“Will I ever learn to trust again?” I implored of my dad after receiving the surprise text that my husband had left the marriage and left the state. At that point, I was concerned about learning to trust somebody else after being the victim of horrendous gaslighting and betrayal.
It was only months later that I realized the true concern was not trusting others, rather I needed to know if it was possible to learn to trust myself and my own perceptions again. I kept questioning my responses to situations, wondering if I was listening to my intuition or overreacting because the circumstances triggered memories created by the earlier trauma.
Determined not be deceived again, I started paying more attention to my emotions and gut reactions to a situation. However, I was also aware that my emotions were not always rational and were prone to sending out false alarms since they were still raw from the betrayal. Before giving credence to my emotional responses, I learned to ask myself the following questions to determine if they were a reaction to something in the present moment or if they were simply an emotional echo from the past:
Is my response disproportionate to the situation?
It was just a silly argument over a coffeepot with my now-husband in our early days of dating. But my body saw it as life or death. I don’t even remember the details, but I do remember that the intensity of my response scared me. My body felt as though electricity was coursing through my vessels, charging my limbs so that I was prepared to fight or flee.
In reality, there was no danger. Not only was I physically safe, but this event did not even register on the relationship threat scale. My overreaction had nothing at all to do with the present moment and everything to do with the trauma in my past.
Am I experiencing a sense of déjà vu?
Shortly before our wedding, my now-husband detailed to me his plans for turning the basement into a home theater. As he was going over the floorplan and the modifications that would be needed, I was transported to a similar discussion with my first husband when he decided to build himself an office in the basement. An office that soon became the headquarters for his deceptions.
The whole time the basement theater was taking shape, I felt like I was occupying two locations in time and space. As much as I tried to stay present with the excitement of the theater, my fears kept pulling me back to the moment when I discovered the extent of my first husband’s lies hidden within his below-ground office.
Am I feeling like I’m out of control?
When I discovered that my first husband had been living a double life and, by extension, I had been living a fabricated one, I entered free fall. It’s a disorienting feeling to realize that you’ve been manipulated for so long. When I’m triggered, my thoughts begin to spiral out of control. My mind will race from one thing to the next and it’s like the air has been bled from my normal self-soothing pathways.
I’ve learned that this out-of-body reaction only occurs when something takes me back to those early moments of utter and complete panic. When I’m responding to something solely anchored in the present day, my feet remain firmly anchored on the ground and I feel in control of my emotions and my responses.
Am I reaching premature conclusions?
Perhaps in a desperate attempt to never be deceived again, my subconscious brain began to assign reasons to any single point of data, no matter how inconsequential or likely benign. It was the equivalent of a hypochondriac assuming that a headache must be the result of a fatal brain tumor, rather than first addressing the much likelier causes of dehydration or too much caffeine.
When trying to ascertain if a perceived threat was real, I learned to list, in writing, the facts and only the facts. This helped me see if I was reaching a logical conclusion based on the available information or if I took a leap of panic into the worst-case scenario.
Am I assuming malicious intentions?
One of the hallmarks of over responding to a stimulus is taking everything as a personal affront. Whenever I find myself taking things too personally and assuming that it is a directed attack towards me, I know now that I’m really reacting to what has happened in the past.
A key way that this used to manifest in my new relationship is whenever my husband would be more reserved or withdrawn, I immediately assumed that I was the reason for the distance and that he was pulling away intentionally. This hypothesis would then be accepted even without any evidence to support it.
The more I answered, “Yes” to these questions, the more likely my response was rooted in the past and had little to do with my present situation. I also understood that continuing to have an emotional reaction to these situations would have a detrimental impact on my present life. And it was my responsibility to learn how to neutralize the triggers and my responses.
One event in particular highlighted the progress I was making on deactivating my triggers. It was shortly after my now-husband and I married. While at work, I received a notification that money had been transferred out of a joint gift account in the amount of $500, a little less than half what was available. The alert did not specify where the money moved.
My stomach dropped as my brain raced back to the memory of examining the account records after my ex left, where I discovered countless transfers in the $500 range. Transfers to accounts that I did not have access to. My emotional response in the present was telling me to panic, that this was a sign of deception and marital fraud all over again.
But this time, I stayed in control. I focused on the facts: my now-husband had never shown any signs of betrayal, I had the vast majority of my funds in my name only and so I wasn’t at the same risk as before, and all I knew was that the money had moved. Resisting the urge to make this my husband’s problem, I took a few deep breaths and continued my day.
Once I arrived home, I pulled up the account on my computer. The money had been moved into our joint savings account, as we had previously agreed. The amount was determined by limits set by the bank. What my triggers had assumed was deception was, in reality, an act of kindness.
And that’s the problem with triggers. They conclude guilt and demand proof of innocence. Deactivating them lies in believing first in decency yet also keeping the eyes open to signs of dishonesty or hostility. Trust in your perceptions but verify before assuming.