Emotional Backdraft

Firefighter walking away from a smoldering brick house

When a house fire consumes all the available oxygen in an enclosed space, opening a door or window can create a sudden, fiery detonation as fresh air rushes in. This phenomenon is known by firefighters as backdraft. It’s why they check doors for heat before throwing them open and being engulfed in flames.

Yet there is another kind of backdraft that occurs in relationships where all the love has been consumed, and people find themselves smoldering with chronically unmet needs. Then, when a new source of attention cracks a window, there can be a veritable explosion of engulfment that feels a whole lot like love.

But this is not love, my friends. It’s called emotional backdraft.

Just as physical explosions can result from depriving fire of its basic needs, the emotional equivalent can be equally devastating to ourselves and those whom we engulf. This is why self-love, self-care, boundaries, and communication are absolutely vital for the prevention of spontaneous human combustion (relationally speaking, of course).

Emotional Backdraft in Relationships

When we enter a committed relationship, it’s easy to assume that we’ve just employed someone as a full-time steward of our emotional needs. After all, the dating process is essentially an audition for people to demonstrate how capable they are of meeting these needs. So yeah, it’s really not hard to conclude that your partner is applying for the job.

But this is just one of the inherent pitfalls of dating. The inconvenient truth is that you are always responsible for your own emotional wellbeing. If you don’t take responsibility for ensuring that your needs are satisfied, it’s only a matter of time before fiery blowback engulfs some innocent bystander.

This is a common feature of Anxious + Avoidant relationships.

Often, the anxiously attached partner has a history of emotional abandonment and never quite learned how to take good care of their own emotional needs. These folks either learned to rely on others to do the job (as a maladaptive coping strategy) or are still anticipating that someone should (as a developmental arrest).

The result is a type of connection that usually feels like not enough for one partner and too much for the other.

Sensing that they might never be able to satisfy their partner (or outright fearing enmeshment), avoidants tend to withdraw in self-preservation. They wanna conserve their energy and resources that could either get quietly absorbed in an emotional sinkhole or ignite a backdraft event that’ll incur an even greater cost.

And whether their partner is actually too demanding or this is simply a projection based on the unboundaried relationships of their childhood, the avoidant reacts to protect themselves the best way they know how.

Both suffer equally from poor boundaries and communication around their needs.

Emotional Backdraft for Singles

While the phenomenon of emotional backdraft may fuel infidelity, breakups, and perpetual discord within relationships, we can also observe its effects very clearly in the single population.

Those ill-equipped for adequate self-care may lunge headlong into all-consuming work and volunteer opportunities as surrogates for a primary attachment relationship. Surely you’ve heard someone say they’re “married to their work,” yes?

There are those too who compulsively jam the attention of friends and acquaintances into the self-care-shaped hole in their life. You may get a sense that these people are trying way too hard — that they are “extra,” or as some say, “doing the most.”

Obviously there’s nothing wrong with enjoying your job or cultivating friendships. But when these activities preempt a healthy relationship with yourself, you become an emotional liability with a lit fuse.

And the most impassioned emotional backdraft, as you might imagine, occurs when a chronic sufferer of self-abandonment swan dives into the deep end of the dating pool. People who have the most difficulty being alone are already cocked and loaded for grizzly when a cute stranger shoots them a casual glance.

You better check that door for heat before a first date turns into a weekend getaway and an unplanned pregnancy.

Preventing Emotional Backdraft

Whether you identify as the fire or the air, the elements of prevention are simple:

  1. Take responsibility for your own emotional wellbeing. Insisting that other people “make you feel” this way or that is a blame game that no one wins. It may require some intense therapy to heal whatever wound lies beneath that decidedly unhelpful (and usually compulsive) pattern of relating.
  2. State your needs to your partner (if in a relationship) with neutrality. Invite them to satisfy some needs (don’t demand) but also communicate that you can meet many of your needs elsewhere when necessary. That way your partner can connect with you from a place of freedom rather than obligation and expectation (the building blocks of resentment).
  3. Similarly, whether partnered or single, clearly state your needs to yourself, your friends, family, employer, etc., and actively engage in satisfying your needs in healthy and appropriate ways. Remember, living with chronically unmet needs is the starving fire that explodes on unsuspecting passersby when they attempt to open the door to your life.
  4. With healthy boundaries (instead of rigid walls), learn to connect with people compassionately while also making it clear that you can’t be their oxygen supply. Nonviolent Communication is a terrific tool for discussing needs, understanding each other’s strategies for meeting them, and finding win/win solutions.
  5. Recognize high highs and low lows as symptoms of a dysregulated nervous system, unresolved trauma, and/or unhealthy boundaries. And rather than slathering them with blame and shame, begin seeking professional help to deal with them effectively.

And remember, it’s not all the fire’s fault, nor is it entirely the air’s fault. It takes two to tango. It also takes two to prevent explosive collateral damage. Learn how to work with instead of against your partner.

Transforming the Anxious + Avoidant Relationship

Speaking of fire and air, I’d like to cordially invite you to attend a class I’m co-teaching next Saturday, July 23rd, on Anxious + Avoidant partnerships.

Feeling like my June event contained too much monologuing, I’ve enlisted Rikki Cloos, author of The Anxious Hearts Guide, to help create more discussion and engagement around an important topic for many couples. 

Rikki is an attachment researcher, writer, and brilliant content creator who focuses primarily on anxious attachers, but necessarily too on the types of relationships these people engender.

Over the years, Rikki has become a dear friend, and it’s not hard for us to talk about attachment patterns and relationship tools for days. Check out our no-risk offering here.

Hope you can make it!

*This article contains affiliate links*

Published by Adam

Mentor, coach, speaker and educator for over 12 years. I have recovered from and triumphed over many obstacles and afflictions. It brings me tremendous joy to help others overcome similar circumstances so they can live their best lives.

2 thoughts on “Emotional Backdraft

  1. Adam, I don’t want to write a novel here, but I do want to thank you for the amount and quality of knowledge you put out here for free. It makes a big difference for me and, I’m sure, loads of other people.
    However, judging by the amount of comments your articles get, I don’t think your work gets the reach and exposure that it deserves tbh. Did you ever consider creating a podcast, a YouTube channel, a Patreon or something similar?
    Anyway, thanks again. Huge fan here.

    1. Thank you kindly. Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I’m not reaching nearly as many people as I would like. I started doing some live classes this year, just upped my video content on IG and TikTok, and I’ve pondered the Patreon thing for a while now (still on the fence). I publish on Medium, which puts a whole different set of eyeballs on my work. I have another podcast interview coming out Aug 22nd. Submitting a chapter for a book project this month. Redoing my website is high up on the to-do list as well. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges tho is I do a fair bit of one-on-one coaching, which is awesome work, but it consumes a majority of my working hours. Anyways, I appreciate the love, support, and suggestions. And yes, I definitely wanna make some changes to reach more people. Stay tuned!

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