Linda: When someone says the words “we’re done” in the midst of a painful argument, they are suffering so much that they attempt to draw a boundary to leave the painful discussion. But their attempt to deescalate the argument this way makes it worse. Their partner gets the message that they are impossible to deal with and a hopeless case. Such a hard boundary leaves their partner hurt and fearful, feeling threatened by the insinuation that their partner is planning to leave them because they are failing in so many ways that there is no point in going on.
Abandonment fears are among the greatest fears that people have. And for many people, hearing those terrible words blurted out in anger evokes a torrent of fear of being left alone. When the speaker of these words calms down, they realize that they didn’t even mean what they said. They know that they were dishonest and are not truly done with the relationship permanently. Frantically flooded with feelings, they reach for the most dramatic language they could find. It was an attempt to assure themselves that they weren’t trapped by reminding their partner that they are free to leave at any time.
The pain and fright that the words cause is frequently a conversation stopper, which the partner who utters them really does want. But there are so many other ways to draw a boundary that does not come with such a huge price tag.
The prices that are paid when these two dangerous words are spoken:
- Yet another incompletion: Not only is the issue dropped temporarily, but there is so much pain associated with it that the topic isn’t brought up again. It remains to lie in wait of attention on the incompletion pile, draining the life force from the partnership.
- Disconnection: The feelings of hurt run so deep to be threatened with abandonment, that there is a disconnection causing distance between partners. Speaking only of superficial subjects for fear of sparking another painful conversation when they are still recovering from the last one, keeps the relationship at a low level of well-being.
- Embarrassment: Both partners feel embarrassed due to having lost their composure resulting in speaking and acting in unskillful ways.
- Loss of emotional and sexual intimacy
- Diminished trust. The trust may fall so low that one day, the partner who has been threatened will say, “Fine, let’s let it be over” and it won’t be an empty threat, they will mean it, and the relationship really will be done. These are all huge prices to pay for indulging in saying two mean spirited words. When the person who uses this threat realizes the prices they pay, they often find the motivation to change the patterns by discovering other options.
- Make a fierce commitment: Set an intention to stop indulging in the use of these dangerous words.
- Slow down to tune into our experience: When we slow down and pay closer attention to the sensations in our body, we notice when we are beginning to get overheated. Our heart rate is going up; we may be clenching our fists or jaw. These signs are our cue to settle down, rather than move into the danger zone.
- Take a break: When we become self-observant, we can take a break before we are so flooded with feelings that we can’t think straight and lapse back onto using dangerous words.
- Plan ahead: If we plan ahead for the moments when our fear and pain is activated to the point where we resort to the old threat, we are prepared to say something skillful like “I need a break right now, but I’ll be back.”
- Dive down to the real truth: Once we calm down, we can speak in a vulnerable manner about the underlying issues that frighten us and activates our suffering. This vulnerability allows our partner to stay open, rather than moving away to protect themselves or fighting back with their own arsenal of dangerous words.
- Search for the learning: There is so much to be learned about what provokes our feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, despair, frustration, doubt, rage, and terror, sometimes to the point where we feel our very survival is at stake.
It is the calm, open, and respectful exchange of the full range of our feelings that allows both partners to learn how to successfully be in a relationship. If you look at your own experience, you will find that’s the only thing that has ever brought closeness and trust. The dangerous words will never accomplish that goal, they will only take us away from what we most desire, to be wanted, valued, respected, and loved.
This article is originally written by Linda and Charlie Bloom, who are the authors of Secrets of Great Marriages: Real Truths from Real Couples About Lasting Love and is republished here from psychology today under common creative licenses. To read original click here.