Did I Overreact & End a Good Relationship?

I got reactive and prematurely ended my relationship! 

Have you ever pulled the plug on a relationship and wondered whether you overreacted? Many people write in and want to know if they ended their relationship too soon or if it wasn’t soon enough. There’s only one person who can truly know the answer to that question (and yes, that person is you!) but there’s something else we can learn from a hasty exit. 

One member of the Create the Love community wrote to say she called off a long-distance relationship when her partner took too long to reply to a text. The guy then said he couldn’t give her what she needed and added that he no longer felt “the spark” after their fights. She later regretted it, realizing she did want to be with him after all, and wanted to know how to apologize and rebuild a connection. 

We all have moments where we overreact, maybe even second-guessing our actions after we’ve had some time and space to see the situation more clearly. If you feel as though you’ve ruined a relationship by overreacting, this is an opportunity to look into why. Why are you pushing people away at the first sign of trouble? Because you can apologize all you want, but the pattern will only repeat itself if we don’t address the root of it.

It feels awful to lose someone and my heart goes out to anyone in this situation, especially now as communication becomes more fraught with people practicing physical distancing or sheltering in place. Although heartbreaking, these instances can also be gifts if we’re willing to look at what’s coming up for us and learn from it, refusing to repeat the pattern that hurt us in the first place. 

If someone doesn’t text you back in a certain amount of time and you hit the eject button on that relationship, it’s usually not about that text at all. Instead, there’s something old living in that experience. When your response to an event is not equal to what actually happened, then that’s a sign there’s an old wound still needing to be healed. There’s a phrase for this: “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical.” 

So let’s say someone doesn’t text you back, and you respond by ending the relationship. A fear of rejection might cause you to reject other people first, before they can potentially hurt you. And by ending the relationship over this (instead of having a conversation about expectations for communication), you might be hoping that if you lose your shit on this person for not texting you back, they’ll learn from that and change. In this instance, the guy texted back and said he couldn’t give them what they needed. This was actually a perfect response, because what was needed in this situation can’t come from anyone else. 

What you need to learn is how to self-regulate. Self-regulation is basically the ability to manage your own emotions and reactions. Dr. Dan Siegel coined the term “Window of Tolerance” to describe the container where we’re able to self-regulate, manage our emotions, and thrive each day. But when we’re triggered, our window of tolerance shrinks, and we become overwhelmed or flooded. Outside of that window, we react by acting out or totally shutting down. 

A delayed text response from a partner might not be grounds to end a relationship altogether. But it is absolutely an invitation to interrogate what’s coming up for you and why. Old abandonment issues or fears of rejection might be cropping up again, and you could find yourself thinking, They don’t like me, they’re a narcissist, they’re a jerk, f*ck this person. 

But what’s really happening is the window of tolerance is shrinking and your mind isn’t functioning at its best. The prefrontal cortex or problem-solving part of your brain shuts down, while the amygdala gets triggered—the old lizard part of your brain. If you ask someone in the throes of this experience, “How old do you feel right now?” they’ll usually say something like, “Seven.” An age will come to mind really quick, and that will point to the first time you felt or learned that response. You might be 25, 35, or 55 years old and suddenly feel like you’re seven again—and not in a fun way, because it’s no day at the beach. It feels like swimming with sharks. 

We can’t go back in time to that age, so the way to work with this is by creating a larger window of tolerance and learning how to self-regulate. Over time, we can cultivate the ability to pause when we’re really flooded or overwhelmed, and create a space where we don’t react. Instead, we become an observer and are able to slow down enough to consider how to respond. I often talk about creating space between a stimulus and a response, and for some people the space itself is really hard. A delayed text message response is actually a form of space that can be triggering for some people. Instead of reacting, we learn to sit in that space and sort through what’s coming up for us, whether it’s fear of rejection, abandonment, or low self worth. 

You don’t even need to feel rejected to see this window of tolerance in action. Take a cold shower just to experience it. At first your body is going to rebel and think, holy f*ck we’re gonna freeze and die, but stay in the moment and leave space. Observe your body’s tendency to shut down, and what thoughts come up when your survival feels threatened. Do you disassociate and shut down? Or do you act out? A healthy response would be to tell yourself, I’m safe, it’s just cold water, I’m going to survive. 

Therapy, counselling or coaching are all ways to expand a window of tolerance, and bodywork is a great way to release stored up emotions. Breathwork can be an excellent practice as well, one you can return to in those states of heightened anxiety. We can’t avoid unpleasant emotions altogether, and we can’t predict how or when we’ll feel triggered. But we can learn how to respond in the moment, or how to create space in those instances where you feel flooded or overwhelmed. For some people it takes a lot even for them to say, “I need a moment.” Then, when you’re ready, you can have the hard conversations. 

The real work here is not getting someone to text you back. The real work is how to live in those in-between moments, and how to heal old wounds as they arise so you can continue to create more love in your life.