Recognizing Triggers After Divorce & Choosing Empowered Reactions

BY Christine Khetarpal | September 15, 2019

My ex-husband used to walk several paces ahead of me. 

It really used to bug me – and for good reason. At face value, it was simply because he walked faster, and I just walked a bit slower… probably a common occurrence between a husband and wife – or any two people, for that matter. 

To me, though it seemed like an indication of his lack of respect for me. It felt demeaning. And, frankly, I took it to mean he just didn’t want to walk with me. (Reasonable assumption, right?) 

Now, with the hindsight of knowing I was in a narcissistic relationship, I realize that he just didn’t have the ability to recognize the pain this habit caused me. 

And, now it’s in the past. 

But every once in a while, it almost creeps into the present… 

On a recent trip to Boston, my partner was walking ahead of me, and Whoa! 

I could feel my blood boiling. I really had to stop and say to myself, “Okay, wait. This is somebody who’s totally different. You know this person loves you. This is not intentional. This is not demeaning. He’s just walking.”

Bringing that awareness to my reaction? It set me up to be able to just ask him, “You know, do you mind just walking a little slower? I prefer you being next to me, rather than rushing or being paces ahead.” 

And his response?… “Sure!” he said. And he walked beside me. Because I asked him to.

This scenario is almost humorous… because he really didn’t know that I was triggered. And why would he, right? He’s just walking.

Triggers are everywhere. Divorce journeys – and Life After Divorce – are particularly fraught with them! There is often so much hurt and pain along the way – in your unhealthy marriage and then during the divorce. 

The seemingly run-of-the-mill story above shows us this: Even when we have healed (or are healing), triggers can come out of the blue and bring us right back to a painful feeling or moment. These triggers can cause what feels like an involuntary reaction – one that is often not based on the facts or reality of the current situation. 

Here are some common triggers that I’ve heard my clients speak about: 

  • Significant dates (like the date you met or married…) or holidays that were meaningful pre-divorce. 
  • Phrases that your ex used to use, or behaviors he used to display (like walking paces ahead, as described above). 
  • Certain places – your former home/neighborhood… a restaurant… a vacation spot that you shared.
  • Sensory things – like the smell of a certain laundry soap, the taste of a certain recipe or spice. (A wonderful woman in my Facebook group speaks sometimes about a bottle of perfume that her ex loved… that she can’t yet bring herself to toss.) 
  • Music. Known to be a strong emotional trigger, certain songs have the ability to bring us right back to a moment… and it isn’t always a good one, right? 
  • Situations in which your children mimic or mirror behaviors that they saw in your ex – or the dynamics between you and your ex… (Incidentally, this is a toughie… and a very common one!) 


The examples above may sound familiar to you, and you likely have some that are different – and completely unique to your lived experience.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that the connection between a smell / place / phrase-  and the feelings it elicits – can be powerful. Humans are wired for it. Science has helped us understand the physiological and emotional reasons why we experience these as triggers. 

For example, it’s been proven that smells travel through the cranial nerve and the olfactory bulb. Both are part of the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain – which controls emotional memories. Hence, smells trigger emotional memories. (For more information on this phenomenon, this NBC News article is fascinating!)

And, this Psychology Today article reviews a study that shows that “…listening to music engages broad neural networks in the brain, including brain regions responsible for motor actions and emotions.”

So our tendency to be triggered by sensory surroundings? It’s strong. 

(But, my dear, you are stronger.)

So what’s the solution? How can we take the reins and keep these somewhat arbitrary occurrences from setting us off? How can we keep them from activating our inner panic buttons?

The key is developing a habit of awareness… to recognize the triggers for what they are. This recognizing is the first step. It opens the door for us to choose how we react – rather than giving in to that involuntary reaction.

When you’re aware of your triggers, you can observe them and apply some cool logic. You can say to yourself:

“Yes, I’m meeting a co-worker at the restaurant where we once had a tense anniversary dinner. But that does NOT mean I have to be tense today.” 

“Yes, my ex’s favorite song just came on the radio, but that does NOT mean I’m still his doormat.”

“Yes, my daughter just used that (annoying) idiom her dad always uses… but that does NOT mean she will now turn and say something hurtful to me.”

“Yes, my boyfriend is walking ahead. But he’s not doing it to be hurtful, and it certainly does NOT mean he is the same person as my ex.” 


Because at the end of the day, here’s the most powerful wisdom I can share with you right now:

You are in charge of your own destiny. 

And, one implication of this is: You no longer need to point the finger at your ex or your divorce as the source of your pain. It’s time to point that one finger straight back at yourself and step into your power of choice.

In this case, that means choosing how you will react. We can not always choose our circumstances – or control our exposure to things that trigger us. But what we can do is recognize the triggers and figure out a way to grow through them in whatever way feels best.  

And, boy! Standing in that power of choice gives you confidence… the confidence to live life by design, not default… the confidence to use your voice to ask for what you want and need… and the confidence to take action to move forward into a Life After Divorce that you love. 


If you’re ready to take the first step in that direction, I’m ready to help you. Schedule your FREE BREAKTHROUGH CALL. I’ll help you discover what you want (and don’t want) for your life, unveil what’s really keeping you from moving forward, and pinpoint the exact action steps you need to begin to transform your life.