Why Threatening Divorce During an Argument Will Harm Your Marriage

divorce threats

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Marriage is hard, and arguments are inevitable. A minor argument can escalate into a full-blown fight depending on the topic. Everyone has their triggers. Our partners tend to know what they are and have the ability to set us off in a way no other person can.

When you are deeply hurt or angry, you might dip deep into your arsenal to dig out that “weapon of mass destruction” to make your point, be heard, or try to get your partner to understand how upset you are. This is often in the form of threatening divorce, otherwise known as the dreaded "D-word."

Divorce Thoughts vs. Divorce Threats

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 that they have had thoughts of divorce—voiced or unvoiced—either currently or in the past.

While such thoughts appeared to be common, many people choose to stay married. Many couples ebb and flow throughout their relationship but manage to hold things together. Some even stay blissfully happy while others hang on by a thread. In other cases, the marriage is beyond repair, and divorce is inevitable.

There is, of course, everything in between these extremes. It is also important to remember that thinking about divorce and saying it are two very different things.

"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.

Whatever your situation is, when you blurt out "divorce," it is strongly advised that you mean it, and it’s not just an empty threat.

"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," she explains.

Why People Threaten Divorce

There are a wide variety of reasons why people contemplate or threaten divorce. Sometimes it happens over repeated stress that gradually reaches a breaking point, or it might revolve around a sudden, large conflict.

Common reasons include:

  • Financial problems
  • Frequent arguments
  • Infidelity
  • Infrequent sex
  • Parenting conflicts
  • Religious differences
  • Substance use 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 in a press release. Such thoughts might give you the incentive you need to address a problem with your partner and work toward a solution.

While research has found that divorce ideation is quite common, approximately 90% of those who reported having thoughts of divorce ultimately stayed married.

What Happens When You Threaten Divorce

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. Your partner may become less likely to talk about problems or more likely to try to hide things from you in the future.
  • 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. 
  • 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 communication will only amplify the problem.

Dr. Paul DePompo, board-certified cognitive behavioral therapist and author suggests, “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," he suggests.

He discusses how 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."

Chris Armstrong, Relationship Coach

Whenever you use the D-word in an argument you are removing safety, security, and trust from a relationship, which are basic human needs.

— Chris Armstrong, Relationship Coach

Alternatives to a Divorce Threat

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." She and other experts have some tips for what couples should do instead.

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." Limongello also says, that "making ground-rules, of any kind, that you can both stick to, can be useful in building trust within your relationship."

She also advises, "Don’t ever threaten, as research shows that this leads to heightened levels of depression and anxiety, and can even affect blood pressure levels." She 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 to them leaping directly to the ultimate weapon—the threat to end the relationship altogether.

There are a lot of reasons why people might struggle to communicate their feelings and needs—including their attachment styles and previous relationship experiences. People who developed an insecure attachment style, for example, tend to feel confused or overwhelmed by their own emotions as well as those of others. When faced with difficult emotions or situations, people with this style of attachment may respond with fear or anger. 

However, it is important to recognize overcoming this tendency to threaten rather than deal with emotion is a skill that can be learned. Dr. Sherman also has strategies to avoid the D-word. She suggests alternative language 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 say something instead 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 wishing to throw out the D-word stay on track with what is really trying to be communicated. These spouses should ask themselves:

  • Have I looked at how it will land on my spouse?
  • What is the desired outcome of putting the dreaded D-word on the table?
  • Will it help me get to my desired outcome?
  • Why am I talking?

"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. 

How to Move Forward

Dr. Heather Ehinger, a marriage and family therapist specializing in high conflict relationships, also believes that when couples use the D-word they are trying to get their needs met in an ineffective way. 

Dr. Heather Ehinger

It feels like a way to get the other person to pay attention to how serious you are. Unfortunately, just like the story of Peter and the Wolf, all threats eventually land on deaf ears.

— Dr. Heather Ehinger

She advised couples to "take responsibility for yourself and examine what it is your need that you are not getting." She goes on to say 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. Peter found out the hard way, don’t be like Peter!"

Next Steps

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. In addition to utilizing the strategies above, 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 help improve communication and address issues that are causing problems in their marriage.

A Word From Verywell

If you suspect your marriage is in trouble or are having thoughts of divorce, it is important to find a way to either get back on track or make the final decision to end the relationship. The longer couples wait to address their issues, the much less likely they are to overcome them.

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Article Sources
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  1. Hawkins AJ, Allen SE. How many married people have thought about divorce?. Institute for Family Studies. Published November 2, 2015.

  2. Brigham Young University Family Studies Center. In advance of highest divorce rate month, Brigham Young University study shows thinking about divorce is common, not cause for alarm. PR Newswire. Published December 16, 2015.

  3. Welcome to the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Institute. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Institute of Southern California. 2020.