Of all the nastiest power moves one can resort to, threatening to break up might the nastiest -and most toxic to the relationship-.
If you have ever been dealing with breakup threats, you know it can be an emotional, even scary moment.
In this article, we will deep dive into the manipulative technique that’s sometimes referred to as “holding the relationship hostage”.
We will see why a partner might threaten to end the relationship and what are the best ways to handle breakup threats.
One note before we start: this article takes the man’s perspective, but most information is also applicable when it’s a boyfriend who threatens to break up.
- Why People Threaten to Break Up
- Typical Reactions to Break Up Threats
- Break Up Threats: What They Mean
- Break Up Threats: Are You The Issue?
- How to Stop Breakup Threats
Why People Threaten to Break Up
Your partner will threaten to break up because of three different reasons:
- As a power move (manipulation to achieve a goal or accrue more power)
- Because she is naturally confrontational and/or emotionally unstable
- Because you or the relationship are not providing for her basic needs
If it’s the first time it happens, you might not be sure which one it is, and that’s exactly what you need to find out.
But first, lest’s start by exploring the most common reactions to a break-up threat:
Typical Reactions to Break Up Threats
These are the most common reactions men experience when their women threaten to break up:
#1. The “Why, Why” Begging Reaction
Breakup threats make us emotional.
Especially the first time you hear a breakup threat it will likely blindside you and you will be lost for words (watch this video of Elon Musk being threatened to see what “blindsided” means).
The great book Crucial Conversations explains indeed that the more we care about something, the more likely it is we will be overridden by emotions.
And the bitterly ironic consequence is that the more we care, the worst we to perform (yep, that evolution shaped us to be the best we can be is just but a silly myth).
That being said, this is no excuse not to bring our very best to the table. Some typical reactions of the beggars are (click hyperlinks for video examples):
Terrible because a push back is a natural answer to a push. Basically, you become the one who’s trying to patch it up and she becomes the one convincing you -and herself- that actually breaking up is a great idea
- Asking “why, why, why”
It’s wrong because, of course, now she is looking for reasons why breaking up is a good idea;
- Promising change
Communicates that you are indeed at fault and/or not good enough. While that might be the case, most often than not, it’s not what leads your partner to threaten the end of the relationship.
Similar to trying to change her mind, with the added bonus that if there indeed issues you look clueless.
Here’s an example of a man quickly moving to the upper echelons of beggar-dom as soon as she airs her break up intentions:
Why Begging is Wrong
This should be obvious, but for the sake of clarity:
- You legitimize her threat
- You make a very poor showing when you are overridden by emotions and fears
Any of the above examples ins indeed communicating that you want the relationship more than she wants it.
Since it’s usually the weaker party who is most desperate of clinging to the status quo, it immediately places her above you. And women don’t like being with men who are obviously below them.
Thus, the begging reaction confirms to her she should go ahead and enact her threat, which exactly what happened in the video example.
#2. The Brinkmanship Game
Similarly to the Beggar, the brinksman wants to keep the relationship.
But he knows that trying to change her mind or getting all emotional is the best way to lose her.
What the Brinksman does, then, to quote Eminem, is that he’ll be nervous on the inside but on the surface he’ll look calm and ready to drop bombs. And he pretends he will be OK if she goes ahead -possibly better than she will be-.
A well-executed game of brinkmanship shows power and strength.
If well-executed she will “realize” she is the one most invested in the relationship and will quickly turn things around (Kezia recommends this approach).
In the brinkmanship game, the one who shows to being least invested wins.
See an example from The Notebook:
In the video they are both in love. He walks away first and “needs to think about it”, which drives her crazy.
She chases hard, and notice the only time when he actually walks towards her is when she says it’s over. This video very well explains the power of the first mover when it comes to the hideous games of brinkmanship.
Why It’s Not Optimal
This is not an optimal solution.
To begin with, the brinkmanship game doesn’t just communicate you need the relationship less, but also communicates you don’t really care that much about the relationship.
Which is what partially happens in the video example, and one of the reasons why she flies into a rage, trying to get a reaction out of him.
But most of all, the biggest drawback of the brinkmanship game, even when you win, it’s exactly that.
It’s all about “winning”.
But great relationships are not zero-sum games, so if you win and she loses it’s still not great for the relationship.
The relationship becomes a combative relationship of continuous power struggle.
And that sucks.
You deserve better than that.
Look at another example of brinkmanship escalation: is this a good relationship?
#3. The Steamroller
The Power steamroller does not accept being pushed into a corner and having to take a step back.
He is afraid of any concessions: for him, concessions are a sign of weakness.
So as soon as the woman airs the possibility of a breakup, he sees red and he charges head-on.
He must win that battle.
And so, to prove he’s the man of the relationship, he tells her to go fu** herself before she can do it.
It has a certain pull, I can see that.
Beggars look at the Alpha Steam rollers and think “wow, that guy.. He’s the man”.
Of course, he’s not.
Just to be sure, showing her the door right away can be a fair answer, but you must first make sure of that.
Why It’s Not Optimal
The Steamroller is far more concerned with “proving” his power than to make the right decision.
And therein lies the issue.
When faced with a scary outcome the Steamroller type is defensive. But true confident men are not defensive.
So when the chip falls and it comes to a threat, the steamroller falls into the same bad habits that plagued him the whole relationship long: a focus on himself and ego protection.
The Steamroller never really paid attention and understood her partner, so what are the chances he’ll do so now?
And that’s the final and fatal issue with the Steamroller answer: another great occasion to understand her partner goes to waste.
Example 1: The Godfather
An old school steam roller type is The Godfather.
Instead of telling her to go fu** herself though, he tells her she can’t leave (typical of abusive men by the way).
Notice the emotionally distant Godfather never really understood his wife. Steamrolling his way into the final showdown only further highlights the huge chasm between him and her, culminating with her saying:
Kate: “I feel no love for you anymore”
Of course she doesn’t, you can’t love an emotionally distant Steamroller!
If there ever was a chance for them to stay together, treating her like an owned object was the last nail in the coffin:
Example 2: My Story
Years ago an ex girlfriend of mine in rather heavy distress threatened me that, if X happened (don’t remember what X was), she “wouldn’t control herself” (a veiled hint at possible violence).
Now there are a few things I don’t tolerate in a relationship, and threats and violence are two of them.
I paused, looked at her and said “if that ever happens, it’s over”.
As she plunged into silence, lowered her head and looked down, I had won.
But “won” what, exactly?
What a Pyrrhic “victory”, and what an idiot I was.
She had been super sweet until then, what the hell was that?
I had no idea if she was serious, or if she could become abusive in the future.
Or maybe that the topic was just too emotional for her that she was not being herself?
The Steamroller in me never found out.
How to find out, then?
Enter, The Cool Detective:
#4. The Cool Detective
And now we finally come to the optimal way of handling it.
As usual, mindsets are key.
The cool detective knows that a break up threat is a serious infraction in a relationship.
He knows it can be the sign of a major personality flaw and only the first of more problems to come. He knows it means he might be forced to actually end the relationship.
But he knows it can also be something else.
And he wants to find out.
When she threatens to break up the detective breathes in and pauses for a second, looks at her straight in the eyes and with slow, neutral voice tone asks her:
Cool Detective: Now, tell me. Why would you ever say that
There aren’t many good examples of this behavior of course, but you can check the Godfather again using a similar technique in a business setting. It’s the famous senator scene.
Why It’s The Best
When you are faced with a breakup threat you need to take an important decision: whether you want to stay in the relationship or end it.
And to make the best information you need to have all the information you can.
Especially since said information is readily available staring straight at you.
The Cool Detective, such as remaining calm and asking for more information, is the only reaction that will allow you to probe and dig deeper.
It’s the only answer to a breakup threat that lets you better understand where you stand, where she stands, and what she’s made of.
Douglas Stone explains that in emotionally-laden conversations it’s best to seek to understand first -rather than being understood-.
So make sure you let her talk and express freely and safely for as long as it’s needed.
And now let’s see why she would even ever threaten to break up:
Break Up Threats: What They Mean
As we’ve seen at the beginning there are three high-level reasons why she threatens to break up. Let’s review them better:
- She is naturally confrontational
If she sees the relationship as a power struggle, you are probably better off moving on (see Elon Musk relationship as an example).
Talulah Riley: There’s been so many times where I think “alright, I’m gonna get on a plane to England and I’m never gonna see him again
From a power dynamics perspective, confrontational women who often threaten breakups feel superior to you and confident you will yield -or at least that you’ll get scared-.
That means you can probably do better personality-wise (keep reading The Power Moves :).
In case you are also part of that combative attitude, you also need to work on yourself. Check how to fix combative relationships.
- Personality disorders
Breakup threats are common with borderline personality disorders.
If she also engages in suicide threats, self-harm and wild emotional swings, then she may be a BPD.
- It’s a power move
Yes, it can be a nasty power move just to get power.
If that’s the case, let her follow through on the breakup. You’re better off alone than with a nasty partner.
But it also might be using the breakup as a bargaining chip to get to something specific -ie., marriage or children-.
And that might mean either that the relationship is not very important to her or, more likely, that what she is looking for is very important for her.
When that’s the case, either is a poor communicator and has to resort to threats, or you are a bad listener and have not taken note of her needs.
In the last case, you as the man also share part of the blame -or ever bear most of the blame-.
Let’s dig deeper:
Break Up Threats: Are You The Issue?
Now we get into real relationship talk.
Going full into relationship issues would require a book.
But here are three common scenarios why your partner might have a point when she threatens to break up:
#1. Mismatch of Needs
- You are noncommittal about something important to her (marriage, kids, fidelity… )
- You refuse to give in on a major important topic (making it official, allow her to sleep in, meet her parents etc.)
In The Rule of Social Exchange we saw that all relationships also have an element exchange.
And if you’re not giving something that is critical for your partner, you should really look within yourself and decide.
And if you cannot, don’t further waste any more of her time.
#2. You’re Not Seeing The Obvious Issue
Men often have a tendency not to see signs of discomfort which women instead believe are pretty obvious.
She might have tried to “explain” you there was a problem with her behavior, but you failed to understand it. She thinks it’s clear, he thinks she’s bitc*ing around.
Both are frustrated.
Sometimes she might have tried with words, but she starts the talk too strongly and men end up defensive, stonewalling or escalating.
The result: arguments multiply and issues don’t get solved (example).
#3. Emotional Distance
She still probably likes you and that’s why she “threatens to break up” instead of just doing it.
Deep down she hopes that threatening to end the relationship will make you realize that you should take care of her a bit more.
In these cases, the “break up threat” is a communication failure from her side. The threat is actually a cry for help. It reads “care about me” or “show me you care”.
That was exactly the example we saw earlier from The Notebook.
Bad listeners and emotional distance are the situations where the Cool Detective approach helps you the most.
It will help you unearth what’s going on, what’s missing, and what you can do to get back on a positive track.
How to Stop Breakup Threats
This is only going to be relevant if you decided to stay in the relationship.
Which you should only if:
- Your girlfriend is not playing power games
- Holding the relationship hostage is not her modus operandi and if
- You can provide what’s lacking
If you want to keep the relationship, then you might even use the occasion to get better together.
#1. The Mindset
Your mindset should be to only accept supportive relationships. And to always work and move towards that ideal relationship.
Bar violence, threatening to break up is the hallmark of the worst kind of combative relationships and it’s not to be accepted.
#2. The Technical Side
The next step is to let her know just that.
After you let her vent and clarified, say something like this:
Look, I hear you, I understand how important it is for you and I’m very glad we clarified and can fix this issue.
Now there’s something else I need to add as well.
I can’t deny that when you came up with a threat, because that’s what you did, I was disappointed. Very disappointed.
As I often tell you, I see relationships as teams, and as a way of adding value to each other. I only want a relationship where we are a team and we both make each other better.
Think about it, have I ever threatened you, or do you think it’s likely I ever would?
The point is, in a great relationship there’s no space for threats. And I expect of you that the next time you’re unhappy you speak to me instead.
Do you understand what I mean?
Do you think you can do that?
And by the way, it’s very powerful having people willingly raise to your level of expectations. She will only admire you that much more after this.
A breakup threat is a serious offense, and if you are not doing anything wrong it’s acceptable only once.
Sometimes though it happens because she sees no other options with you and/or you are not meeting her basic needs.
How you answer her first threat will set the tone for the rest of your relationship.
And now you have the right tools to answer well.
In a nutshell:
- remain calm
- ask “why would you say that”
- let all the real issues come to the surface
- make your call: end it or addressing the root causes?
- If the latter, fix it and let her know from now on only open dialogue and team-spirit are accepted
- keep monitoring
And enjoy a much-improved relationship.