Marriage is hard, and arguments are inevitable. When there is tension in your marriage, unspoken or unresolved hurts may build up and minor disagreements can easily escalate into full-blown fights. Everyone has their triggers, and our partners often have the ability to set us off in a way no other person can. But in healthy marriages, there is an understanding that you are in this together.
When you are deeply hurt or angry, it can be tempting to consider cutting ties (or at least threaten it). The heat of the moment can bring out potent words—like “divorce”—we don’t really mean. But bringing up divorce to make your point, be heard, or try to get your partner to understand how upset you are is rarely a good idea.
Those threats can open doors you didn’t intend to open—and aren’t always easy to shut.
Thoughts vs. Threats
Occasionally thinking about what your life might be like without your partner is pretty normal and possibly benign, but threatening divorce is not. According to research, thoughts of divorce are quite common over the course of a marriage. One report found that half of all married couples between the ages of 25 and 50 reported having thoughts of divorce—voiced or unvoiced—either currently or in the past.
While such thoughts appear to be common, they aren’t necessarily damning or permanent, as many people choose to stay married. Many couples ebb and flow throughout their relationships but manage to weather their storms and stay together. Some may think about divorce but stay blissfully happy, while others hang on by a thread. In other cases, the marriage is beyond repair, and divorce is inevitable.
Why the D-Word Is Dangerous
It’s also important to remember that thinking about divorce and saying it are two very different things. Marriage is based on the presumption that you are both committed to the relationship, for better or for worse. When you threaten divorce, you upend the security of this agreement. Sometimes, if it is what you truly feel, it may be warranted to bring this up. But be careful if it’s not your true intention.
“During an argument, emotions are running wild, and lots of things are said that are ‘in the heat of the moment,’ but the threat of divorce should never be said,” advises psychologist and author Dr. Karen Sherman.
“Clearly, the idea of divorce is the ultimate abandonment and goes to the core of people’s attachment issues. So, even though it is only at the moment and not really meant, the threat has been put out there and is frightening,” explains Dr. Sherman.
Why People Threaten Divorce
There are a wide variety of reasons why people contemplate or threaten divorce. Sometimes, it happens due to repeated stress that gradually reaches a breaking point, or it might revolve around a sudden or looming conflict. Other people just tend toward passionate, stream-of-consciousness or no-holds-barred conversations. Others may enjoy the extreme emotional rollercoaster of high-stakes arguing.
Regardless of your relationship’s conversation style, there are many common threads that tend to tug couples toward the D-word. General reasons people threaten divorce include:
- Communication problems
- Feeling unheard or not listening to each other
- Financial problems
- Frequent arguments
- Infrequent sex
- Not feeling supported, emotionally or practically (such as with housework)
- Not putting enough attention into your relationship
- Parenting conflicts
- Religious differences
- Substance use issues
- Unresolved issues
“Thoughts about a divorce can be a healthy wake-up call to work on a marriage,” explains Dr. Alan Hawkins, a professor of Family Life at Brigham Young University.
Such thoughts might give you the incentive you need to address any problems in your relationship and work toward a solution. However, bringing divorce into the fold ups the stakes and can erode trust.
If you have recurring thoughts (or make threats) about divorce, be sure to address this with your partner and/or a couples counselor. The thought is in your mind for a reason, figuring out why and working through the various issues behind it is the best way to protect and strengthen your marriage. Brushing off these thoughts or threats is unlikely to make them go away or solve any underlying issues.
Impact on Your Marriage
Making the threat of divorce out loud is something that can’t be easily undone, and its impact is far more negative than just having the passing thought of separation. So why is making a divorce threat so damaging to a relationship? Some of the effects can include:
Creating insecurity in a relationship. Threatening to leave if your partner does not do what you want makes your relationship less secure. It changes the dynamic of your arguments and assumptions, opening the door to a future apart. Your partner may start thinking about divorce as well.
Making communication more difficult. Once you or your spouse has made that ultimate threat, it makes it that much harder to address the underlying issue. Your partner may become less likely to talk about problems or more likely to try to hide things from you in the future. It creates a fear of abandonment and honest communication that can be hard to shake.
Making the conflict worse. Instead of directly addressing the problem and working to resolve or move past it, divorce threats tend to simply draw out the conflict. Compounding frustration and hurt with distrust and lack of security will only amplify the problem.
Paul DePompo, PsyD, board-certified cognitive behavioral therapist and author, explains, “A spouse should never use the D-word during an argument unless this is a serious consideration and is not being said in anger. The reason why it is harmful is that it opens up the door for divorce to be on the table.”
He goes on to say, “This is traumatic in a sense because it brings the relationship from one that promises ”till death,’ to now to saying, ‘well maybe not-so-much’.” Dr. DePompo also stresses that this can bring out a “protective mode” rather than a “problem-solving mode.”
Relationship coach Chris Armstrong also advises against using the D-word during an argument. He explains that, first and foremost, the message gets lost. “When a spouse utters the dreaded D-word, whatever was said before or after can very often fade into the background.”
Armstrong contends that the spouse hearing this can get overwhelmed and “whatever outcome that was desired by the spouse who uttered it will likely not be achieved.” He also warns that if you get the spouse angry enough, they might even “call your bluff.”
Denise Limongello, LMSW, a Manhattan licensed psychotherapist and relationship expert, concurs. She says, “The threat of divorce during an argument can be devastating to hear.” Limongello and other experts have some tips for what couples should do instead of bringing up divorce. Their suggestions include the following:
Make a Contract
One possible technique is to make a pact with your spouse. “Creating a ground rule with your spouse that bans the D-word from your vocabulary can be a great way to contract safety with your partner,” says Limongello. She also advises, “Making ground rules of any kind that you can both stick to can be useful in building trust within your relationship.”
She also suggests, “Don’t ever threaten, as research shows that this leads to heightened levels of depression and anxiety, and can even affect blood pressure levels.” Limongello believes that making threats is not a healthy behavior in a loving relationship, and there are more constructive ways to get your needs met.
Try Alternative Language
Divorce threats often stem from an inability to directly communicate the underlying problem. People might feel like they are not able to say that they are angry, hurt, or afraid. This leads them to leap directly to the ultimate weapon—the threat to end the relationship altogether.
When faced with difficult emotions or situations, people with this style of attachment may respond with fear or anger. However, it is important to know that one can learn to overcome this tendency to threaten and deal with the emotions behind it instead. Dr. Sherman suggests using alternative language to the D-word that can help to deescalate the situation.
What to Say Instead
In the heat of the moment, Dr. Sherman believes it is more productive to express your feelings in a different way, such as, “I’m so angry (or hurt) that a part of me feels like, even though I’d never do it, I don’t want to be with you anymore.” She says that this will let your spouse know that the feeling is transitory.
DePompo recommends that couples should be vulnerable instead of defensive by targeting “the real hurt or fear that they are feeling which is hiding under their anger.”
Some things you can say instead:
- “I am hurt because I feel like you are not really listening to what I am saying, and this keeps happening, and I am starting to feel alone.”
- “I am afraid that if we cannot problem-solve this, we are not going to be able to have the relationship that we both desire.”
Use the WAIT Principle
Armstrong recommends a coaching strategy called the “WAIT Principle” that helps the partner who stay on track with what they’re really trying to communicate. The goal is to ask themselves the following questions before threatening divorce:
- Have I looked at how it will land on my spouse?
- What is the desired outcome of putting the D-word on the table?
- Will it help me get to my desired outcome?
- Why am I thinking about divorce?
- What is really making me unhappy or upset?
- What do I need from my partner and our relationship that I’m not getting?
“Whenever you use the D-word in an argument, you are removing basic human needs. You are telling your spouse the relationship is not a safe place to be or that the relationship is fragile and cannot withstand any stress or pressure,” says Armstrong.
Dr. Heather Ehinger, a marriage and family therapist specializing in high-conflict relationships, believes that when couples threaten divorce, they are trying to get their needs met. While it’s productive to express your unhappiness, doing it by threatening divorce is ineffective.
She advises couples to “take responsibility for yourself and examine what it is that you need that you are not getting.” Dr. Ehinger also says that if you are not prepared to make good on the divorce threat, then stop making it as “divorce will get you divorced, threats will get you ignored.”
Consider Marriage Counseling
If you or your spouse have threatened divorce or are regularly having thoughts of divorce, it is time to take serious steps to figure out how to address the problem. Remember that not saying divorce out loud and just keeping your feelings inside won’t make them go away—and can cause harm to your marriage. Instead, try the strategies above. In addition, talking to a therapist may be a helpful step.
Marriage counseling can help couples who are coping with defensiveness, anger, infidelity, substance use, and other factors that can place a strain on your relationship. By seeking professional help, couples can improve communication and address the issues that are causing problems in their marriage.