If you follow me on social media then you might have seen me talking a lot lately about what might be pushing your buttons.  This is for a number of reasons:

  1. I believe it is the nub of many disputes to understand and unpick this.
  2. I think given the current situation with coronavirus buttons are being pressed a lot at the moment.  Partly because we are on edge anyway, but also because if you’re living in the same house as an ex partner, there is simply nowhere else to go currently.
  3. This has been a journey of personal self-discovery for me and I have been looking a lot at what pushes my buttons.

Firstly, what do I mean by pressing a button?  I tend to explain it to clients that somebody says or does something (or sometimes doesn’t say or do something) and you instantly feel that rising sensation of anger (or hurt or frustration).  I know in myself that sometimes it feels like you’re a lion and someone has stepped on your wounded paw.  You can go from resting and relaxed to spitting angry in a fraction of a second.  It is not always as extreme as this.  There can be other reactions such as refusing to engage with someone, or walking away, or feeling your hackles go up and like you’re digging yourself a bit further into the ground because you are not moving on this.

We all get angry.  We all feel hurt and frustration sometimes.  It is part of our most basic programming.  Back when a large animal could spell certain death we needed to be motivated to move if we saw one – in a nanosecond.  There was no time for cognitive processing about what the animal might look like, and whether it looked friendly.  We were hard wired to see a potential threat and move to safety.  This is why when you are triggered you will often move straight into your ‘fight or flight’ response which means you do not have access to your full brain functioning whilst in that place.  Why is this important?  When someone pushes a button in you it’s nearly always about something in you.  Some fear or sensitivity has been poked and you’re reacting accordingly.  This is your big animal and you may well go into survival mode.  This means that you are not thinking rationally and with your full cognitive functioning.  There is no reasoning or rationalising going on.  There is simply an in built response to either argue or flee.


As you might imagine conversations when one, or both of you, are in this mode are not terribly productive.  They may involve a lot of shouting, or they may involve one party retreating – either within the house or (pre-lockdown) elsewhere.  They can be a major reason why separating couples are not able to resolve all the issues that crop up.  You both start intent on trying to resolve things and determined to stay calm.  One person says something that pushes another person’s button, that person starts shouting (or withdraws) and then the other person becomes angry because they wanted to sort things out and now they’re being yelled at, or ignored.

In initial meetings with each party I always ask what is it you do that pushes the other person’s buttons, and what do they do that pushes your buttons.  Some people are very aware of this; a surprising number of people are not.  They may know they push the other person’s buttons but they don’t know specifically what it is that pushes the button.  A very common answer is “breathing” followed by a nervous laugh.

So what can you do about it?

Understanding the theory is all very well but it’s no help without practical guidance on how to move forward and get past the issue.  The answer lies in OWNING YOUR OWN STUFF.    This is challenging.  There is a safety in blaming the other person for pushing your buttons.  If they don’t want you to shout, or leave the conversation, then they need to stop pushing your buttons.  You are lobbing the responsibility for all the difficult conversations, and the arguments, at the other person’s door.  If they stopped making you cross then it would be better.  It may be that the other person does need to look at their own behaviour.  Maybe they’ve been rude, or unpleasant.  Yes maybe they’ve pushed your button deliberately.  And they absolutely need to take responsibility for their own stuff too.  But here’s the thing: you can only choose to take responsibility for what’s going on in your head, and your body.  You simply cannot force anybody else to behave differently.  Yeah sure you can threaten and blackmail as a temporary solution to this, but that’s hardly conducive to a good relationship.  It doesn’t build trust and mutual respect.


The major step forward lies in identifying WHY you are being triggered or having your buttons pressed.  This might require a deep dive into feelings, emotions and your past.  Often writing things down, or talking it through with a counsellor (or trusted friend or family member who is equipped for such conversations) can be useful.  This stuff is often deep rooted in our past: our childhoods and our traumas.  These are common fears that come up during a separation:

  • Being alone – the idea of living alone (or as the only adult in a house).  Maybe you’ve never lived alone?  Maybe you have a deep fear of abandonment because of something (or things) that happened to you previously?
  • Going back to work or doing a more demanding job – this can be bring up a huge range of fears that centre around a lack of confidence.  Maybe you haven’t worked whilst your children were young?  Maybe you left the high powered job behind some years ago and you feel that there is no way you’d ever be good enough to do that now.  You’re more equipped for a safe and unchallenging role.
  • What will people think of you – what are people going to say about your relationship breakdown?  What happens if you have to live in a smaller house?  What if you end up living in the “not so nice end of town”?
  • Fears around money – everyone has a particular mindset around money.  You might be someone who is laid back and doesn’t worry about money.  Maybe you are anxious about having enough money – even with savings in the bank you never feel safe enough.    Perhaps money scares you?  You might have been made to feel you’re no good with money?  Or you might simply have never managed money for yourself and consider it to be like a foreign language you have never learned to speak.
  • Change – fear of change is hugely common.  It is a fear of the unknown.  So many people in mediation won’t even have conversations about a particular option because it represents change and they are too fearful.  This is often dressed up as being for the children’s benefit.  The children need to stay in their home, the children can’t do this and there can be valid reasons why options might not be right for your children.  But it is important to distinguish between what is a genuine concern of a child, and what is an adult fear projected on to them.

This is not easy.  In fact it is hugely difficult, and that’s why many people chose to bury how they feel deep down and not give much thought to it.  Starting to unpick this stuff can feel like a rabbit hole that if you disappear down it you might never come up again.  It’s important to be aware that in any situation there is always a choice and you can choose to put the responsibility firmly on the other person and not do any deep dive into your own fears.  You may be able to work things out with a bit of help, and you may never need to face any of your fears.  But my experience in mediation suggests that when one person won’t even have a conversation about a particular option, the faith and trust the other person has in your ability to resolve things together in an amicable manner fades a bit.  They can start to see it as a straight choice between the other person getting their own way (that can represent a substantial loss to them e.g if my spouse remains in the family home, I have no money to buy a home and I will be renting a property and having to move for the next 15 odd years) and them having some semblance of a good post separation life.  This raises the stakes dramatically and it is often the point at which lawyers are instructed to raise the bar and court proceedings are issued.  Before you know it you’ve each spent a few thousand pounds that you couldn’t really afford, and now the stakes are higher still.

If you choose to look at your fears and your buttons being pressed and to take responsibility for your own feelings, thoughts, emotions and baggage then there is potential growth there.  This might benefit you in being able to resolve issues relating to your separation.  It may well shine a brighter light on your future.  You may realise you were limiting yourself in what you thought you were capable of, and a whole new potential post separation future starts to open up.  Just let that sink in for a moment.  Close your eyes and imagine that you were capable of doing more than you thought you were, and that you could do things you didn’t think you could……and that you might even get to a point where you could do them without being afraid.  How does that feel?

I might be ready to do this

If you are simply open to the possibility of this then that is amazing.  There will absolutely be times you want to run away and hide and that’s perfectly OK.  No one is ready to self-develop all the time.  For the sake of our own self-care sometimes we just need to be, to relax, to rest.  But if you’re willing to open up to this, now is the time to start thinking about what it is that presses your buttons.  Think about the last time you really saw red.  Take a moment, find a quiet space and just think back to that moment and ask yourself:

  • How did I feel before anything happened?
  • What happened immediately before I felt my button was being pressed?  What was said?  What was done?
  • After this happened how did I feel?  What emotions was I experiencing?  Name these.  How did you feel in your body?  Did you notice any tightness – if so where?  Do you notice other sensations?
  • What happened when my button was pressed?  What did I say?  What did I do?
  • What was it about what happened that pressed my button – what was my deepest fear in this moment?

You may not get all of that information straight away.  But write down what you notice in a journal or notebook.  Keep doing this every time you feel you have been triggered.  You can even imagine what might trigger it again in the future as sitting with that can also give you useful information.

If you’re finding this too upsetting and if you have experienced difficult trauma in your life it may be too much for you.  It’s important to remember that:

  • You don’t want this to take over your life so limit yourself to pockets of journalling and diving into your emotions and then put it to one side.
  • You may find meditating or breathing exercises useful after this to help disengage from any anxiety or strong emotions that you felt
  • Don’t use this as a tool to chastise yourself.  You are looking for information to help you move forward to a new and better place.  This is a chance to do things differently moving forward, not an opportunity to lambaste yourself about anything that you have got wrong in your life.
  • If you feel that you are dealing with some very big issues then you may need to consider doing this only with professional help.  Speak to your GP or counsellor about getting help to explore these issues in a safe space with a qualified professional
  • If you find yourself feeling very low around this then please reach out to a trusted friend or family member and explain that you feel very low.  If you feel there is no one you can talk to remember that the Samaritans are there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  You can reach them by calling 116 123.

Don’t forget that we have a free closed Facebook group where you can get support from others going through a separation, and from other professionals.  Click here to join Soulful Separation Support.  We also have a free mailing list with resources to help you manage your separation as peacefully as possible.

Other blogs that you might find useful:

Is it all too much?

Looking after yourself in a separation

Giving and getting support in a separation

Finding your stresspoints