Why Threats And Love Don’t Mix

Katie Young
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Wednesday - September 13, 2006
| Del.icio.us

It was another fight and Alicia was starting to lose her cool. She felt like the more she tried to convey her feelings to Mark, the more he didn’t understand her.

“What’s your problem anyway?” Mark asked.

“I already told you,” Alicia said. “You’re not making quality time for us to spend together, and I’m feeling like I don’t matter to you.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Mark said. “We’re together all the time.”

“Well, if my feelings don’t matter to you, then I don’t know what to say,” Alicia was starting to yell. “Why don’t you care?”

“I care,” Mark said coolly. “But you’re just over-emotional and out of control.”


“If you’re going to keep treating me like this and can’t ever see my point of view, then maybe we should just break up!” Alicia screamed.

Mark should have seen that coming. Alicia always yelled, “Maybe we should break up!” as every fight began to get heated. And every time she’d do it, Mark had the same response: He’d roll his eyes, but reach out and take Alicia’s hand and say, “No, that’s not what I want. I don’t want to break up. We can work this out.” And he’d pull her in for a hug.

This was enough to stop Alicia’s yelling, and instead, she’d begin crying. The problem was never solved, but Alicia always felt better, thinking that Mark really wanted to be with her.

“You’ve got to stop doing that,” I told Alicia one day as she was recounting the episode. “One day he’s just going to snap and tell you ‘Fine, let’s break up then!’ And then what are you going to do? You didn’t really want to break up, right?”

“No,” Alicia admitted. “I guess I was threatening him because I was so frustrated already I didn’t know what else to say.”

Clinical psychologist Dr. Tom Merrill, a member of the Hawaii Psychological Association, and his wife, Bobbie Sandoz-Merrill, MSW, are therapists, columnists, professional speakers and authors of the book Settle for More:
You can Have the Relationship You Always Wanted ... Guaranteed
. They say this type of flight response is not uncommon.

“That one statement [about breaking up] could be the headline for a whole seminar series,” says Tom. “It reflects a whole host of things: How does this person normally cope with problems? Do they threaten to take their toys and just go home?”

Tom says phrases like “Let’s just break up!” doesn’t resolve the issue at hand, and it shows that the couple doesn’t have a way of being side by side to talk and work through their differences.

“Alicia might get so frustrated at the communication process at that moment that she might not know what else to do but run away,” adds Bobbie. “Or she’s trying to get his attention about how serious this is for her when he’s acting the way he’s acting in that moment.”

More than just not addressing the issues at hand, say Tom and Bobbie, is the damage the fight is causing to the relationship.

“We posit that you can’t really kiss and make up,” says Bobbie.

But that’s not all, adds Tom. “People think they can get into one of these arguments and when it’s over there’s no damage, but it’s a cumulative thing and it never goes away. It becomes a part of the fabric of the relationship and ultimately does take its toll.”

In their book, (visit www.settleformore.com), Tom and Bobbie maintain that there is never a reason for couples to argue.

“There’s my point of view and then there’s Bobbie’s,” explains Tom, who reconnected with Bobbie at age 60 after both had endured failed marriages. They had once had crushes on each other as Punahou School eighth-graders, and now both really wanted to find a new way to make their union work. “I will say my part and she will say hers and then we come up with a ‘third story’ together.”

“That understanding,” says Bobbie, “comes out of truly understanding Tom.


If I understand him, then I preserve and protect our relationship. If I don’t, I make myself his enemy.”

When couples fight, say Tom and Bobbie, they are not really trying to listen to each other, they are trying to win. But nobody wins.

Tom and Bobbie feel that couples can be wonderful to each other 24/7, every moment of the day.

“In our society, we’ve normalized something very abnormal: that when we’re in a relationship, we feel we can let down and be nasty to our loved one, interrupt them and raise our voice,” says Bobbie. “So of course that person doesn’t feel safe and calm in listening to you. We can’t let our manners go.”

Making a relationship work is really simple, says Tom. “Most people want to be in a meaningful relationship, but then they turn around and do the things that won’t help them get it. People think it’s hard to put in the effort to be loving, but really it’s more difficult to do it the other way.”

So the next time you’re starting to feel heated and frustrated, catch yourself before you go too far. Take a deep breath and instead of shouting, “Let’s break up!” take your partner’s hand and lovingly say, “Let’s talk.”

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