A deep sigh, followed by an eye roll, then a slammed door… and before you know it, all hell breaks loose and the big D rears its ugly head. The one that stops you dead in your tracks and has you questioning the future of your marriage. Yes, your partner really just threatened you with a divorce.
Without any intent to see it through, that’s exactly what that word is: a threat. A threat that, according to a marriage therapist, has the power to activate your survival instincts and send you into a state of fear. And it’s toxic AF.
“I draw the line with couples when one partner says something that threatens the relationship. Of course, threats to the relationship are only one example of toxic language couples use during conflict but, […] in my experience, it is the most common and destructive one and often gets overlooked,” says Aurisha Smolarski, Los Angeles-based licensed marriage and family therapist as well as author of Cooperative Co-Parenting for Secure Kids: The Attachment Theory Guide to Raising Kids in Two Homes.
While it’s not uncommon for couples to use petty and even harsh language during heated arguments, words that amount to threats should be considered off the table. Not only do they make it nearly impossible to stay focused on the real issues, but worse, they erode trust — and without a solid foundation of trust, doubt and suspicion can quickly seep in and destroy the relationship.
Before calling your partner’s bluff and lawyering up, it’s important to contextualize the situation. Though threats are never acceptable, if this is the first time your partner has used the word divorce, it might be their way of letting you know something is seriously wrong and that they need you to listen.
“Often, the partner who is using toxic language that threatens a relationship is doing it because they feel unseen or unheard. They may feel deeply hurt. It’s a reactive way to try to get their needs met and emotions heard instead of expressing their needs and feelings more directly,” explains Smolarski, adding that this type of indirect communication usually backfires, causing even more of a rupture in the bond between partners.
The good news is, if it’s a first-time occurrence, it can be used as an opportunity to strengthen your bond by opening up to each other and setting boundaries that can prevent further outbursts. It might be hard to navigate the discussion toward a more positive direction, and that’s why Smolarski recommends taking a pause, with a clear time frame for coming back to the discussion.
“You can do this in a way that doesn’t create more rejection or dismissal but instead expresses empathy and sets a reasonable boundary. For example, you might say, ‘I hear you’re very upset. And I’m having a hard time understanding what you need right now. Let’s take a 30-minute break and then revisit this conversation,’“ offers Smolarski.
Picking the discussion back up in a calmer state will almost always lead to a more productive exchange and allow you to get to the heart of the matter. That said, when you’ve both cooled down, it’s imperative to make an agreement with each other that outlines what words or topics are off the table during arguments.
This will be different for everyone, depending on individual emotions and triggers. For example, Smolarski says that the word divorce, for many, can reawaken childhood trauma caused by abandonment and neglect. If the word “divorce” is triggering for you, explain this to your partner and add it to the list of unsafe language.
Of course, creating an agreement and sticking to an agreement are two entirely different things. Furthermore, if your relationship is already at the compromised stages, an agreement between you and your partner likely won’t prevent the use of hurtful, or even toxic, language the next time an argument arises. After all, behaviors that aren’t curtailed early only tend to persist.
It could be that your partner either doesn’t understand the severity of your feelings or the situation, or they altogether lack respect and self-control. That’s when expert intervention is needed.
It’s best to collaborate with your partner on finding a marriage therapist who can help you find better ways to communicate and work towards resolving the issues at hand so that you both feel comfortable expressing yourselves during sessions. But if your partner is opposed to the idea of accepting outside help, make your intentions for seeking that route clear.
If you love your partner and want to make your marriage work, say that. If you feel that communicating one-on-one is only causing more resentment and hurt and you feel help is needed, say that. A partner who truly loves and respects you should be willing to try safe routes for repairing your relationship — as they should also understand that toxic language is a threat to that possibility.