Are you considering therapy for your relationship? Though counseling can be wonderful as a relationship maintenance tool, many people don’t begin to consider it as an option until their communication is truly in crisis. What does this look like?

What is “Scorched Earth” Communication?

There are moments in every relationship where the intensity of communication reaches a fever pitch. The frustration and sadness seeps into our word choices and tone of voice. As the escalation continues, each person’s survival response becomes activated, leading to a moment of no return. Things we’d previously thought, yet never dared say, spill out of our mouths. What remains of an attempt to understand is replaced by the intent to do harm, with little care for the other. Acting with impunity, we lose control and allow ourselves to engage in “scorched earth” communication.

The Fight or Flight Response

A significant precursor to this kind of verbal brawl is the activation of the fight survivor response. This can be examined more thoroughly in couples therapy, but it’s a natural biological mechanism that can be very useful in keeping you safe. For example, if you’re running away from a tiger—but not when you’re having a heated conversation with a loved one in your living room.

Of the three survival responses, (fight, flight, freeze), the fight response is the one that leads to this scorched earth stance in our relationships. When our fight response is activated to a heightened level, the essence of our being feels threatened. Again, this is natural. But our connection to the other is severed.

But There’s No Tiger…

Even though it’s not logical, when this powerful biological programming takes over, it can feel like we’re fighting for our existence. We no longer care what we say or how we say it. We give ourselves permission to engage in this approach, as we feel we are matching the intent and tone of the other.

This verbal warfare can be retaliation for a look, a tone, or a hurtful insinuation that we feel cuts to our emotional bone and deserves a harsh rebuttal. We need to prove a point that we will not tolerate being treated this way. While what we feel may have legitimacy—anger is often a sign that our boundaries have been crossed, there is a consequence to our decision to engage in this way, and a significant one at that. We believe we’ve won the battle, but we haven’t yet realized that we’ve also begun to lose the relationship.

Loss of Intimacy

Too many of these scorched earth interactions and we become reluctant to engage in a meaningful way. We become less willing to step in and share, we are also less willing to communicate our vulnerability, and hesitate to provide comfort or solace. Depending on our personal coping mechanisms, we may also find ourselves withholding emotionally.

If this state lasts long enough, then emotional stagnation encroaches and we begin to live parallel lives with our partner. We may be functional parents or good roommates, but not intimate partners who are emotionally engaged. This is a clear sign that counseling is needed to reestablish a healthy connection.

The Pain of Emotional Distance

Many of us complain to our friends that we are no longer emotionally in touch with our partner, and wonder if couples therapy can really help. We feel more separate, like two ships passing in the night, living parallel lives. The spark has disappeared. This isn’t what we want. It’s not what we signed up for.

Attempts to re-engage are often frustrating, as a circular communication pattern has become the default norm. When this happens, there’s an unwillingness to share our vulnerability, and it’s not hard to see why. There have been too many scorched earth interactions. We don’t feel safe. The way back to each other seems too painful and arduous, so we carry on with the business of our daily lives, resisting interaction, even as we experience a gnawing frustration that what we once wanted seems gone forever.

Creating a Safe Space with Therapy

This reluctance to engage is not always clear to the person, especially if there’s emotional shutting down. Your partner may seem indifferent, more withdrawn, or less receptive to relationship affirming overtures. What we forget when we choose this stance of emotional warfare with someone we love, is that it forms scars. Emotional scars leave us with grave reservations about entering the emotional fray with one another.

Counseling can help us create a sense of safety that allows us to make lasting changes within our relationship. Whether you’re ready to break toxic communication patterns, or just need a maintenance check-in, couples counseling provides an environment to explore sensitive topics.

Schedule a Counseling Session

It can be painful to remove our armor, especially if it’s been in place for a long time, but it’s the only way we can really connect with each other. If you have questions about scheduling an appointment with a Walnut Creek family therapist, contact the office of Brett Beaver, LMFT by calling 925.324.4514. Teletherapy sessions are also available throughout the state of California.