Dear Dr. Yael,
I recently heard you speak and your advice about not threatening divorce really shook me up. I come from a divorced home and while I never want to be in that same situation, I find myself going there when I’m upset or frustrated with my husband. I’ve “threatened” divorce many times and I hate myself for doing so. I agree with you that threatening divorce is a bad idea, but that seems to be my go-to threat when I’m upset. I love my husband and I don’t want to get divorced ever, but I am not sure how to stop this bad cycle.
Thank you for your letter.
Couples tend to use the word “divorce” very easily, not realizing how much damage it can cause in a marriage. Of course, most couples do not really want to get divorced, but they think that it is a good threat to use when they are upset. As I said before, threatening divorce can be very dangerous; once it’s brought up (even in a fight or when upset), it plants seeds. If divorce is not something you are considering (and it shouldn’t be unless your relationship is abusive and/or toxic), then why use it as a threat? Words are very powerful and should be used with great caution. Of course, we all say stupid things sometimes, but we should be careful to draw a line and threatening divorce should be off limits.
It is understandable that once you get used to “going there” when you’re upset, you can find it hard to stop yourself from using the threats. However, it is not impossible to change your ways.
The first thing I would recommend is to find a time when you and your husband are both calm and to sit down and talk. Explain to him that you feel like you have both gotten into a bad habit of threatening divorce – or if it’s just you then admit that you have – and that you want to make a conscious effort to stop this bad cycle. Then it is important to come up with a plan that you both can stick to. If you’re both threatening divorce when you’re fighting, come up with a special word you can say to remind each other during an argument not to cross the line. Let it be something cute or funny, so that, hopefully, the word will help diffuse the situation.
If this is something that only you are struggling with, explain to your husband that you don’t want to get divorced and that you love him very much. Tell him that you do not want to use these words anymore and that you need his help to get you out of this cycle. Ask him to say that special word when he sees a fight ensuing and the cycle beginning.
Hopefully this will give you time to calm down and change the way you argue. Disagreements in a marriage are normal, what matters is that you do it correctly. Using hateful words or saying terrible things to each other is never helpful or constructive. Instead, use “I feel” messages and do not cast blame or criticize.
It’s also very important not to use hurtful insider information when you are upset. Many couples use information they know will hurt their spouse when they’re fighting because they have this urge to win.
Make a pact with your husband to help each other not lay blame or hurt the other when arguing. Then follow your own words and try to remain calm if you see that your husband is upset. Help him by not losing your temper in reaction and by using a calm and soothing voice. Say the diffusing word, but remain calm even if it doesn’t work (plans are not usually foolproof and depending on how upset your husband is, the word may not always work).
Once your husband sees how helpful it was and how you avoided a fight, he will likely want to do the same for you when you are upset. It sounds simple, but it will undoubtedly take hard work. You already passed the hardest hurdle by admitting that you have an issue and that you want to change. The rest will also be challenging, but you have shown that you have the strength to conquer this!