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Navigating Triggers in ADHD Relationships: Effective Strategies

Updated: Apr 22

How to calm verbal triggers in ADHD relationships?

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At any given moment, seemingly innocuous words or phrases can suddenly ignite a firestorm of emotions from our ADHD spouses. These triggers, capable of catapulting their emotions from 1 to 10 in seconds, often leave non-ADHD spouses bewildered and unsure of what they said to cause such a reaction.

Recently, during our weekly check-in, my ADHD spouse and I delved into the topic of triggers, exploring why they have such a profound impact. Timing could not have been better, as that same afternoon, I had a conversation with Jonathan Hassell, an ADHD coach with ADHD and regular speaker at the ADHD International Conference. We discovered that the framework I was using in conversations about triggers with my ADHD spouse mirrored the one he teaches. Therefore, today, let's delve into what triggers are, why they pose challenges for ADHD couples, and a practical framework you could leverage to minimize the aftermath of these triggers.

What are Triggers?

Triggers are those sensitive points in our communication that, when touched upon, unleash a torrent of emotions in our ADHD partners. They can range from seemingly innocuous phrases to deeper emotional cues that stem from past experiences or insecurities. Identifying these triggers is crucial for fostering understanding and empathy within the relationship.

Examples of verbal triggers

For example, during my conversation with my ADHD spouse, he shared that the word "now" when I say "Please do X now" triggers him. He felt that I am commanding him while I am simply trying to help him understand the urgency of the task.

In another example, Jonathan shared with me that his non-ADHD spouse simply stating the well-known fact that BBQ sauce has loads of sugar triggered him.

Why do Triggers Challenge ADHD Relationships?

Triggers challenge ADHD relationships by intensifying emotional responses and potentially leading to misunderstandings, conflicts, and hurt feelings. They can strain communication and erode trust if not addressed effectively. Understanding the root causes of triggers is essential for navigating these challenges and fostering a deeper connection between partners.

Framework for Managing Triggers

This is why it is important for both partners to recognize triggers quickly and address them on the spot. Here are a framework for ADHD couple can leverage to navigate triggers on the spot.

For Non-ADHD Spouse:

1. Confirm if a trigger has been tripped

2. Apologize regardless of your intent

3. Seek understand of the trigger

3. Explain your intentions

Here is an example of how Jonathan's wife, Monica Hassell, another awesome ADHD coach, calms Jonathan when a trigger was tripped.





Confirm if a trigger has been tripped

Are you okay? Have I done something wrong?


Apologize regardless of your intent

If I did, I didn't mean to.


Seek to understand the trigger

Can you help me understand what happened so I pay attention and not do it again in the future?


Explain your intention

Ahh...I understand what happened. That wasn't what I mean, here is really what I mean...

For ADHD Spouse:

1. Name the emotion you are feeling.

2. Describe the emotion effect as best as you can.

3. Analyze your feeling.

Here is an example from Jonathan on how ADHD spouses can leverage when responding to their non-ADHD spouse or leveraging yourself alone to help calm down when they recognize a trigger has been tripped.





Name the emotion

When you said x, it makes me feel y (name the emotion).


Describe the emotional effect

I don't like Y because to me it sounds like z to me and makes me want to do A.


Analyze your feeling

Now I come to think of it, what you are saying is not the same as what I am thinking.

Sometimes I don't catch the trigger right on the spot, but afterwards, we leverage our check-in time to discuss it. Here is a framework you could use to learn about the triggers afterwards. You can use the same framework to talk about the triggers proactively, avoiding triggers before they have a chance to start.

Discussion During Regular Check-in:

1. Seek permission for the conversation

2. Seek to understand the trigger

3. Explain your intention

Here is an example of how my ADHD spouse and I use this variation of the framework:





Seek permission for the conversation

I've noticed that sometimes I say things that seem to bother you, even though they don't really mean much to me. I hate that it affects you like that. Could you help me understand what those words or phrases are so I can be more careful next time we talk?


Seek to understand the trigger

Could you help me understand what was going through your head so I can understand what happened?


Explain your intention

Thank you for sharing. I understand why the word/phrase trigger you. It wasn't my intent. I really meant (fill in the blank)....


Seek Alternatives

What would you recommend I use instead?

Using this framework, my ADHD spouse and I were able to find new alternative words and phrases to mitigate repetitive triggers for him in the future.

Tip: Everyone has triggers, it is just that non-ADHD spouse can manage emotions better than the ADHD spouse. So be a good sport, reverse the role. Let your non-ADHD spouse share his/her triggers with you.


Triggers left unattended could leave both partners frustrated and hurt. Through this framework, ADHD couples can navigate triggers with grace and understanding, fostering deeper connections and more meaningful communication.

By incorporating effective communication and empathy into our interactions, we pave the way for a stronger, more resilient relationship, where triggers are understood and managed with care.


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