a compromise. Maybe you pause things for two months, or after a certain number of sessions with a therapist. I think that if you're both willing to work towards opening and you're both willing to work towards strengthening the foundation you have with each other then that's a really good sign.

I think you need to pay attention to the story that you're telling yourself, maybe follow yourdiagnonsense on Instagram, and really think about how you're telling yourself certain things and how that might be limiting to you. And last but not least, you can check out the 101 on 102 articles on my site Non-Monogamy help.com. I also have the Anxious Person's Guide to Non-Monogamy which has very clear exercises for people just starting out. That might be really helpful for you.

And release what you can't control. Release the expectation on yourself to keep not only your partner around but anybody in your life. And that is really scary. But when you understand that there's only so much you can do it is also super freeing and it will also help you I think more so in the long run than trying to convince yourself of your uniqueness as how some non-monogamy resources kind of instruct you to do. So yeah. Those are my kind of overall points and again, like I'm so sorry to hear that you're going through this.

I really hear the devastation in your voice and I really hope that you're able to find maybe check out BetterHelp you're able to find a couples therapist that can really work with you two , because I think if you're both committed to making things work, then you'll definitely get there. It could be that you are incompatible eventually, but you never know. And I think that if you're both willing to work at it, then I think you should make a go of it and take things one step at a time. Try not to decide everything all at once. And yeah, I hope that helps and good luck.

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