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If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen, not the relationship

There are times in interpersonal relationships when we feel such frustration, futility or hurt that we might react by calling the entire relationship into question – out loud, verbally to our partner. I have done this myself and have also been with people who have resorted to this knee-jerk reaction in the heat of the moment. And it is not just reserved as a threat to romantic partners, but happens with friends and family members as well. Some people don’t know they are doing it or the damage it causes because it is coming from the automated part of the brain that is focused on survival (fight or flight). If you find yourself doing this, this article might be a wake-up call for you to correct course, and if you find your partner doing it, you may consider advocating for yourself and the relationship by putting a firm boundary in place, so that this foul play doesn’t interfere with the game.

Why do we do this?

Let me start by saying, if a predetermined relationship deal-breaker or non-negotiable boundary has been crossed, a reaction that includes possibly ending the relationship can be appropriate and expected, but an escalated disagreement, a disappointment or differing opinions and viewpoints does not warrant threatening to end the relationship. Conflict is a natural part of close relationships, which is why how we do conflict is so important. A set of skills most of us still need to learn and practice.

In the midst of an argument in which unpleasant things are being said to one another, either party may get triggered, take it as a personal attack, and deflect the terrible feelings that come with that by implying that it’s over (“oh yeah, well, maybe we’re not meant to be together!”). One minute you’re having a heated argument and the next minute it’s being insinuated or outright said by your significant other that they are ready to jump ship (or vice versa). This reaction might look lazy, immature and like a childish get-my-way tactic on the surface, but it’s coming from deeper (abandonment and attachment) wounds, fear, and an incapacity to tolerate the emotions coming up during conflict. In neuroscience terms, a person in this state is emotionally dysregulated or flooded, their nervous system is on high alert, fight or flight mode. They perceive threat and lash out. This is common in conflict, however, if we don’t learn to step up to the helm and take the wheel (that is be conscious of this and emotionally regulate), we can run the ship aground, sometimes with irreparable damage.

For the person calling the relationship into question, it gives them a false sense of control, dominance and self-protection. It’s also a way to avoid feeling painful emotions. All or nothing is a type of distorted thinking that “takes over” when we feel out of control or overwhelmed. It’s a way to end the struggle in that moment by pinning the other person down until they cry mercy (concede, back off or shut down), so things can be neat and tidy versus messy and confusing as is common in conflict. Often it’s done as a response to the projection and fear that their partner will question the relationship and threaten to leave them, so they do it first before it is done to them. The subconscious thinks: “If I abandon you first, you can’t abandon me.”

Why is it harmful?

If calling the relationship into question is done chronically, it can threaten the safety of the relationship and errode intimacy and connection over time. It deteriorates trust. And all it really takes is once to have a lasting effect. Ask yourself, do you trust someone who threatens to end the relationship during a fight? Maybe, if you didn’t think they meant it or if you are able to understand where it’s coming from and empathize with your partner’s reactivity. More often, it causes the receiver to feel highly triggered, unsafe, confused, destabilized and abandoned. They may learn to walk on eggshells with their partner or to ultimately withdrawal and possibly avoid future conflicts – a slow death sentence for many relationships. Avoidance keep us in the shallows while a time bomb ticks below it. The bomb is resentment and it grows exponentially. I’ve heard it said that the way to avoid war is to embrace conflict. I think this is good motivation for learning how to skillfully have conflict in a way that builds bridges versus tearing them down.

So much conflict has a power struggle as the core dynamic and calling the relationship into question is a cheap and easy way to get on top. You have all the power and control in the world if you imply to your partner that you are out unless they get in line. Not fair, not productive. And in the long-term, it indicates you have one foot out, which creates an unsafe environment in a long-term intimate relationship.

If you or your loved one cannot agree to not resort to calling the whole thing off (or something that sounds like that to the other person) when in a conflict, or feel you just can’t stop yourself from doing it, you might be crossing over into emotional abuse territory. Chronically threatening to leave a relationship when in conflict is both a withholding (passive) and a threat (aggressive). Our intimate relationships are on the same plane as our survival. And when an attachment figure or someone we are very close to threatens to take that away from us, in a sense our brain perceives it as a threat to our survival, and no matter how much work we do on ourselves, it won’t feel safe. The very person we count on to be with us through anything is now threatening to scrap the whole thing because he or she is angry (or more accurately, scared). This is a common tactic used by people who have serious abandonment or attachment wounds, who have been left by an attachment figure or grew up within a push-pull dynamic. I, like so many have been on both sides of this. But with awareness and intention, it can be stopped. Even if you feel it arise in you, it doesn’t mean it has to be expressed. Be with the feeling, allow yourself to process it. See if you can withstand the questioning and the wanting out without saying it out loud. And find compassion for yourself in those very difficult feelings. Again if boundaries are being crossed that has you questioning the relationship, that is a different conversation altogether.

What’s the alternative?

So often, when we are triggered, we’re not hearing correctly, or we’re projecting so much extra content and making up context for what is being said, how can we really know when we’re in that state? But what if you really are questioning the relationship and wondering if it’s something you want to continue or not? One tell-tale sign is that you will be doing this outside of conflict, when not triggered. There is a difference between reactively threatening to call it off and proactively evaluating your relationship to make a sound and clear decision – sometimes these are related but often not. Being with and processing these thoughts and inquiries on your own or discussing them with a partner, friend, therapist, etc. is much different and more reliable than doing it as an emotional reaction in the heat of the moment – as a way of lashing out to your partner and putting them in their place (even if you are doing it subtly) and vying for control. They are two different things, and the latter is not reliable, but damaging nonetheless.

Phrases like “maybe we’re not compatible,” “this isn’t working,” “I can’t be with someone who…” (my personal go-to) might seem innocuous at the time, but they are push-aways and they focus on the negatives without room for what IS working or room for a resolution. When you feel the urge to say these things, replace them with something more productive. You may want to try instead, phrases like, “it seems we are on different pages, let’s find a way to compromise on x,y,z,” “this behavior doesn’t work for me and we need to find alternatives,” or “I would feel safer in the relationship if you…” Sounds more simple than it is, because what it requires is pausing, slowing down and getting the executive functioning (prefrontal cortex) part of your brain back on line. There are things you can do to switch gears. You can take a time out. You can stop to take a deep breath (which regulates the nervous system), you can use defusing language, you can create space and time between that last trigger and your reaction to it. You can simply make the commitment to working through it – which only can diffuse the tension. It takes practice, but a discussion about how you both aspire to do conflict better should be a part of a bigger discussion you have outside of a conflict state. Inherent in the definition of relationship is that it is a feedback loop and “takes two to tango,” however, sometimes it only takes one person to stop the reactivity loop, one person to do it differently. Be a disruptor of unhealthy patterns, take the high road.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of these threats, you will have your own reaction, it could be a tsunami of emotions coming up OR you may get scared and numb out, shut down, or withdrawal…or you acquiesce and play small. For some, being pushed away with threats like this will actually push them away – either on the spot or over time (and they/you might never trace it back to the source), or it may cause them to panic and make an anxious attempt to get the connection they need to feel like their partner isn’t going anywhere. And often this negatively backfires, pushing the partner away farther and/or compromising your own integrity.

So often, when we are triggered, we’re not hearing correctly, or we’re projecting so much extra content and making up context for what is being said, how can we really know when we’re in that state? What if you are so hurt and so shocked by what your partner/friend/family member is dishing out that you just can’t imagine it getting resolved (or even wanting to!) and your instinct is to just cut them off or out? To literally end it (I don’t like the pain so I’m going to end it by ending the relationship) and the palpable relief inherent in that fantasy? What then? Are you really okay with the consequence of that gamble? Are you really okay with the result of them taking you at face value? And what happens when conflict comes up in the next relationship, which it inevitably will. This level of triggering often requires even more time and space and also says something about your capacity to tolerate those emotions in that moment. Accepting that that is where you are at that time, you can say something like, “I feel angry/hurt/afraid and I need time to process,” or “my ego feels attacked and I feel like I want to attack you back, so I’m going to be alone for awhile to calm down, etc.” You could even say, “I feel scared because, this new information is bringing up questions for me  and I need time to be with this information more before we can talk more about it.” Make a plan to, with a timeframe to have a follow-up discussion; make it long enough to be out of your trigger and soon enough that it hasn’t gotten buried or swept under something. We can be our own intervention rather than our own saboteur. This is the kind of empowerment we’re looking for, not making life-altering decisions from our fight or flight part of our brain. That’s not agency and clearly can leave destruction in its wake.

Need help changing patterns?  I hope this article was helpful, but if you feel like you need help changing patterns so you can show up to conflict with more awareness and more skill, I can help. I can coach you through the complexities of conflict and give you tools for doing conflict in a more productive way that doesn’t shut down anyone’s voice, but give the relationship the respect it deserves, so that through conflict (emphasis on through) more intimacy can emerge.