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Calling the Relationship Into Question During Conflict

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 or loved one. 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. It’s not just reserved as a threat to romantic partners, but happens with friends and family members as well. While this is a common reaction, it can be very damaging. 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) when the person is triggered. 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, hurt feelings 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 react, deflecting the uncomfortable feelings by implying that the relationship is 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 suggested or outright determined 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 often coming from deeper historical wounds, fear, and an incapacity to tolerate the uncomfortable emotions coming up during conflict. In neuroscience terms, a person in this state is emotionally dysregulated, flooded or in a state of hyperarousal. Their sympathetic nervous system is on high alert in what we refer to as the fight or flight mode. They perceive threat and “fight” by lashing out or “flee” by threatening to leave, or actually leaving by walking 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 ourselves), we can run the ship aground, sometimes with irreparable damage.

Often, a power struggle is the core dynamic of conflict, and calling the relationship into question is a quick and easy way to get on top. You have all the power and control in the relationship in that moment, 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 signals to your partner that you have one foot out, which creates an unsafe environment in a long-term intimate relationship. 

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. This “all or nothing” reaction 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 that things can be neat and tidy versus messy and confusing (inherent in conflict). And often it’s done in response to the projection (an assumption, prediction or expectation) 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.” 

If you find yourself on the receiving end of these threats, your reaction could be a tsunami of emotions OR you may get scared and “numb out”, shut down, or withdrawal. Alternatively, you may choose to acquiesce and play small. For some, being threatened like this will actually push them away – either immediately or over time without an ability to trace it back to the source, a slow erosion. Or it may cause them to panic and an anxiously attempt to get the connection they need in order to feel like their partner isn’t going anywhere. Often this negatively backfires, pushing the partner away farther and/or compromising their own integrity.

Why is it harmful?

If calling the relationship into question is done chronically, it can threaten the safety of the relationship, eroding 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 you do 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. Maybe it’s perceived as an empty threat and has no charge for you. But, more often, it causes the receiver to feel highly triggered, unsafe, confused, destabilized and abandoned. As a result, they may learn to walk on eggshells around their partner or to ultimately withdrawal and possibly avoid all future conflicts, which results in a slow death sentence for many relationships. Avoidance traps 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. Repairing ruptures will take us much further than avoiding them altogether.

If you or your loved one cannot agree to not resorting to this tactic when in a conflict, or feel that you just can’t stop yourself from doing it, you may (inadvertently) be crossing over into emotional abuse territory. Chronically threatening to leave a relationship when in conflict is both a passive (withholding) and aggressive threat. Psychologically speaking, our intimate relationships are on the same elevated plane as our survival and when an attachment figure or someone we are very close to threatens to take that away from us, our brain and nervous system perceives it as a serious threat on par with death. No matter how much work we do on ourselves, it won’t feel safe because 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 wounds, trauma, have been left by an attachment figure, or grew up with the inconsistency of a push-pull dynamic (here one minute gone the next), or have had conflict modeled for them in this way. Or it could be, simply, that they don’t have the skills to do it differently, and when they feel the futility, they want to abort. I, like so many have been on both sides of this. The good news is that with awareness and intention, this behavior can be changed. If you feel this type of reaction arise in you, simply being aware of it opens up your choices and gives you an opportunity to refrain from making the threat. Instead, you can choose to be with the feeling, allow yourself to process it and do something differently, even if it means taking a time-out. See if you can withstand the questioning and the wanting out without saying something hurtful. Allow compassion for yourself as you feel those very difficult feelings versus passing the pain over to your partner like a hot potato. Again, if boundaries are being crossed that have you questioning the relationship, that is a different conversation altogether.

What’s the alternative?

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 longer before we can talk more about it.” Make a plan to have a follow-up discussion with a timeframe in mind and communicate that; make it long enough to get out of your triggered state,  and soon enough that it neither festers or gets dismissed. 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 it can clearly can leave destruction in its wake.

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, but how can we really know when we’re in that state? How can you tell if questioning the validity of the relationship itself is coming from a place of reasoned intention versus being emotionally triggered? 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 a much different and more effective way of evaluating this question than reacting out of strong emotions in a moment of conflict or as a way to lash out to your partner to put them “in their place.”

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 ways to push people away, focusing entirely on the perceived negatives without acknowledging any positives in the relationship, or leaving any room for a resolution. When you feel the urge to say these things, try replace them with something more productive. You may try instead phrases like, “It seems we are on different pages, let’s find a way to compromise on x,y,z,” or “This behavior doesn’t work for me and we need to find alternatives,” or “I would feel safer in the relationship if you…” Of course, doing this in the heat of the moment is easier said than done because it requires is pausing, slowing down and getting back into your executive functioning part of your brain (prefrontal cortex). There are a few simple things you can try when needing 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 language that defuses or de-escalates the situation, you can create space and time between whatever has last triggered you and your reaction to it. You can also simply make the commitment to working through it with your partner, which can defuse current and future conflict. It takes practice, but a discussion about how you both aspire to do conflict better should be a 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 and see what happens.

Need help changing patterns?

I hope this article was helpful, but if you feel like you need guidance in changing patterns so you can manage conflict with more awareness and skill, I can help. I can coach you through the complexities of conflict and give you powerful tools for handling conflict in a more productive way that doesn’t shut down anyone’s voice and gives the relationship the respect it deserves so that you can create more intimacy through conflict.

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Looking for coaching on this or other issues? Please contact me to discuss your needs.

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