NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Why Do Core Emotional Issues Get Triggered in Romantic Relationships?

When you're involved in a serious romantic relationship, you are at your most emotionally vulnerable.  So, it's no surprise that core emotional issues often get triggered when you're in love (see my article: Relationships: Fear of Being Emotionally Vulnerable).

Why Do Core Emotional Issues Get Triggered in Romantic Relationships?

Of course, there are usually many positive emotions that come up too when you feel loved and cared about and when you feel the same way for someone else.  But many people discover that several months into the relationship (and sometimes even before that) they begin feeling vulnerable as they realize just how important their partner is to them and how hurtful it would be if it didn't work out.

This emotional vulnerability is usually felt even more acutely when either one or both people have experienced emotional trauma from the past, including family of origin issues, prior breakups or earlier losses.  These old wounds tend to get triggered in the current relationship--even though the relationship might be going very well.  And, if it isn't going well, the current problems can trigger old emotional wounds even more.

Many people find the periods of time in a relationship when it's unclear if the relationship will go to the next level the most anxiety provoking.  These transitional times can include going from casual dating to a monogamous dating, from monogamous dating to being in a committed relationship and the period from a committed relationship to living together or getting married.

If one of both people are ambivalent about the next step, it can be unnerving as each person weighs the risk of remaining emotionally open to the other.  It helps a lot if the couple can talk about it openly.  But if they can't or if their talks are unproductive, they could benefit from couples therapy.

Clinical Vignette:  Why Do Core Emotional Issues Get Triggered in Romantic Relationships?
The following fictional clinical vignette illustrates how core issues are triggered as a romantic relationship transitions from casual dating to a more committed relationship:

Ann and Ted
After they met at a party, Ann and Ted, who were both in their mid-30s, began dating casually about once a week.  During the initial few weeks, they enjoyed each other's company, especially since they had so many common interests.

Two months into the relationship, Ann realized how much she cared for Ted, and she wondered if he was seeing other women.  She wasn't sure how to bring this up. On the one hand, she didn't want Ted to think she was being too demanding of his attention but, on the other hand, she was becoming increasingly worried that as she began to really like him, he might become interested in someone else.

When her worries became greater than her fear of appearing demanding, she broached the topic with Ted over dinner.  Initially, she felt anxious and she feared taking the emotional risk of making herself vulnerable when he might not feel the same way.  But she knew she needed to address this issue, so she told Ted she thought they needed to have a talk about their relationship (see my article: Dating: Is It Time to Have the Talk?).

Upon hearing Ann's words, Ted's expression shifted and Ann could see that he looked worried, "Is everything okay between us, Ann?"  In response, Ann took the risk and told Ted that she really liked him and she would prefer it if they could date each other exclusively rather than dating other people.

When she heard Ted laugh, Ann was confused until he said, "Oh...You looked so serious--I was worried that you were going to say that you didn't want to see me anymore. I'm not dating anyone else and I feel the same way that you do."

During the next few weeks, after they talked about how much they both cared for one another, their relationship deepened, and they spent more time together than before.  With the deepening of their relationship, they enjoyed each other's company even more and made vacation plans for the summer.

However, soon after that, Ann became worried again because she realized she had fallen in love with Ted, and she worried that if their relationship didn't work out, she would be devastated.  She thought about her last long term relationship where she and her fiancĂ© had plans to get married, but their relationship fell apart just a few months before the wedding after he got "cold feet" and ended the relationship.

Even before that engagement, Ann tended to be skeptical about relationships.  Her parents divorced when she was only six months old.  Since her father disappeared from her life after the divorce, Ann never had a relationship with him.  Her mother, who never remarried or even dated after she and Ann's father were divorced, had very negative views of men.  She would constantly warn Ann not to trust men, and she even tried to discourage Ann from dating.

Although Ann rebelled against her mother's negative views about men and began dating in high school, she never felt completely free of her mother's views.  Even though she liked boys and she wanted to be in a relationship, she feared that her mother might be right.

When her fiancĂ© left her, Ann couldn't help feeling that this was a sign that her mother might be right that she shouldn't trust men.  It took Ann a couple of years to overcome the pain of that loss. She was very hesitant to get involved again, but she didn't want to resign herself of a life of being alone.  So, when she met Ted, she decided to give dating another chance.

But as her feelings for Ted grew, her fear also continued to grow.  Aside from this, she wanted to have children, and she feared that if she waited too long, she might have problems getting pregnant.

There were days when she almost wanted to end the relationship rather than face the possibility that at some point in the future he might leave her.  On a rational level, she knew that there were no signs of this but, on an emotional level, her fear became overwhelming.

They were now dating exclusively for six months, and Ann knew that Ted wouldn't initiate a conversation about where they were in their relationship.  He seemed to be content with the way things were going between them.  So, she knew she would have to do it, but she was even more fearful than she had been the first time they talked.

One night when they were out to dinner, Ted noticed that Ann was much quieter than usual, and she was just pushing the food around her plate, so he asked her, "Is something wrong, Ann?"

Ann's initial inclination was to try to smile and say that there was nothing wrong, but she couldn't do it.  She was barely holding back tears.  She knew that Ted was aware of how devastated she felt when her engagement ended suddenly because they talked about their history of relationships soon after they started dating.  But she wasn't sure if he knew about the lasting effect it had on her and how it was affecting their relationship.

With much effort, Ann told Ted about her fears of getting hurt in their relationship and how it was becoming increasingly difficult for her to cope with those fears.  While she was telling him about this, she could barely look at him because she felt so ashamed.  She was sure that he would think she was being ridiculous and that her fears would push him away.

But, to her surprise, Ted listened and he was very understanding.  Although he had never experienced the kinds of losses that Ann experienced, he was deeply moved by her fears and sadness.  He gave her the time and space she needed to express her feelings without being judgmental.  Then, he assured her that his feelings for her had deepened over time and he had no intention of leaving her.

Ann was momentarily relieved to hear this, but her fears continued to mount.  She was afraid that her fears would bring about the end of the relationship, so she suggested that they go to couples therapy.

At the recommendation of a friend, who attended Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) for couples, Ann and Ted began couples therapy.  With the help of their EFT couples therapist, they developed a better understanding of their attachment styles and how these attachment styles affected their relationship (see my article: What is Emotionally Focused Therapy (EFT) For Couples?).

After the EFT couples therapist recommended that Ann attend her own individual therapy to deal with the loss of her father, which was getting triggered in her current relationship, Ann started individual therapy.  In her individual therapy, Ann was able to separate out her family of origin experiences and losses (including the negative views about men that her mother attempted to impart on Ann) and her current experiences with Ted.

Both Ted and Ann discovered in EFT that they had different communication and attachment styles, and they learned how to communicate better (see my article: How Your Attachment Style Affects Your Relationship).

Most importantly, they learned how to be emotionally vulnerable with each other in order to ask for what they needed from one another and to enhance their relationship (see my article: EFT Couple Therapy: Learning to Ask For What You Need From Your Partner).

At the same time, Ann got more comfortable with trusting that, even though she knew there were no guarantees, things would work out between them, especially once she was no longer triggered.

Core issues, including emotional insecurities, old emotional wounds, and negative beliefs about oneself, often get triggered in romantic relationships because people are most vulnerable when they open themselves to loving another person.

When there is a history of loss and emotional trauma, it's not unusual for these issues to enter into the relationship and cause one or both people to become fearful of getting hurt.

Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples, which has been well researched, is an effective couples therapy to work out these and other relationship issues.

When one or both people have previous trauma that is affecting the current relationship, it's often beneficial to also seek help in individual therapy.

Getting Help in Therapy
Fear due to previous losses and trauma often have a significant negative impact on romantic relationships.

Being able to separate out the trauma from the past from the current relationship is difficult to do when someone is being triggered.  It takes the expertise of a trained trauma therapist or EFT couple therapist to begin to help people to uncouple these issues.

Understanding that you and your partner might have different attachment styles and how these attachment styles affect your relationship is an important component of EFT couples therapy.

If you're having problems in your relationship, rather than allowing your relationship to deteriorate, you owe it to yourself and your partner to get help so you can have a more fulfilling, loving relationship.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I am trained in Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples and I have found it to be an effective modality for helping couples to overcome their problems.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.