This Emotionally Abusive Habit Is a Guaranteed Relationship Killer
DEAR DR. JENN,
Whenever I get into a fight with my boyfriend, I make threats I don't mean. I have said I'm going to reach out to other men, move out, break up — the list goes on. We have been together for years and I know I shouldn't do this, but I can't seem to shake the impulse to lash out and go below the belt. How can I break the habit? —Sticks and Stones
DEAR STICKS AND STONES,
All relationships have their conflicts and no one is a perfect partner. If we are in a romantic relationship for any significant period of time, conflict is inevitable. How we handle that conflict is often the difference between a healthy, successful relationship and a painful, high-conflict one. All of us have said things we regret while in a fight with our partner. When we get hurt, angered, triggered, or scared, we are most likely to lash out. The goal is to learn to recognize those moments and to have the impulse control to stop so you can turn a difficult moment into a productive discussion, instead of escalating it and derailing your relationship.
Threatening to break up, divorce, withhold love, deny sex, or anything else along those lines sends a message to your partner that you are not committed to the relationship. That kind of manipulation ("If you go to that nightclub, I am going to file for divorce!") pushes the other person out the proverbial relationship door. This includes veiled threats ("The last woman who did this with me is gone!"). Furthermore, making a threat can back you into a corner and make you feel that you have to follow through, even if you don't want to.
8 More Reasons Why Threats Can Destroy a Relationship
- Threats prevent communication. When you say you are going to leave, there’s nothing more to talk about. When you act as if you are ending things, even if you don't intend to follow through, you prevent the real issue at hand from being processed and addressed. This pretty much guarantees that you will have the same fight over and over because it never gets resolved.
- This escalates the conflict. Saying you are done with the relationship creates additional conflict and only escalates the antagonism. The more heated things get, the more likely you both are to say things that you regret and do damage to the relationship. Eventually, the damage may become so great that one or both of you will not be able to recover.
- You destroy the trust. In order to develop and maintain an attachment, you need to feel that you can trust your partner. Feeling safe and trusting your partner is the foundation of any relationship. Trust also lays the groundwork for connection, which is a key component to a healthy relationship.
- Your words will mean less. We have all heard the old fable of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Threatening to leave and not doing it makes your words lose meaning. This harms your credibility in your relationship. Your partner will start to lose faith in your word, which also translates to other areas of your relationship.
- It is manipulative and fear-inducing. Threatening to leave your partner is emotionally manipulative. Fear of losing someone we love is a common fear. Who doesn’t have abandonment issues? But to play off of those fears can create anxiety and depression, especially if your partner has mental health issues.
- Many consider it to be emotional abuse. Mistreating, threatening, making your partner feel afraid can be abusive. There’s a difference between a couple who is having problems and is genuinely considering moving on and someone who repeatedly threatens to leave in the heat of an argument. Don’t be that person.
- This is immature behavior. Part of being an adult is having impulse control, not just with our bodies but with our words. It is childish to threaten to leave. It shows a complete lack of emotional discipline when you do this over and over again, with no intention of leaving.
- You are planting the seeds for your partner to leave you. If they weren’t thinking about it before, they will be now. You have encouraged your partner to think about ending the relationship — and envision what their life would be like without you, even if that isn't what you truly want.
Instead of Making Threats, Try This
Breaking a bad communication habit can be difficult. Oftentimes people who say things like this in an argument come from families that did the same. In order to make changes, it is always best to address the behavior on multiple levels: Learning new things that you can say, addressing the underlying issues, and taking preventative measures. Here are a few things that can help you do that. The more that you do, the better the chance of stopping the behavior.
- Take a time out. Commit to take a “time out” before things get too heated in your discussions. When an argument gets too heated, it ceases to be productive. Most couples can benefit from a cool-down period during an argument. It is important for you to establish this before taking a break, so your partner doesn’t think you are simply walking away. It is helpful to say, “I think I need a time-out right now. I am too upset to think straight and need some time to calm down. Let’s check back in an hour.” Learning to take a loving time-out is a valuable skill.
- Get some therapy. Take the time to work on yourself and figure out why you are getting so triggered and how you can better your impulse control. Be willing to look at your part in these arguments and make some changes.
- Address the issue. Most couples have issues that come up over and over again in their relationship. If you are finding that these are leading you to make these threats to abandon your partner, it’s time to address the real issues so they don’t have to keep repeating.
- Try anger management. Get some help with your anger. Try reading a book on anger management, taking a class, watching a Ted Talk, or meeting with a specialist. This can help you learn some new tools and skills that can make a real difference in your relationship and in your life.
- Watch the substances. If drinking or drugs are a common denominator in your conflicts with your partner, you may want to look at stopping your use or not using around your partner. This is a good time to examine what place these substances have in your life, especially if they are leaving you vulnerable to hurting someone you love.
These kinds of threats are paradoxical to having a healthy loving relationship. Whether it's with this partner or someone else down the line, you need to address what drives you to do this. Words matter and learning to express yourself in a more mature and loving way will undoubtedly help all of your relationships.
In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sex and relationship questions — unjudged and unfiltered.