Hax: Boyfriend needs time to cool off

The Washington PostDecember 18, 2013 

Dear Carolyn: What do you suggest one does when a couple is fighting and one partner tries to leave the room to go cool off, and the other refuses to let them leave? I mean physically blocks the door and tries to continue talking about the issue at hand?

I ended a long-term relationship with a girl I loved, because I felt claustrophobic in this exact situation. I'm twice the size of my ex and when things would get really heated, I felt trapped, because if I pushed her away, then it's abuse, but if I stayed, I felt trapped and would get even more agitated, accomplishing nothing.

We then agreed that she'd let me go cool off when things got heated, but to no avail. She still blocked the door the next time it happened and I abruptly ended things.

I'm wondering if it's acceptable to leave when you feel you've reached your limit, or if I'm in the wrong and need to recalibrate my need for space. What do you suggest for calming myself down when I feel I'm at my limit?

TRAPPED

When you reach your limit in an intimate relationship, there's no one right way to handle it. There is merely a range between inappropriate extremes. The extreme on one end is withholding - shutting the other person out completely. Silent treatments go in that file, as do the refusals to listen to or discuss certain things. At the other extreme is violating the other person's body, boundaries or autonomy, which includes blaming as well as verbal and physical abuse.

Your ex-girlfriend went to the latter, abusive extreme in blocking the door. You were absolutely right to flag it as something you wouldn't accept, and to break up with her when she ignored that limit - especially after you had just discussed it.

Your tactic of leaving the room to cool off is in the appropriate range between those two extremes. Ideally, you spell out your intentions as you go - "I need to go calm down, then we'll talk again" - because merely storming off would be a form of withholding, but, even then, temporarily removing yourself from a heated situation, even without comment, is still preferable to staying until things explode.

Email tellme@washpost.com. Chat online at 10 a.m. Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.

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