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You’re in your car and half-listening to the radio, when a few familiar notes begin to play. Before you know it, you’re reeling with emotion.
It’s just a song, of course, but it’s also way more than that. It’s a trigger. And all of a sudden, you’re drowning in repressed memories of your former love.
Adele’s comeback single, “Hello,” is a nod to that flood of emotions that can carry you back to an old flame. Perhaps one of your exes came to mind when you heard the song. According to a recent poll of 41,000 respondents from dating site WhatsYourPrice.com, 64 percent of women and 17 percent of men were inspired to patch things up with an ex after listening to the song.
Triggers can be deceiving, tugging at your heartstrings while blurring the reasons you decided to break up. They can also threaten your state of mind, your present happiness, even your current relationship if you impulsively act upon one. So before you pick up the phone and dial like Adele, let’s consider why we experience triggers in the first place and learn how to stop them from making you do something you’ll (probably) regret.
The Science Behind ‘Triggers’
A trigger is anything that reminds you of your ex and sets off a whirl of emotions — and it can lurk anywhere and everywhere. It can hit you at any time, without notice. It can be song lyrics or a melody. It can be the restaurant you used to go to on your anniversary; the flavor of Ben & Jerry’s only he seemed to love; suddenly seeing her mom at the DMV.
According to Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, anything that creates a memory can eventually turn into a trigger. “Because romantic partners are an important part of your life, these memories have a strong emotional component that come with them,” he tells Yahoo Health.
You’re more likely to experience a trigger if your love life is in some way unsettled, says Karla Ivankovich, an adjunct professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Springfield. If we have fears about a new relationship or our status in general, we might think more about our exes. “Angst comes from fear of the unknown,” she tells Yahoo Health. “Your ex is something you know.”
Ivankovich says we’ll often wind up thinking about an ex to fill a void like boredom or loneliness, if there are still unresolved feelings like guilt or anger we wish to repair, or out of pettiness. “Sometimes the ex has moved on and the old flame is none too happy,” Ivankovich says. “It’s that breakup mantra of, ‘I don’t want you, but I don’t want anyone else to have you, either.’”
“You may look toward an ex as a signal of safety, companionship, or physical closeness,” adds Markman. “In those moments, you may feel like the negatives of your ex are outweighed by ways they might fill needs you have right now — of course, once you satisfy that current need, the other factors ascend again, and that can lead to mixed feelings about engaging with your ex again, even as a friend.”
How Triggers of the Past Can Affect the Present
Imagine your ex is a dark-haired, blue-eyed musician. After you break up, you meet another guy — dark hair, blue eyes, artist-type. You might be attracted to creative men with that James Dean daydream look in their eyes, but this also might spell trouble.
The reason? A little thing called “transference,” which is essentially “when feelings that you have for someone become directed at someone else,” says Marisa T. Cohen, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at St. Francis College and co-founder of the Self-Awareness and Bonding Lab. “This can also happen when we transfer our feelings from one person to the next. This may occur when our new partner resembles our ex — which may be physical or in terms of their personality.”
In this sense, “people themselves can be triggers in large part due to this transference,” she explains.
However, the qualities that attract you to the same type of partner can also trigger incorrect assumptions based on past experiences. Cohen says she’s seen many people struggle with transference triggers, projecting an ex’s qualities onto a new partner — both positive and negative. “Our past relationships, and the feelings we had for a significant other, can transfer to a subsequent relationship and ultimately have a profound effect on the new romantic relationship,” she explains.
She gives one example of a close friend beginning a new relationship after her ex cheated on her. “In her particular case, her new boyfriend was very similar to her previous boyfriend — not in terms of cheating, but in terms of the characteristics which attracted her to him,” she says. “Those issues that surfaced in the previous relationship automatically got connected with her new significant other.”
Maybe your ex is a charming workaholic, who regularly failed to deliver on promises about a romantic Valentine’s Day. Now imagine that your current partner, who shares many of your ex’s hard-working quirks, mentions working late in the days leading up to Feb. 14. Suddenly, old baggage reemerges, says Cohen: “If you judge a person by negative experiences you had in the past, you may not be giving them a fair shot. Or, being overly optimistic about a new partner, based on past positive associations you have for an ex, may also be detrimental, as you may not accurately be judging the new relationship objectively.”
How to Avoid Getting Conned by Triggers
Say Adele’s “Someone Like You” comes on the radio. Let’s say you visit your family across the country for the first time since you broke up with your girlfriend of six years. Or perhaps with Valentine’s Day approaching, you might be thinking of your ex in a more-positive-than-you-should light.
You might find yourself awash in fond memories, yearning for a quick reconciliation. However, you may want to think twice. According to Cohen, since triggers are so emotional in nature, we can be rash in responding to them. “If you’re acting out as a result of being triggered, you may be reacting on impulse rather than making a conscious decision,” she says. Here’s how to avoid getting derailed:
1. Remember the fallout from your breakup — and the potential fallout of acting on a trigger.
There’s a reason your ex seems so appealing as time passes, says Markman: You begin to forget the negatives. “The more distance that you have from your ex, the more that you are likely to feel positively about them,” Markman explains. “Most of the positive things about your ex are probably general: They were attractive to you, you had fun times together. Many of the negatives are specific: They did particular things that annoyed you, they made specific remarks that made you feel bad.” As a result, your ex might look more and more appealing as time goes on — but reconnecting can spark a cascade of emotions and repercussions on both a personal and relational level.
You can also be triggered if you’re currently in a relationship — likely if you’re not 100 percent happy with your partner or the situation. Your ex is the familiar puzzle piece filling the gap in your happiness. Every couple has problems from time to time, so experiencing triggered memories doesn’t mean your relationship is doomed. However, Ivanovich says it’s important to openly discuss these feelings with your current significant other, and clue them in if any communication with your ex takes place.
Ivankovich says it’s also all too common that exes will begin communicating in secret after triggered feelings surface, fracturing present relationships they may be involved in. “We are tremendously protective of the things we deem to be ours, and that includes partners,” she says. “When an individual begins to re-engage with a past love, feelings may re-emerge. They romanticize the past, while their current partners experience feelings of resentment and betrayal.”
Ivankovich says that it’s “unlikely anyone enters into friendly discussion thinking, ‘I’m going to destroy my relationship.’” But unfortunately, you can’t shut down all the memories and feelings you link to your ex. “As emotional bonds are rekindled, even that which is innocent can turn scandalous,” she says.
Even if you’re not involved with a new partner, going back to your ex because of a trigger usually isn’t a good idea. “If the prior relationship was unhealthy or dysfunctional, you should evaluate, honestly, the motivating force behind the desire to reconnect,” Ivankovich says. “If you don’t take into consideration what’s happened in the past, and how patterns emerge, you risk being vulnerable to someone that may have broken your heart.”
We regularly rewrite the past to the highlight glowy, happy times, a psychological concept called revisionist history. “The notion is that time heals all wounds, but sometimes it doesn’t heal — it simply passes,” Ivankovich says. “Those triggers can cause you to reach out, though. Revisionist history is especially popular in relationships.”
According to Markman, space causes our perspective to generalize — and triggers can incite the urge to reach back out, because we forget the depth of the problems that caused the break-up. “At a distance, you tend to think about things abstractly, so you often remember the broad positives rather than the specific negatives,” he says. “That is why if you actually go visit an ex, you may then be reminded of all of the specific things they do that bothered you and led to the breakup.” Enter more emotional trauma, as you break things off another time.
2. Deal with the triggers effectively.
If revisiting the restaurant where you had your first date, hanging out with a mutual friend, or a new partner’s similar behavior is a trigger for your ex, start consciously recognizing these moments as such, says Cohen.
“Just by learning what our triggers are through identification, we can take steps to properly deal with them,” she explains. “If sad songs make you think about a previous break-up, being cognizant of this connection allows you to make a choice: Turn off the music, or channel the emotions in another way — like writing in a journal — rather than contacting your ex.”
Ivankovich says it’s important to highlight patterns that trigger your longings, and put your former relationship into perspective. “Start with a little introspection,” she says. “We all have moments where we are nostalgic or romanticize or even engage in a little revisionist history, but be realistic about why you want to communicate with your ex.” (Nine times out of 10, it’s not because he was the love of your life.)
And remember this: Going back to an unhealthy ex or relationship won’t cause you to feel less lonely, says Ivankovich. “Before we enter into any relationship, we need to be right with ourselves,” she explains. “If you find that you are feeling insecure or sad, take the time out to talk to a friend [or] a confidant, or seek the ear of a therapist. Understanding your patterns of behavior will go a long way in helping you avoid the pitfalls associated with emotional triggers.”
The bottom line: “Your ex is an ex for a reason,” she says.
However, that ex also likely stayed in your life for a reason, says Markman. While you don’t necessarily want to glorify an ex, you also don’t have to repress the memories completely. Allowing this person the proper place in your past gives that former period of your life a sense of purpose.
“It can be healthy to hold on to positive feelings about an ex, particularly one that you spent a lot of time with,” Markman explains. “If you avoid thoughts of your ex, then you often avoid thinking about entire periods of your life. Finding ways to accept the positives of that time in your life can help to integrate that period into your life story.”
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