Flight or fight is the instinctive physiological response to an external threat. It is a reaction that no doubt has very early evolutionary roots. When fight or flight kicks in the human brain does not take time to weigh the circumstances because a very quick response can mean survival. Of course, the lack of reflection means that in many cases the body is overreacting. With experience, most learn to quickly recover from the first flush of flight or fight and find an appropriate response. It is a balance.
Fight or flight or something akin to it can also come about when a person experiences sharp, chronic romantic trauma. Those who were in relationships where they felt emotionally abused, physically or sexually threatened or assaulted understandably may have developed an acute sensitivity to the cues that preceded these events. Even when they manage to extricate themselves from a bad relationship, they may retain the learned impulse to react without reflection to any hint of a repeat.
As a result, the distress they experienced in their bad relationship now gets triggered inappropriately in new situations with other people. If this describes you, you may in the moment feel a dreadful sense of deja vu and react quite negatively. While it may feel like the exact same situation, later as you reflect you recognize that it was not the same situation at all. This often makes people feel ashamed or guilty for mistreating a current and healthier partner. Here are 4 ways to assess if your past romantic trauma is getting triggered in your current relationship and how to start processing the original trauma.
1. If you suffered a betrayal through cheating in your past romantic relationship, you may find yourself in a panic when you are out of touch with your partner. You frantically text, call, and otherwise do whatever possible to discover their whereabouts. Instead of allowing yourself to engage these futile behaviors (futile because these behaviors won’t actually help you to feel safe and at ease but beget more anxiety), take a step back and work through the hurt you suffered in your last relationship. Consider talking to your new partner about how you were betrayed and what you need to feel safe in your current relationship. Talk with him/her about how you are working on not letting this old experience taint your new one.
2. If you suffered emotional abuse in your past romantic relationships, it would not be unusual if conflict in your new relationship triggers an overreaction. Your current partner may just be expressing normal feelings that need to get out, but for you it feels as if the walls are caving in. You may panic or live in a state of fear about upsetting your partner. The possibility of an argument paralyzes you. Instead, work on noticing how your partner is communicating upset to you, instead of assuming it’s the same old thing look for differences. Is he/she more sensitive to you or is he/she still able to see the good in you even when upset with you? And remind yourself all couples have conflict and even if someone is upset, you can work things through without it be becoming a crisis.
3. If you suffered physical abuse or sexual assault in your past romantic relationships then you are susceptible to having negative emotions triggered by physical closeness or touch. If your past partner hurt you physically or made you feel as if you were physically disgusting and had no worth, then sexual interactions will become emotionally painful. Many in this situation leave the encounter by disconnecting and tuning out. Before engaging in a romantic relationship, consider that your body and brain need time to heal to feel safe again. It is simply unrealistic that you can go from physical mistreatment to feeling safe while being physically vulnerable with a new partner. Take a break, talk to a therapist to help you work through the trauma. Do not force yourself to engage physically, if you are not fully on board then each new sexual experience is only adding to that original trauma.
4. If your past partner was controlling over you and overly domineering, then you likely become triggered when a partner tells you what to do, how to feel or how to act. Sometimes your partner may not actually be trying to control you, but may merely be expressing an opinion. Nonetheless, the triggering may send you into flight or fight. You may tune out while they are talking, ignore them or appear paralyzed. Instead, try to communicate with your partner about what you are noticing about yourself and how loaded the idea of control is for you (in my workbook, Toxic Love, I describe specific strategies for escaping toxic love dynamics). Instead of blaming them, see if they can understand where you are coming from and if they will consider ways to communicate opinions and desires that feel less domineering to you and are less likely to trigger your overreaction.
Jill Weber, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in Washington, D.C. and the author of The Relationship Formula Workbook Series.