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Subliminal or Nonobvious Triggers

an Excerpt from From Triggered to Tranquil by Susan Campbell

Long-term intimate relationships can develop unhealthy patterns that may go unnoticed for many years. In addition to recognizing reactive cycles, look out for these less obvious bad habits.

Intimate partners become subconsciously attuned to what pleases and displeases their partner. Each person feels safe when their partner is happy, in a good mood, or attending to them. They feel less safe when their partner is upset or not attending to them. At the extreme, this can develop into a codependent relationship, in which each person focuses so much on their partner’s state that they lose touch with their own authentic feelings and needs. Each person tries to please and appease their partner rather than be true to themselves. Partnerships vary quite a bit with regard to how codependent they are.

This relates to the survival alarm system in our brains, which is always scanning for rifts in connection with “the one we depend on.” Over time, if rifts go unrepaired and reactive fear-stories go unexamined, partners can come to see each other through the lens of their core fear. They think things like “I don’t matter to them,” “I’m too much,” “I’m a disappointment,” “I’m not enough.” After a while, people can come to believe that their fear-story is true, and they become very sensitive to anything their partner does that even remotely relates to this unconscious fear/belief. They “see” evidence of it everywhere. They no longer feel safe, as if there are landmines everywhere. Both partners may live in a chronic state of vigilance, anxiety, or lack of ease. But they aren’t conscious of this because they’ve gotten so used to it. The truth is they are both subliminally triggered pretty much all of the time. To fix this problem, they need to bring more awareness to subtle signs of triggering in their partnership.

Subtle Signs of Triggering

There are many subtle signs of triggering that most people would not recognize as trigger reactions. These subtle irritants can increase over time if unrepaired ruptures mount. For example, say a woman asks her partner to sit down and talk. He agrees, but he does not show the level of enthusiasm that the woman is hoping for. So she thinks, He really doesn’t want to talk, and she tells him, “Hey, it can wait.” Due to her lifelong insecurities, plus a backlog of unrepaired relationship ruptures between them, she has gotten to the point where she is vigilant for any sign that she is not important to him. She sees “rejection” everywhere. She does not entertain the possibility that his modest level of enthusiasm may have nothing to do with how he feels about her request.

While the woman in this example doesn’t have an obvious reaction, she is triggered nonetheless. When she says, “It can wait,” that is a reactive behavior based on a reactive story. In this case, the fear-story is that her partner really does not want to talk, that he’s not really interested in her, that she doesn’t matter or is not very important to him. She doesn’t reveal these fears because she may not even be aware of them herself. She reacts automatically, having gotten into the habit of watching his reactions carefully for signs of disinterest. Her fear-story guides her expectations and actions, and pretty soon she may stop asking for attention altogether, or she may only ask in very indirect ways. With every incident like this one, the woman’s fear-story gets reinforced, becoming more and more entrenched in her unconscious mind. She preemptively chooses not to expect too much, not to depend on him, and not to trust that he cares. Eventually, she will develop an unconscious pattern of leaving him alone and not asking for much.

As distancing habits like this continue, partners feel less safe and more guarded with each other. Many couples suffer through this type of communication every day, thinking this is just the way it is. Over time, unexamined reactive stories may get expanded; in this example, the woman might come to view her partner as self-centered, uncaring, even narcissistic.

If you suspect that you and your partner have become accustomed to living with subliminal triggers, it’s time to have a serious talk. Here are some ideas for how to approach this talk:

  1. Start by saying you want to explore whether subliminal triggering is occurring between you. If your partner doesn’t know what this is, explain the concept: Over time in a relationship, partners collect data about which bids for attention or connection work well and which not so well. Partners use this data to assess what’s safe to bring up, and they may stop asking for the things they think the partner cannot give or is not interested in giving. Ask your partner what they think of this idea, and share your own thoughts, plus any specific examples you notice from your relationship.

  2. Emphasize that one result of this dynamic is that people often express their needs indirectly. The wife doesn’t come right out and say to her husband, “You are working long hours, and this leaves me alone with the kids a lot. I miss you. I need to feel we’re a team. I want you to work less and spend more time with us.” She might merely hint, criticize, or complain without directly asking in an openhearted way. Invite your partner to consider whether you both might be guilty of indirect asking.

  3. Then invite your partner to have a conversation focused on a series of questions that you both ask of yourselves. Start by asking, “What was I hoping for or wanting when we first got together that I have stopped wanting or expecting?” Before you begin sharing your responses, be sure your nervous system is calm and relaxed and your mind is open and curious. Be ready to pause and self-calm at the first sign of triggering. Take turns being the talker and the listener. Do not interrupt, and perhaps agree that each person gets five minutes, more or less. After you have both had a turn to talk, debrief this step of the exercise. Each person should share what they noticed about their feelings, sensations, and self-talk during the exercise — for example, did any familiar fears come up? You may want to take a break before going on to the next question.

  4. Next, consider the question: “Can you recall at least one specific situation where you wanted something from your partner (such as time with them or time away from them), but you were pretty sure you knew what your partner’s response would be, so you did not mention it?” Again, both of you should answer and take turns talking and listening.

  5. Finally, consider the specific incidents you each just named and ask yourselves: “If I could do it over, and if I felt completely safe that I could deal with your answer, no matter what it was, how might I ask for what I want or express my need or concern? What would I actually say?”

  6. After you have both responded to and discussed your answers to these questions, share ideas about how to help each other feel safer to ask for time or attention (or anything). If triggering happens during this, be ready to pause, self-calm, self-soothe, and repair. Then, debrief the whole exercise — giving each other time to share what you noticed about your own feelings, sensations, stories, and triggers. 

Partners who regularly check in with each other like this find that it gets easier over time to speak about and listen to difficult disclosures. Fears get reassured. The need to defend, protect, or play it safe dissolves. And paradoxically, the less you play it safe, the safer you both feel.


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Excerpted from the book From Triggered to Tranquil. © Copyright 2021 by Susan Campbell. Reprinted with permission from New World Library.


About the author: Susan Campbell, PhD, is the author of eleven books on relationships and conflict resolution. She leads seminars internationally and has appeared on CNN’s NewsNight and Good Morning America. Dr. Campbell has also directed a think tank, run nonprofit organizations, consulted to Fortune 500 companies, and guest lectured at the Harvard, Stanford, and UCLA business schools. She works with private clients through her relationship coaching practice and lives in Sonoma County, California. More information at

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