Breakup Threat Survival Tips

sad woman and man watching TV

This is how to respond so they don’t become a habit and how to know when the threat is real.

It feels like a hangover when you didn’t have a drop of alcohol to drink.

You and your partner were having a casual conversation that suddenly turned tense and then morphed into a full-blown argument. The two of you seem to be miles apart on this contentious topic and a reasonable solution (that you both can be happy with) feels impossible.

And then one of you utters the words...

“Maybe we should break up.”
“I don’t see how we can continue if we can’t agree on this!”
”If you cross me on this, I can‘t stay in this relationship.”
“I’m leaving.”

Doors slam. Phone calls are cut off. The big question now is...

“What just happened?!”

Your head feels like it’s going to explode with worry, anxiety and maybe regret. You may not even be clear about exactly what happened because the emotions got intense and overwhelming.

All you know is that your partner (or you) threatened to break up, and you’re confused about what’s next. 

This sort of scenario could be all too familiar. Storming out of the house, declaring that the two of you are OVER has become a habit in your relationship and, even if the two of you always make up after the blow up, repeated break up threats are taking a toll on trust and connection.

The Threat Behind A Breakup Threat

Psychologist Dr. Russell Lemle explains what happens when a person’s internal “alarm system” goes off and a physical or psychological threat is perceived: “At the instant we register a threat, and a host of coping responses commence. Cortisol and adrenalin are secreted. Breathing and heart rate quicken, sending oxygen and sugar to our limbs to ready us for fight or flight. Neural activity increases in the brain's limbic section, generating threat-countering emotions and additional interpretations of danger.”

The argument you and your partner are having about money, his porn-watching, her ex, or anything else can trigger the limbic system and lead to all sorts of misperceptions, overly-intensified feelings, and mistaken assumptions. All of these can cause one (or both) of you to threaten to end your relationship.

The urge to flee this unbearably uncomfortable situation comes from the perception of a threat, even if it’s not actually there.

Here are a few reasons why...

  • Past experiences of violence or abuse
  • Unresolved disagreements about this topic or something else
  • Tone of voice, body posture or another subtle cue
  • The use of particular “trigger” words
  • Similarities between this situation and worries or fears about what “could” happen
  • Overall stress and strain from work, other relationships or health challenges
  • Generally weak trust or lack of intimacy

As you can see, there are a whole range of reasons why your partner (or you) might internally flip into “threat” mode, and many of these reasons have very little to do with what you’re actually arguing about!

When words like, “I want to break up!" are uttered, it either means that: 1) The limbic system has kicked in, and the person is feeling threatened or 2) The person really and truly does want to end the relationship.

The trick is to figure out which.

If you’re on the receiving end of a break up threat, you’re possibly feeling confused, worried, fearful, angry, manipulated and maybe even emotionally threatened as well. The way you respond can make a huge difference.

In A “Breakup Threat” Moment...

Keep Your Cool

Whether it’s your partner who tends to call it quits and storms off or it’s you, the sooner you can return to a calmer emotional state, the better.

Don’t underestimate the power of a deep, cleansing breath and a pause before you say anything. This short pocket of silence gives you the opportunity to think about what’s true for you and to consciously choose words that won’t add even more intensity to a volatile situation.

Remember, keeping your cool does NOT mean you hide how you feel, go along just to placate your partner, or pretend that you don’t care. Keeping your cool means that you’re aware of what’s happening, you DO care, and you want to resolve this situation in a kind and loving way.

Ask Questions For Clarity

As much as you can, adopt an attitude of curiosity with your partner. In an authentic way, ask questions like these to get more information:

“What can I do to support you right now?”
“Please help me understand what you really want?”
“Would you please repeat what you said in a different way?”
“Will you support me by ________?”

When the threat has passed, approach your partner without blame. Let him or her know that you want to move past the argument and to reconnect and rebuild trust and connection. Take ownership for your role in the situation while also being honest and open about how you feel when your partner threatens to break up with you.

This is also the time to determine whether or not one (or both) of you truly does want to end the relationship. As painful as it is to consider this, a break up threat may signal that deep down inside, that’s what is wanted. Answering the question, "Should I stay or should I go?" is an important one. 

It’s okay (and helpful) to tell your partner that you feel confused/hurt/sad/angry/manipulated, or however you feel, when he or she says, “It’s over.”

Ask your partner to create agreements with you to avoid future breakup threats. These agreements might involve taking a “time out” when one of you recognizes the first signs of the urge to flee. Together, you can even role-play and practice new responses to minimize the sense of threat when conflicts arise.

Learning (or relearning) to communicate so that your relationship is healthy, connected and close takes practice, so be patient with yourself and with your partner. Find out which words and phrases will help you both stay open and which will close each of you down in our free video.