The extreme highs and lows of a roller-coaster relationship are addictive but you’re going to need more than passion and great make-up sex to keep your relationship from derailing. By Carla Calitz

They’re the couple who push their relationship to the precipice constantly, who supposedly can’t survive without each other but definitely can’t live with each other either. Their intense passion and tangible sexual chemistry is (almost) enviable but their constant no-holds-barred arguments and crushing break-ups have most of us thankful for our comparably meek relationships. But somehow these fiery couples seem to thrive on the thrill of their brawling and bawling, and tolerate levels of conflict that would have most of us running for the nearest exit. What is it about these volatile couplings that hooks individuals, and how sustainable are their tumultuous relationships?


Kereshnee Pillay, 23, a marketing assistant from Johannesburg, was in a roller-coaster relationship for six years. ‘He was my life but everything changed when I moved to Jo’burg – I started going out with friends and, in his eyes, he was no longer the highlight of my life. He didn’t like my new social life and we’d argue about it the whole time, especially about the fact that I’d started smoking. He would constantly threaten to leave me if I didn’t quit smoking – but he also smoked! He’d go out whenever he pleased while I was expected to sit at home. I would always have to compromise but he was never willing to reciprocate. We started losing respect for each other and suddenly our relationship became this ugly, bitter game. We’d have the most ridiculous screaming matches. I can’t tell you how many times we broke up, because I lost count eventually. But then I’d miss him terribly and within a few weeks he’d call me and our terrible fights would be forgotten as soon as we had another blissful make-up session. A few weeks later the dreadful rows would start again. He kept trying to change me back into the girl he wanted me to be. I finally understood that things always had to be his way or no way, and that I was trying to be something I wasn’t. It wasn’t an easy decision to break up with him finally but it’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I believe that love is kind and patient, and if it hurts it won’t work.’ Megan*, 24, an executive assistant in Cape Town, survived the highs and lows of a volatile relationship for four years and has learnt how to manage it. ‘There was a magnetic attraction between us from the very start. Sean* brought out this passion in me that I’d never experienced before. But with the very good came the really bad. We started arguing hectically a few months into our relationship, and instead of talking about our problems and sorting them out he’d just break up with me. I’d shout at him and demand an explanation but he’d just say he needed his space. This happened almost every month. He kept breaking my heart, and I know this is wrong, but it just made me want to be with him more. I always felt that our break-ups were my fault, that I’d made him break up with me. So when we got back together I’d try to be the “good girlfriend” the whole time and was constantly walking on eggshells because I was so worried he’d break up with me again. But we’d still have terrible fights and inevitably break up. Then I’d phone him a week later and we’d agree to meet up, and as soon as we saw each other we realised we couldn’t be apart. We had the best make-up sex ever. Then our relationship would be better than it had ever been but inevitably the extreme cycle would begin again.’


The thrill and allure of roller-coaster relationships lies in the high drama and intense emotions created between the couple, says Trix O’Callaghan, an Imago relationship therapist at Bella Vida Centre in Johannesburg. ‘This kind of relationship is often known as “the fighting and fucking” relationship because of the intensity of the emotions, the constant battles and nit-picking, break-ups and make-ups, and the intense sexual interplay,’ she says. ‘The couple functions in extremes – they get wildly angry with each other and the make-up sex is just as extreme. They’re very reactive, make a lot of ultimatums and threats, are impulsive, immature and unpredictable, and engage in a lot of blaming. They can be bullying and try to isolate their partner from their family and friends. This kind of roller-coaster behaviour is draining not only for the couple but also for those around them.’ Underlying this volatile behaviour is extreme hurt and fear, and feelings of abandonment and rejection, says O’Callaghan. ‘They’re unable to communicate this fear effectively, so they do it in a destructive way. They’re so scared of getting hurt that they just push harder and get angry and, ironically, ensure that they don’t get what they actually need and long for.’ Volatile couples get addicted to the conflict, she says. ‘They also get addicted to the brain chemicals that are released when they fight and then make up, such as dopamine, which is associated with romantic love. They strive to be passionate and live “in the moment” but unfortunately they struggle to mature their love and move past their eternal power struggle into conscious love.’

Because they’re so consumed by their fiery battles and runaway emotions, the real issues in their relationships are never dealt with, she says. ‘There is no safe space of communication where they can consciously process what the issues are, where they come from and what they can do about them. And because these issues never get resolved, they just repeat the same behaviour and wound each other again and again. Eventually this destructive pattern becomes the norm and all they know. The abuse can be emotional and/or physical, and can spiral out of control.’ When some volatile couples break up they can’t stop themselves thinking back to all the “good times” they shared, says Johannesburg psychologist Thuraisha Moodley. ‘Eventually the negative aspects of their relationship

are pushed to the background. The partners start the process of “distance distortion”, where all their thoughts are pointed to the little positives that were present in the relationship, leaving out any negative ones. The partners obsess over the intensity and passion of the make-up after fights and feel that they “really have a connection”. They also fear that they will never meet the love of their life again. They don’t want to go out and risk the chance of being with another person only to get hurt again or, worse yet, possibly end up with more than they bargained for. Getting back together with their partner just seems like the “safe option”.’

But unfortunately safe is not necessarily healthy, Moodley cautions. ‘Taking risks and being able to love someone without jealousy, rage, anger and awful bickering is the way to live a peaceful and long life. If you settle for someone who violates your sense of self and drains your energy constantly, it’s important to leave before you become caught up in the web of destructive behaviours while you have the willpower to do so. This volatility can eventually be detrimental not only to your emotional and psychological health but also to your physical health.’ Individuals in such relationships may exhibit underlying personality disorders. ‘One of them may even have been a former victim of abuse where they’re predisposed to interpreting hurtful behaviour as appropriate demonstrations of affection,’ says Moodley.


are doomed to the scrapheap, says O’Callaghan. ‘In fact, an “anaesthetised” couple that sweeps everything under the carpet can run higher risks than a volatile couple. Volatile couples have at least learnt to let it all out but they need to learn how to listen, understand each other’s needs and respect each other. Learning how to communicate and negotiate positively and to turn their negative volatile dynamic into a positive one takes maturity and commitment.’ They’ll need to move past their power struggles on to conscious love by committing to each other and to a process of learning and healing, she says. ‘To begin this process, you need to ask yourself the tough questions: does this relationship meet your needs? Is it a safe space? Can you realise your full potential in this relationship? Is your partner as committed to change and transformation as you are?’ Avoid what US relationship guru John Gottman calls ‘the four horsemen of the apocalypse’: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. ‘Do a relationship reality check: does the bad outweigh the good? Do you have enough moments of relaxed joyfulness or are none of those left? If it’s a physically abusive relationship, it’s time to leave,’ says O’Callaghan. ‘Thankfully, though, emotionally abusive behaviour can be managed and changed through counselling.’ Recognise that this yo-yo relationship is not all the other person’s fault – own up to your part of it too. ‘You can only control your own behaviour,’ she says. ‘The changes you make in yourself and what you take responsibility for will impact on your relationship, and your partner will respond.’

Learn how to raise issues calmly and not just bulldoze each other, she says. ‘Breathe deeply and try to understand where your partner is coming from even if you don’t agree with them.’ Creating strong boundaries is integral to this process too, says Moodley. ‘By creating new rules for your relationship you can eliminate unhealthy habits and stop being taken advantage of.’ Megan was able to transform her relationship in this way. ‘I moved to Cape Town to get away from Sean and get perspective on our relationship. I did a lot of soul-searching and realised I needed to be strong and look after myself. When Sean moved down shortly afterwards, he could see the change in me and that I’d learnt to stand up for myself. We do still have a fiery relationship but I’ve learnt to set boundaries and to insist on respect. I know now that I don’t have to do everything he wants me to do and that I have a right to my own needs and wants. He’s learnt that he can’t be as controlling and emotionally abusive as his dad is and works against falling into this destructive pattern. I know now that he loves me with all his heart.’

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