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Divorce Talk and Veiled Threats

I’ve never done a study (it would be really interesting), but I bet fully 80% of my clients have made a threat to divorce each other, one time or another.  It’s one of the main reasons they come to see me in the first place.  Most of the time these threats are what I call “Veiled Threats,” meaning the comments (threats) could be taken either way, but given the nasty way they are said (tone of voice, physical demeanor), the partner takes it as a threat to divorce.

Some examples of veiled threats include:

I can’t take this any more. (Meaning: I can’t take this fighting.  The spouse hears: My spouse is done with the marriage.)

I’m just gonna leave (Meaning: I’m going to go calm down from this fight.  The spouse hears: My spouse is done with the marriage.).

I’m done.  I’m done.  I’m done. (Meaning: I’m done with this fight.  We need to stop.  The spouse hears: My spouse is done with the marriage).

Veiled threats lead to not-so-subtle threats that are a little closer to actually saying, “I’m going to divorce you.”

I deserve better.

I’m not gonna settle.

I need to take care of myself.

I love you, but I’m not INlove with you any more.

Which leads to someone actually filing for divorce or stating that is what he is going to do.

Imagine a football player at Iowa State coming up to Coach Rhoads and saying, “I’m done.  I’m done.  I’m done.”  and then the player walks away and leaves the field?  What do you think Coach Rhoads would be hearing?  He can’t take this today?  Or he can’t take it ever?  The nonverbal says it all: He’s leaving the team.  For good.

And that’s just college football.  Marriage is a much more serious deal.

Or imagine a boss coming in and yelling at everyone, saying if they don’t start getting more sales, “I’m just gonna close this place down.”  What’s everyone going to do?  Go out and get more sales?  No.  They are all going to start looking for new jobs!

If you threaten someone he won’t jump for joy and get all cooperative.  He’ll protect his butt.

So here’s a Ground Rule you both need to follow: Don’t make veiled threats.  Ever.  Period.  You don’t want to call your commitment to the marriage into question….ever.

If the fight is getting too harsh say, “We need to take a break from this fight.” NOT:  “I’m done.”

If you are cavalier about your commitment your spouse will think you aren’t all in, and will start preparing himself for your eventual departure, which will include such things as shutting down and withdrawing from you so that when you eventually leave him it won’t hurt so much.

Which, by the way, is one of the quickest ways to go from being husband and wife to being roommates to being former husband and wife.

His withdrawal won’t cause your heart to pine for him and you’ll get even more upset making more veiled threats until you either quit making veiled threats and start throwing out the real thing or he says to you he gets it that he makes you miserable so he will do what you want and leave you so you can be happy and then you’ll say you didn’t mean it, but it may very well be too late because he believed you and was listening after all.

A curious result of all of this is most of the time when someone is saying these veiled or not-so-veiled threats she is thinking she’s just trying to get her spouses’ attention that the marriage problems need to be addressed.  That’s not what the spouse hears.  The spouse hears the marriage is over and I need to protect my butt.  So the spouse withdraws at minimum or files for divorce first.

As a side NOTE: If your children EVER hear you say these things they will ALWAYS assume you are getting a divorce and will freak out accordingly.  I have a theory about much of our children diagnosed with ADHD: Insecurity in motion.  Take away the insecurity (mommy or daddy sounding like someone is leaving for good) and people (mom, dad and kids) settle down.


Peace would be good.


To see Dr. Bing’s other blogs about Ground Rules click here.


Dr. Bing Wall is a therapist specializing in marriage and relationships and issues facing single adults with a practice in Ames and Urbandale, Iowa.  To set up a time to see Dr. Wall click here or call 888-233-8473.  For more information about Dr. Wall click here.

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