When Threatening Divorce Becomes Abuse


    6 Min Read


    Once upon a time, in the kingdom of Matrimonia, where marital bliss and occasional mayhem reigned supreme, love could be at times as volatile as an ocean during a hurricane. Here, occasional fair weather, “I love yous,” often gave way to lightning strikes in the form of threats of divorce.

    In this land, couples lived with everyday arguments turning into epic showdowns where threats of divorce were used like arrows pulled from a quiver of discord.


    Amusing? Maybe on paper.

    But threatening divorce isn’t funny, or an appropriate approach to winning an argument.

    In fact, using the threat of divorce as a weapon can meet the definition of emotional abuse, and cause severe problems for your relationship and damage to your partner.

    Is Threatening To Divorce Your Spouse Really A Form Of Abuse?

    If only it were a clear “yes” or “no” answer. Unfortunately, the threat of divorce isn’t black or white, but many shades of gray.

    Threatening divorce on its own is not inherently abusive.

    Although a poor response to conflict, in some cases, threatening to initiate divorce might be a genuine expression of frustration or anger. At a minimum, it’s a red flag regarding the state of your relationship.


    Healthy communication, even in troubled relationships, means partners should be able to express their feelings and concerns openly and honestly. This includes discussing the possibility of separation or divorce if issues are so significant that they’re unable to be resolved.

    But when divorce is threatened frequently or gratuitously, context and intent should be questioned to determine whether these threats have become emotionally abusive.

    If the threats are used in a controlling manner that crosses the line into abusive behavior.

    How Divorce Threats Can Turn Into Abuse

    Part of the definition of emotional abuse is when manipulation, coercion, or intimidation of another person is used to gain power and control over them.

    A person experiencing emotional abuse may feel afraid to anger their partner or behave in ways they’re not comfortable with simply to please their partner. Their partner may also cause them to feel,

    • Humiliated

    • Insulted

    • Scared

    Threatening divorce may not seem like abusive behavior, but when it’s frequent and used for personal gain, or becomes a tactic to control or manipulate the other person's,

    • Emotions

    • Actions

    • Behavior

    it absolutely meets the criteria of emotional abuse.

    For example,

    • “If you can’t be bothered to keep this house clean, I might as well divorce you!"

    • “You’re too dumb to be my husband/wife – I should just leave.”

    • “You don’t like the way I act? Fine. Divorce me and see what happens.”

    are all threats of divorce being used in an abusive manner.

    How To Recognize When Threatening Divorce Has Become Abusive

    Because threatening divorce can have such an emotional impact, recognizing the behavior as abusive can be difficult.


    Very often, the threatened spouse is focused solely on saving their marriage and keeping the threat of divorce from becoming a reality. They don’t stop to think about how those threats are being used.

    It’s a forest and trees scenario and isn’t uncommon.

    People experiencing abuse in their relationship are frequently unable to see what’s happening until it’s become extreme. There are signs, however.

    Some signs that threatening divorce has become emotionally abusive include:

    • Frequency and intensity. If the threats are frequent, ongoing, or escalating in intensity, it’s a cause for concern.

    • Purposeful manipulation. When threats are used to control the other person’s behavior or for personal benefit, its abusive.

    • Creating fear and insecurity. Causing fear or insecurity in your spouse is emotionally damaging.

    • Isolation and dependency. Threats that cause a person to feel isolated or dependent can be a sign of abuse.

    • Lack of respect and empathy. When threats of divorce are accompanied by a lack of respect for the partner’s feelings or an absence of empathy it’s emotionally harmful.

    • Accompanied by other abusive behaviors. If threatening divorce is part of a broader pattern of emotional abuse, like gaslighting or emotional manipulation, it’s clearly meant as abuse.

    It should be noted that emotional abuse, including threats of divorce, often follows a cyclical, three-phase pattern.

    1. Tension building

    2. Abusive behavior

    3. Reconciliation

    This cycle creates a blind spot to the abusive nature of the behavior by instilling hope that the positives seen during the reconciliation phase will become permanent.


    Unfortunately, it’s far more likely that abusive behavior will resume later.

    Are There Psychological Effects From Regular Threats Of Divorce?

    You bet.

    A person whose marriage is regularly threatened with divorce can experience long-lasting psychological effects.

    Some of the potential lasting effects on the individual may include:

    • Fear and anxiety. Repeatedly threatening divorce creates fear and anxiety, causing a person to feel constantly on edge and uncertain about the relationship's future.

    • Trust issues. Regularly making divorce threats erodes trust in the relationship.

    • Insecurity. The pain inflicted by these threats can leave a person feeling lonely and isolated, leading to insecurity that bleeds into other areas of life.

    • Low self-esteem. Continual threats of divorce can leave you feeling unworthy and unlovable.

    • Depression. The chronic stress of living with divorce threats can lead to feelings of hopelessness and sadness, potentially leading to depression.

    • Feelings of helplessness. The person may feel trapped and helpless, unable to change the situation and unsure of how to address the underlying issues causing the threats.

    • Physical health problems. Prolonged exposure to stress and anxiety can affect a person’s physical health, leading to a variety of health issues.

    • Post Traumatic Stress. Experiencing emotional abuse in a relationship can cause post-traumatic stress and affect the person’s ability to trust and form healthy connections in future relationships.

    • Emotional detachment. After experiencing repeated threats of divorce, some partners may shut down emotionally as a coping mechanism, leading to emotional detachment.

    Regular threats of divorce will create a toxic environment in the marriage, destroying both trust and intimacy. Eventually partners are left with what can feel like an insurmountable wall between them.


    Putting A Stop To Constant Threats Of Divorce

    It would be nice if stopping constant threats was as easy as saying,

    Please don’t do that anymore.”

    Perhaps that’s the case in the fictional land of Matramonia, but sadly, in the real world, it’s much more complicated.

    Ending the abusive use of divorce threats will require effort and, very likely, the help of a marriage counselor.

    You can begin the process on your own, however.

    If your spouse is constantly threatening divorce, consider making the following efforts:

    • Identify underlying issues. Threats of divorce are a symptom of deeper issues within the relationship. Identify the root causes of the conflicts and try to address them together. This might involve exploring unresolved conflicts, or unhealthy behavior or communication patterns.

    • Calmly discuss feelings. Initiate an honest and calm conversation with your partner about how the constant threats of divorce affect you emotionally.

    • Practice active listening. Active listening is a fully engaged state that incorporates eye-contact, attentive body language, and actually hearing what your partner is saying. Listening in this manner and trying to understand each other’s feelings and concerns can help build trust.

    • Set boundaries. Destructive patterns can be hard to break. Discuss boundaries regarding arguments agreeing to avoid resorting to threats of divorce during conflicts.

    • Seek professional help. Seeking professional help can be immensely beneficial in navigating the complex relationship issues that have led to this behavior.

    Dr. Kurt works with couples weekly who weaponize threats of divorce. When asked about it, he had this to say,

    I deal with spouses threatening divorce all the time. Sadly, it's pretty common. Threatening divorce is very different from talking divorce. There's nothing wrong with telling your partner you're thinking about divorce, want to talk about what divorce might look like, or that you feel like that's the only option for things to change. All of these forms are honest and healthy, although certainly not comfortable or positive. On the other hand, screaming 'I'm filing for divorce' or 'I'm calling a divorce lawyer in the morning' during a fight is not only not constructive, but it's destructive. It's said to hurt the other. The result is more pain and distance for both, which only leads to saying it again."

    Even with your best efforts, it’s important to understand that none of this happens overnight. Resolving deep-seated issues and changing habitually bad behavior takes time and dedication.


    This means that while no amount of abuse is acceptable, patience and recognizing progress are essential as you work towards a more respectful and stable relationship.

    What To Take Away

    Constantly threatening divorce can have severe and long-lasting effects on an individual’s mental and emotional well-being.

    If you or someone you know is experiencing this, keep the following in mind:

    • Not all discussions of or requests for divorce constitute abusive behavior. But when the threat of divorce is leveraged for control or personal gain, it’s crossed over into the category of abuse.

    • Understanding whether divorce is being used in an abusive manner means considering circumstances and context as well as the state of the relationship.

    • Abusive behavior is generally cyclical, with the reconciliation phase giving false hope for permanent change. If you’re in this cycle and experiencing the damaging effects, it’s time to initiate change.

    • A therapist or counselor can be instrumental in this process and help develop coping strategies and explore options for addressing the issues in the relationship.

    Each relationship is unique, but it’s not a stretch to say that if either partner is threatening divorce, there’s a problem to be addressed. Remember, no amount of emotional abuse is acceptable. If divorce is being threatened in an abusive way it must stop and if it doesn’t then just maybe it’s time to call their bluff and move on.


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