“Come back. I’ll kill myself if you don’t.”
Emilia was very distressed when she arrived at my office. She had moved in with her boyfriend recently, and after their first ever argument, she had suggested she would take a break and spend a few days at a friend’s place. He threatened to jump off the building’s roof if she was to leave him. They had then spent the rest of the evening and night discussing and patching up things. She was shaking when she narrated the event, and was wondering how strong was her partner’s love that he would want to do this if she left.
The media and our culture reinforce that we must believe in Romantic Love, promoting the idea that we cannot live without the other as natural and desirable. Our culture elevates this to the apex of any expression of true love and emotional achievement. How many times have we heard or said things like “How could I live without you?”.
This feeling is natural in the early stages of a relationship when we fall head over heels in love with our new partner. Nature has wired us that way, it is a necessary step in ensuring we survive by reproducing. That feeling implies a high, a surge of passion that is so powerful that indeed for a while, we feel we can’t live without the other, and we express it. We’re addicted. But the media and culture get it wrong, when they try to convince us that this is the only way to be in love and that such feeling must endure and is sustained….forever. In reality, the stage of love intoxication lasts only anywhere between 2 months and 2 years.
After that, we go through many stages of love, until stability is reached or we leave the relationship instead. But whatever the point in a relationship, there is a difference between saying “I can’t live without you” and “I’ll kill myself if you leave me”.
The first sentence is stating that we’re intoxicated by the other, and hence the statement is naturally very emphatic. This stage will pass. The second statement implies that if we exercise our free will (to leave or stay), then we control our partner’s destiny (to kill oneself or not) and they, in return, need to use coercion to impose their desire for togetherness upon us.
This second statement is not love. It is an attempt by one partner to control the other, because things are not going their way in the relationship, by making them responsible for one’s feelings and behaviors. It is emotional abuse.
This form of control may stem out of mental illness, such as your partner being borderline, bipolar or very severely depressed. If your partner is ill, s/he might have every intent to follow through with that threat, in which case you need to take it seriously and immediately call a doctor, mental health practitioner or the emergency services. These partners are using this form of control out of necessity, like a desperate cry for help.
But more often this kind of control is not caused by a momentary romantic love high or by mental illness. It is a particular strategy for coercing you to do as is demanded of you or to scare you out of a personal choice. The person’s decision to live or die becomes conditional on your response. It generally happens when the coercive partner fears or hunches that you might leave the relationship. It is a manipulation of your care or feelings of love and a pressure meant to provoke fear. You would then give in to the coercive partner’s demands to avoid a tragedy. Over time, the coercive partner will repeat the threats because they have learned that the manipulation worked.
If you are thus threatened, you might go through stages of fear, feelings of responsibility, anger, resentment, grief, guilt, and exhaustion. It might traumatize you. All those symptoms are identical to those felt by battered partners in an abusive relationship.
There is only one way to handle a partner who threatens to kill themselves if you leave them: stick to your boundaries and decisions. If you intend to severe the relationship, do it, regardless of what they might say.
If your partner is mentally ill, do the same, but call emergency or other services as well.
Sticking to one’s limits does not imply callousness, it means delivering your message in assertive yet respectful ways and using a behavior that matches your words.
One might feel guilty about doing this. But we need to remember that a personal choice remains a personal decision, even if it concerns choosing to live or die. They make the decision, not you. A partner’s choice to use suicide threats, that is to be abusive, is their choice, their strategy, not yours. As such, you need to let them be responsible and accountable for their choices.
The threat of suicide is one of the most violent psychological aggression one can be subjected to. It can traumatize. Unless the threatening partner is ill, it implies that this person does not respect you enough to care about your feelings and does not know how to handle relationships healthily. They will keep on using this same threat over, and over again. Do you want this?
Here are some tips for asserting your boundaries:
Do not argue nor fight. Once your partner uses words such words as “you make me want to die”, do not protest nor rationalize. This includes confronting them and saying things like “you are manipulating me”. Do not get embroiled in a power struggle. Only warn that you must take the threat seriously and call for help. Then please, do it.
Do not give into the threat, and stand firm. Instead, take precautions. Call emergency services, suicide watch services, friends and family of your partner, ask them to keep an eye on him/her, warn them of impending crisis. But do not stay nor yield to emotional blackmail.
State your boundaries and decisions, while expressing your care and concern for the person. Then call for help and walk away.
Get over your feelings of responsibility. You are not responsible for anyone’s choices and decisions, unless for yourself and for your young children. What an adult person does or not is not dependant on you. If you give in to blackmail tactics you are reinforcing the blackmailing behaviour. You will remain hostage of your partner’s behavior.
If the person threatens to self harm or to kill themselves over the phone. Hung up and switch off the phone. Possibly tell them first that you will not yield to threat. Then call for help. Notify police or a relative.