At the first sign of relationship trouble, do you have the urge to run for the hills? Have you hit the “eject” button on a romance — but later regretted it? Perhaps you are, then, what experts refer to as a “bolter.” While the instinct to bail on a relationship during in its early stages can often be a healthy one, it also could signal that you haven’t yet developed all the necessary skills for getting your romantic needs met. So how does one sort out the difference between having a healthy impulse to end things versus knowing when it’s time to turn towards your new love and work on improving your relationship together? We took that question to leading relationship experts Dr. John Gottman and Katherine Woodward Thomas, who gave us some very compelling answers.
Why do some of us have such a strong tendency to run away from conflict? Katherine Woodward Thomas, licensed psychotherapist and author of the best-selling book Calling in “The One”: 7 Weeks to Attract the Love of Your Life, points out that feeling the desire to bolt is often born out of old survival strategies from one’s earliest experiences. “The people who tend to bolt are the ones who fundamentally lack a deep sense of safety, and it’s probably a justified feeling that came from something they experienced long ago,” explains Woodward Thomas. “They learned how to create walls in order to survive instead of learning how to negotiate boundaries, because maybe people in their homes weren’t reasonable enough to negotiate those boundaries early on.”
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Woodward Thomas suggests that the absence of conflict resolution skills (as well as not having the skills for getting one’s relationship needs met by a partner) can bring up the feeling of “I’ve got to get out of here” in some people. “Those of us who are most likely to bolt prematurely from relationships are also the ones who still surround ourselves with some pretty primitive defenses, such as minimizing our own needs and placing our full attention on another person,” says Woodward Thomas. “In that case, there’s almost no other way to solve the problems that occur in relationships. Without the ability to express your own needs and feelings and create some sense of mutuality and support in the relationship, the only way you can take care of yourself is to leave at some point.”
Three questions to ask yourself before deciding whether you should stay... or go Dr. John Gottman, leading marriage expert and author of What Makes Love Last?: How to Build Trust and Avoid Betrayal and Woodward Thomas both agree that there are a number of questions partners can ask themselves to assess their relationship’s true viability when the urge to leave strikes. Gottman explains that asking these questions comprises a vital part of the “System Two Thinking” that must kick in after the heady beginnings of a budding new romance have already worn off. When they’re first falling in love, daters fall under the influence of “a cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters including oxytocin and dopamine,” which causes them to engage in the “System One Thinking” that allows them to ignore relationship red flags, according to Gottman.
Question #1: “Can I trust my partner?”
At this juncture when “System Two Thinking” begins, Gottman says that the major question that needs to be asked is: “Can I trust you?” He then continues to break down that central question for those trying to discern whether a relationship is worth investing in: “Other variations on this question include: ‘Can I trust you to put me first above your mother? What about your friends? When I really need you, will you be there for me? Can I trust you to stay faithful in a monogamous relationship with me? Can I trust you to keep romance alive and continue loving me?’ All of these questions open up like a fan, and that’s when people start seeing the red flags.”
Gottman offers two other essential questions to ask about your relationship: “When you get into a negative cycle of anger, frustration and disappointment, can you repair things? And when you’re upset and really need your partner, does that person turn away and refuse to engage with you? That’s a very important test,” advises Gottman.
Question #2: “Do I know what I really need in a relationship, and have I expressed those needs to my partner in a truthful, clear way yet?”
“I think you should ask yourself, ‘Have I told the truth about what I really feel and what I really need? Have I actually given the other person an opportunity to show up?’” advises Woodward Thomas. “I think the first question to ask even before that would be, ‘What do I really need here?’ A lot of us don’t even know what we need in a romantic relationship, so we’ll do a broad stroke of reactive thought that says: ‘I just need to get out of here.’ But really, what we actually need is a little bit more breathing room so we can sort through our own thoughts before choosing to act.”
“Whenever you have a strong impulse, like ‘I want to get out of here,’ you want to try and unpack that a bit first by asking yourself additional questions, like: ‘What is it I need to get away from?’ and ‘How long do I need to get away for?’ and ‘Which part of me is being oppressed here?’ and ‘What part of this is healthy or unhealthy for me?’” suggests Woodward Thomas. “You might have an instinct to leave because you’re getting close to someone else, and even though he or she is a great person for you to get close to, maybe you also had a suffocating parent growing up. You can talk yourself off the ledge a bit if the relationship’s actually a healthy one. The impulse you feel to leave might just be a signal to slow things down a little bit.”
Question #3: “Does this relationship produce any unhealthy, abusive dynamics between me and my partner?”
Woodward Thomas explains that you’ll know it’s truly time for you to go “if you’re seeing dynamics in the relationship that are abusive and that you’ve engaged in at least once,” and that you need to raise your expectations about relationships in such cases. “We have to tell people what we need, because our needs are viable and real. We don’t want to hold people hostage in our old, unhealed places emotionally… but grown-up, healthy people have needs for mutuality, respect, safety, to be listened to and be heard, and to have a partner who’s reliable in a relationship. All of these things are reasonable, good and healthy needs, and if you’re bringing these issues forward and the other person isn’t interested or able to meet those needs, then it’s time to go. But before that happens, make sure there have been some conversations, requests made, and there’s been a mutual dialogue so that you can harvest the information you need before acting on that impulse to end the relationship.”
What makes healthy relationships sustainable long-term
Probably the ultimate question to ask yourself during those stay-or-go moments is: “Does this relationship have what it takes to stand the test of time?” Both Gottman and Woodward Thomas offer helpful tips for assessing a relationship’s sustainability: “What builds loyalty is cherishing your partner as someone who is both unique and irreplaceable,” says Gottman. “You’ve got to feel that your partner really does cherish you. You want to look for your partner to say things like: ‘I feel so lucky to be with you. My life has changed so much since you’ve been in it,’” he advises.
Woodward Thomas agrees, adding: “Sustainable relationships have shared values and a shared vision between partners, almost like a shared mission statement for life,” she stresses. “Both people need to be willing to extend themselves for the sake of their relationship and to develop a mutual commitment to health, happiness, mutuality and the well-being of both partners.”