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Boyfriend Exhibits Confusing Periodic Hot/Cold Behavior

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I’ve been dating this guy for 2 years. When he is “on” it is great. We are able to talk about any subject and have lots of fun and what appears to be a deep connection – we talk about serious subjects, philosophies, growth, the meaning of life, etc. It’s very engaging. This goes on for a few months and then suddenly he turns “off.” One day I wake up and we are not connecting at the “normal” pace (i.e daily phone calls, a few texts, or plans for in person contact). The connection feels severed, there is an edge in his voice, and he is cold. I notice this, give it some space (2-3 days) and then intentionally and gently bring it up. Initially he is defensive but pretty quickly he will acknowledge that yes, he’s withdrawn and eventually some narrative will show up as a reason for the behavior – he felt I disrespected him (I was late returning a call), he felt I abandoned him (I had some trips and so I was out of town), he was nervous that I’d reject some of his behavior that he’d been hiding (he smokes occasionally), etc. The conversations come back on line and we talk about his feelings, needs, and better ways to communicate etc. He does have a therapist and I suggest he work on these issues with his therapist. Then everything goes back to normal until it cycles again.

I was raised with a schizophrenic mother and I’ve had tons of my own therapy (I am in-between therapists right now) but his behavior will trigger me. It’s like he builds up some drama of his own creation that he dumps on me and I help him sort through, then he feels great and ready to connect but I feel like I’m 5 dealing with an unstable parent who’s been operating from a distorted reality that I have to sort out and I am shaken for a few days. He will acknowledge that all of these outbursts are of his own making and there is progress and it does seem like the relationship is worth working on I just don’t know what to do with them on my end: how to set up better boundaries? or how to protect myself while he’s pulling back and cold? or if I should just end it? It’s confusing.

Boyfriend Exhibits Confusing Periodic Hot/Cold Behavior

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A.

Whether or not you should stay with your partner is a very personal decision. That decision can be life altering. If you were to stay with him, the two of you may eventually consider marriage. Should you marry, you will be legally connected to him. This kind of decision requires a great deal of thought as it is one of the most important decisions you may ever make in life.

You are right to be concerned. His behavior is problematic for the relationship. The proof of that is the problems it is causing. Should you decide to stay with him and he does not change, then you will have essentially agreed to accept his behavior. Are you willing to live with his behavior?

You asked whether there’s anything you can do to soften the blow of his “off” experiences?” That is a difficult question to answer without knowing more about what precipitates these experiences. More information would be necessary to make that determination.

If I could interview you in person, I would be interested in how long he has been in counseling and what progress has been made. It would be helpful to know more about what the therapist thinks is wrong? What happens when he shuts down? What is he thinking? Where does he go (literally) when he is like this? Does he stop talking altogether? How long has this been happening? Does he behave this way with other people? When did you notice it developing? What are the precursors to this behavior? Is he angry and hides so as to not physically harm you or is he feeling betrayed and can’t find the words to communicate his feelings? The answers to those questions, among others, will be important when determining whether or not you should move forward with this relationship.

You mentioned that he has his own therapist and you see one separately (but that you’re in between therapists at the moment). Couples counseling may or may not be helpful. In any event, the fact that you both are open to counseling is a very good sign.

Once you find a new therapist, he or she can assist you in exploring whether or not this relationship is right for you. You’ll want to examine your main question of what role, if any, do you play in how he behaves. He seems to be reacting to your behavior. Therapy is the ideal place to examine the dynamics of your relationship.

His seems to be displaying extreme passive aggressive behavior. Passive-aggressive people are in fact aggressive in their behavior. Giving someone the “cold shoulder” is a bold expression without ever saying a word.

The other problem with this type of behavior is that you never know what exactly precedes their behavior. People describe this experience as “walking on egg shells.” That expression essentially means having to be hypervigilant about what can set them off. That’s a very stressful way to live. It is impossible to communicate with someone who shuts down. Your boyfriend does eventually “come back online” but it’s important that he develop the ability to prevent his going “off” to begin with.

The purpose of dating is to see if the two of you are a match. It’s an opportunity to spend time with an individual, to gauge their reactions, and get a sense of whether you want to make a more permanent commitment. If you see behavior that is concerning, then it’s time to rethink whether you want to stay in this relationship.

At this point in time, it seems prudent to find a therapist and seriously examine whether or not this relationship is right for you. You need more information before deciding and a good therapist will be able to assist you in that process. Good luck with your decision. Please take care.

Dr. Kristina Randle

Boyfriend Exhibits Confusing Periodic Hot/Cold Behavior

Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW

Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist and Assistant Professor of Social Work and Forensics with extensive experience in the field of mental health. She works in private practice with adults, adolescents and families. Kristina has worked in a large array of settings including community mental health, college counseling and university research centers.

APA Reference
Randle, K. (2019). Boyfriend Exhibits Confusing Periodic Hot/Cold Behavior. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2019/09/11/boyfriend-exhibits-confusing-periodic-hot-cold-behavior/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 12 Sep 2019
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 12 Sep 2019
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