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Communication in The Ultimatum: Queer Love

Now that we’ve all digested Eurovision (and hopefully gotten over Belgium being fully robbed), we’re ready for the next highlights of 2023’s queer TV calendar: the BBC’s I Kissed a Boy, and Netflix’s The Ultimatum: Queer Love (TU:QL). Both are cracking shows (and I’d love to devote a whole blog to Gareth and Subomi’s stellar romance), but there is – to the surprise of literally no one – lots going on that piques a therapist’s interest in TU:QL. Spoiler alert: I’ve accidentally written a literal pamphlet on this, as there is so much to talk about in this show, and I am cursed with an incapacity to use one word when I could use twelve instead. So, grab your personal metallic goblet and break out the biscuits: it’s time for a dive into the world of communication in TU:QL.

To re-cap the premise of The Ultimatum, it begins with five couples at a crossroads in their romantic relationship: each couple has one partner wanting to imminently get married, and another who’s unsure. In the first stages of the series, the participants are encouraged to explore their answers to the question posed by this ultimatum, through the means of forming a new couple with another participant and living together for three weeks; being grilled in various meet-ups with their new partner’s friends and family (Mal and Tiff’s friends 100% steal the show); and sailing the stormy seas of shared pet-ownership politics with them (most egregiously, nobody has a cat – the real big question mark of this series). Finally, they return to their original partners for a further three weeks of living together, before coming back to the original question posed by their ‘ultimatum’ – and, this time, answering it.

Given all these challenges, it’s unsurprising that the participants show us several examples of communication breaking down, especially during conflict. It can be particularly tricky to communicate effectively when in conflict, for reasons that include:

1. We may worry that there will be consequences to conflict, which gives it a high-stakes, more intense feel;

2. It can remind us of other times in our lives in which we’ve been in conflict situations. If those memories are emotionally charged, it can impact how we feel in the present moment;

3. Our reactions impact others’ reactions - we create a cycle of responses together, which can sometimes escalate a situation.

If the above factors are present in an interaction, we may start to feel a sense of being in a risky, threatening situation. As we know, when we feel under threat, we don’t feel or act the same as we do in a calm situation – different parts of us come to the surface, and it might feel harder to communicate as we do in our ‘normal daily life’ mode. As the sense of threat increases, our nervous system will kick into defence mode: pumping adrenaline around our bodies, preparing us to overcome the danger. You may well be familiar with the terminology used to describe our defensive responses while in this activated mode: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn (some theorists also discuss ‘flop’, but we will leave that to one side for today). In brief, these terms describe:

· Fight: increasing levels of aggression or defensiveness, to overpower the threat;

· Flight: escaping from the threat and going to a place that feels safe;

· Freeze: feeling paralysed, unable to react, waiting to see what happens next;

· Fawn: trying to appease and placate the threat; showing docility to demonstrate that we’re not a competing threat.

Our defence responses are essential for keeping us safe, which makes them very helpful. We maximise their benefit when we’re able to use them proportionately and appropriately to the situation – so, only activating them when the circumstances require it, and being able to vary between using all four types of defence, adapting to which might be most useful in the moment. Inversely, our defence responses can become less helpful:

1. when we are activating them more frequently than our circumstances require;

2. and/or when we find ourselves stuck responding with the same defence response every time, even when a different defence could potentially be more applicable.

How effectively we are able to regulate our threat response proportionately and appropriately will usually be contextual – it will be affected by how much conflict and danger we’ve experienced in our past; how that impacted us; and the strategies we employed to get ourselves through it.

Which brings us back to TU:QL. We frequently see the participants’ fight, flight freeze and fawn defences become activated, and we also see them explore these defences throughout the series: what’s the past context that informs them; what triggers them in the present; and how do they now impact their communication with their partners. Of course, These are all helpful questions for us to explore for ourselves, too – so, what can we learn from seeing others go through this process?

Fight – Mildred (she/her)

When Mildred first detects something she perceives as a threat to her relationship (which may be an unmet need of hers; a concern about incompatible values; or a sense of friction between her and her partner), her fight response kicks in. This significantly raises the temperature of an interaction, and puts both her and her partner straight into that ‘high-stakes’ feeling of the relationship being on the line. Both her aggression and defensiveness become palpable, and the Mildred we see in calmer moments feels less present – she moves into disagreeing with everything her partner says, taking them away from the issue they’d wanted to talk about in the first place, and putting them on separate sides. Fight takes over to the point that any sense of collaboration is lost – instead, we get well into burning bridges, ‘me-vs-you’ territory. It can bubble over into inappropriate, violent interactions.

When Mildred is able to reflect, she shares her understanding of what influences her reaction to conflict: she’s had many very painful experiences of being abandoned. Perhaps, for Mildred, there is a close connection between conflict and abandonment, and a fear that the former might lead to the latter. When it feels as if conflict (and thus abandonment) could be near, maybe it feels as if the parts of her that remember and carry that historic pain start to take over, and try to protect her from the pattern repeating. In using the fight response, perhaps she’s testing her partner, to see whether they show signs of leaving. If they don’t pass the test, the fight response may push her to get her out of the situation before the other person leaves, thus avoiding repeating the pattern (‘I left them, they didn’t leave me’). When Mildred creates that ‘me-vs-you’ dynamic, perhaps it’s reflective of how she’s feeling in the moment: I can’t trust someone else to be on my side, because they are going to hurt and abandon me, like everyone else has.

An important addendum: while we can understand some of what might be going on for Mildred, we also recognise when her resulting behaviour is not OK, and acknowledge its profound and distressing impact on those around her.

Flight – Aussie (Aussie)

Although Aussie protests on many occasions that ‘I’m not running away’, we can see that Aussie’s flight response is frequently activated throughout the series. Whenever a partner wants to talk about their relationship, Aussie experiences this as a significant conflict, shuts down from the conversation, and then leaves the situation to retreat to somewhere ‘safe’. Aussie’s flight response makes it difficult both for Aussie and for Aussie’s partners to express their needs, and we see Aussie’s partner Sam (she/her) describe trying to avoid conflict by staying quiet about her feelings (we might name this as a fawn response from Sam).

Aussie is another participant who offers us insight into past experiences’ influence on present feelings. Aussie describes growing up with family who always judged, blamed and criticised Aussie, and how hurtful and unfair that felt. Throughout the series, we can see that Aussie ‘hears’ those same accusations being hurled by partners, even when they haven’t been - and that this elicits the flight response in Aussie. For example, when Sam says she wants to be able to talk with Aussie in more depth, Aussie’s response suggests that Aussie ‘hears’ this as Sam judging, blaming and criticising Aussie for having done something wrong. Perhaps the parts of Aussie that still feel those emotions from childhood become activated, and maybe Aussie starts feeling again like that kid who was told they got everything wrong, and treated as if they were ‘bad’. Aussie’s flight response comes in to protect Aussie from this feeling, and to get Aussie away from someone who’s treating Aussie unkindly - but because it is so alert and ready to mitigate this threat, it’s starting to perceive and act upon it even when it’s not there (Sam isn’t treating Aussie unkindly, even though Aussie experiences these interactions as unkind).

The flight response keeps Aussie at a distance from a partner, which perhaps feels safer for the parts of Aussie that still feel that historic hurt (if we’re not close to people, they can’t hurt us). However, that distance could also be very painful to the parts of Aussie that want to connect. Furthermore, it significantly impacts Sam, who feels shut out, maligned and unheard – in fact, perhaps quite similarly to how Aussie felt as a kid.

Freeze – Rae (she/her)

Rae has a number of difficult experiences throughout the series, and we can see how tough she finds conflict at times. Rae arrives at TU:QL as the recipient of the ultimatum, given by partner Lexi (she/her) in frustration at Rae’s ‘indecision’ about their future. For Rae, communicating things that feel vulnerable is challenging – we see it’s hard for her to keep speaking even in ‘relaxed’ situations of exchanging compliments with Vanessa (she/her), as well as in high-conflict arguments with Lexi. In these confrontations, Rae often shuts down, going into a freeze response. She doesn’t physically leave the interaction like Aussie does, but she struggles to keep communicating in the present moment, and will often silently cry instead. It often seems very tough for Rae to voice what’s going on for her.

Rae and Lexi provide a good example for how conflict can escalate when we get into that ‘chain reaction’ of responses dynamic – particularly during the confrontations involving the subject of Vanessa. When Lexi is feeling vulnerable in the relationship, she moves into a fight response, which in turn moves Rae to freeze. Seeing Rae go quiet, Lexi doubles-down into the fight response (often to the point that she becomes quite unkind), trying to push Rae into reacting - which only serves to bring Rae further into freeze. Both of them are now reading the situation as a much higher threat than they did at the start: Lexi, because she’s reading Rae’s shutdown as indecision; and Rae because she’s feeling railroaded. They consistently reach this impasse when in conflict, which causes ruptures between them, as they both leave the interaction dissatisfied and upset. Maintaining this chain-reaction pattern perhaps gives them a sense of continually having the same argument over and over: the repetition prevents them being able to open up the possibility of different outcomes, and they keep getting stuck. While Lexi is ostensibly trying to get Rae to talk to her, her approach only serves to further shut down Rae’s voice, as it doesn’t give Rae space to feel safe enough to come out of freeze. In this pattern, neither of them gets what they want or need.

Fawn – Xander (she/her/they)

Xander shows a few different behaviours throughout the series that we might characterise as ‘people-pleasing’, thereby exhibiting the fawn response. They arrive at TU:QL in a relationship with Vanessa, in which it seems several dynamics have been established that prioritise Vanessa’s needs at the expense of Xander’s own. In the early period of the series, Vanessa continually provokes Xander, to which Xander responds by trying to pacify Vanessa, instead of advocating for herself. Even when the other participants are calling this behaviour out, Xander defends Vanessa, and doesn’t express her own feelings about experiencing Vanessa’s unkindness. At the start of the series, it seems that Xander is invested in trying to stay in a relationship with Vanessa at all costs – and to ensure this, they are putting their own needs and boundaries aside, in an attempt keep Vanessa happy.

As the series continues, and Xander develops feelings for another participant, Yoly (she/her), they continue to use the fawn response to avoid conflict – now with both Yoly and Vanessa. While she makes progress towards communicating more of her feelings, we can see that she stops short of talking about some of the difficult stuff head-on, avoiding any friction. Although this means there aren’t big, blow-up conflicts between them and their partners, it also keeps a lot under the surface, going unexplored. We could wonder about how much of what Xander was experiencing throughout the series was never addressed by them. And this is where the fawn response can get us into trouble: sometimes, conflict and anger are appropriate responses, to push back and advocate for ourselves when things don’t feel right. Xander makes her own way through the series and shows kindness, respect and compassion throughout – but she unfortunately doesn’t receive that back in the same proportion, and perhaps that would have been something worth fighting for.

And…what next?

So, we’ve come to the end of my dissertation on TU:QL. If those biscuits have tided you over and you’re still here, what can we take from all we’ve discussed? First, conflict is a difficult balancing act, in which there is a lot going on – what’s happening in the present moment, yes; but also, both our own past context, and the other person’s. The more awareness we have of those two latter parts, the more we’ll be able to notice and respond to them arising, and thus better stay engaged in the present moment. Awareness also helps us take appropriate responsibility, to ensure that we minimise the impact (on others and ourselves) of behaviours resulting from our context. Second, conflict can feel like a difficult thing to do well – as we’ve seen from our couples, it’s a skill that many people struggle with. If you feel you’ve not had a chance to develop your relationship with conflict in the way you’d like, it could make sense to get some additional support with it, and to learn more about how you can practice conflict in the way that feels right for you. Third, managing conflict well is essential to good functioning in any relationship: conflict is always going to happen, so being able to work through it smoothly avoids repeated relationship ruptures. Finally, when we have the tools to do conflict well, it can deepen and improve our relationships – we talk about the difficult stuff, and we find out how to meet each other (and ourselves) in it.

Also – maybe the best communicators are all cat people? Just a thought…!


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