‘If We Always Threaten Divorce, Is Our Marriage Doomed?’

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Illustration: Eugenia Loli

Dear Therapist,

When my husband and I fight, one of us invariably threatens divorce. Does this mean we’re destined for our marriage to fail?

Fighting Unfairly

Dear Fighting Unfairly,

What’s beautiful about your question is how concise it is. Instead of describing in exquisite detail the particulars of your arguments — what therapists would call “the content” — you went straight to what’s known as “the process,” which is the emotional dance that you and your husband do while arguing about the content (money, sex, laundry, kids, your parents, toilet seats, whatever). Picture a triangle where the vertex at the top is “the content” and each of the bottom vertices are you and your husband, respectively. The baseline of the triangle, the line that connects you and your husband, is where “process” happens. In other words, the content happens “up there” and the process happens “down below,” at the emotional level beneath the content. Which is exactly what you’re asking about — not, “Why won’t he stand up for me in front of his mother?” (content) but “What’s with this divorce-threatening business?”(process).

Now, to answer your beautifully concise question with equal concision: Yes. Emotional terrorism leads to failed marriages.

But here’s the hopeful part: You can absolutely change this pattern once you understand it better. So let’s get down on that baseline and talk about “process.”

It sounds like you and your husband share a certain way of reacting, stemming from what we call attachment styles. Attachment styles are the relational patterns that we form with our caregivers when we’re very young, and these patterns are important because they affect our relationships as adults — not just how well our relationships go, but also the kinds of people we choose to pair up with in the first place. In essence, our attachment styles offer a working model for how we react to our needs and how we go about getting them met.

There are two broad categories of attachment styles: secure, and insecure. Adults with a secure attachment style felt “safe, seen, and soothed” as children and now, as grown-ups who experience occasional distress, are able to comfort and be comforted by their partners in an effective and loving way. So instead of threatening divorce, they might say, “I’m hurt,” or “I’m sad,” or “I’m angry.” Likewise, if their partner is feeling hurt, sad, or angry, they can be open and responsive to their partner’s needs. Both people — even if they disagree — end up feeling seen and heard.

Children who did not feel “safe, seen, and soothed,” on the other hand, tend to develop an insecure attachment style that also carries over into adulthood. They might have had caregivers who were checked out, chaotic, or inconsistent and confusing, leading to various subtypes of insecure attachment (for instance, anxious-avoidant, disorganized, or anxious-ambivalent). Although these subtypes have their differences, what people with an insecure attachment style share as adults is that they don’t feel safe in close relationships. Unlike securely attached people, they become easily knocked off balance, or what we call dysregulated, by their own feelings or those of their partners, so that their arguments tend to escalate, leaving them feeling isolated, panicked, or furious.

I imagine that neither you nor your husband had the experience growing up of having an adult calmly and lovingly resolve conflict with you. Maybe when you got angry, they also got angry. Instead of saying, “Tell me what’s upsetting you,” they said, “Go to your room and come out with a better attitude!” Maybe when you felt sad or anxious, they also felt sad or anxious. Instead of saying, “What are you sad or worried about?” they said, “Oh, look, a balloon!” or “Don’t be sad,” or “You’re too sensitive.” Maybe when you disagreed with them, instead of being open to your experience, they shut you down with, “Because I said so,” or labeled your attempt at being heard as “talking back.” I imagine, too, that when your parents disagreed with each other, neither you nor your husband had the opportunity to witness two people calmly and lovingly resolve conflict with each other (either because they “never argued,” often its own form of avoidance; or because they engaged in some equivalent of emotional terrorism with each other — yelling, getting hysterical, hurling threats or insults, delivering the silent treatment).

So let’s look at what happens when you and your husband argue. He says or does something that upsets you (or you to him, doesn’t matter). You feel hurt or unseen or misunderstood — and because those feelings are so familiar from childhood, your brain immediately goes, Uh-oh. Uh-oh because whenever you had those exact, all-too-familiar feelings as a child, instead of getting “safe, seen, and soothed,” you got “abandoned, alone, enraged.” And now, yet again, here’s this person who supposedly loves you, but if he loves you, how could he do or say that thing that is making you feel so upset — that thing that triggers the Uh-oh, and that he knows makes you upset (because, of course, when someone loves you he should be capable of telepathy, so obviously he did this because he’s insensitive and doesn’t care about you one bit). So you approach your husband with anger, assumptions, and accusations. And when he hears these, now his brain goes, Uh-oh. Because anger, assumptions, and accusations feel all too familiar to him, and now he doesn’t feel “safe, seen, and soothed.” He’s having big feelings, you’re having big feelings, and you both feel as powerless and out of control as you did when you were younger. This is the dysregulation we see in insecurely attached couples. And because you don’t know how to tolerate your own or each other’s feelings, and the feelings are getting so big that you feel like you might explode, you blow the whole thing up with the D-bomb.

What does the D-bomb accomplish? It calms you down in a number of ways, at least in the moment. First, it takes any responsibility off of you. When you threaten divorce, you’re basically saying to your partner, “You are 100 percent responsible for this problem.” You’re dumping the blame on the other person, refusing to look at your role in the interaction, and implying that because he’s such a difficult and problematic human being, you have no choice but to leave. Second, it allows you to blackmail your partner into giving you whatever it is you want, even if they don’t feel comfortable doing so. Let me have your email password, or I can’t trust you and I’m leaving! Of course, this never works, at least in the long term, because threats — especially threats of abandonment and of withholding love — don’t solve relationship problems. I’ve never once heard anybody say, “You know what solved our relationship problem? A threat!” Securely attached people don’t try to control people they love by instilling fear in them.

Third, the D-bomb serves to silence the other person, shutting them down, and deflecting the conversation from whatever you don’t want to hear. Now that divorce is on the table, your partner is left unable to connect, request, or simply share what he’s feeling. After all, who cares what he’s feeling if the focus is now on whether or not you’re leaving him? It’s the ultimate bait and switch. Finally, and perhaps ironically, when people threaten to leave, often what they want is reassurance that the other person will stay. It’s a way of saying, “This argument scares me, so I’m going to try to scare you, and if you do get scared, then I’ll know that you love me.” Of course, if you get your fix — your partner passes your test of commitment by begging you to stay — it simply reinforces the cycle. Nothing gets resolved. Nor is either of you going to feel any more secure in your love for each other. It exacerbates the insecurity by eroding the trust and safety you both so desperately want.

It’s true that sometimes we do hurtful things when we’re hurting, but managing conflict is a prerequisite for a healthy marriage. When you impulsively threaten divorce, you’re talking as a scared child and not as a centered adult. A divorce, if you truly want one, should be a considered, grounded decision, preceded by thoughtful reflection, and presented in a planned conversation, not in the heat of an argument. Threatening divorce can pave the way to divorce not because mentioning divorce somehow plants the seed, but because it’s a marker of the ways that you both dysregulate, no matter what the issue of the moment is.

Which leads me back to the dance I mentioned. In any relationship, two people are involved in a dance. I don’t think either of you likes the Divorce Threat Tango, but here’s a little secret. If one person changes the dance steps, the other person has two options: they keep doing their same dance steps and fall flat on their face, or they can adjust their dance steps to move in time with yours.

What if you stopped dancing to the tune of the threat, and let go of your fear that the other person might leave? After all, emotional terrorism only “works” if the recipient is, as the term implies, terrified. If you want a healthy and loving relationship, you should be able to talk to your partner about your needs and expectations — and they with you about theirs. If your partner will leave you for wanting something or sharing your side of something or disagreeing or having another perspective, is this truly a loss to fear? It’s important to have standards in a relationship — what you expect from the other person and, just as important, what you expect from yourself. You can’t learn about each other or what either of you or the relationship needs if you toss grenades at each other whenever you feel uncomfortable. When one of you is calm, the other will be more likely to remain calm as well. Regulating yourself will help you regulate each other.

Once you take the Divorce Threat Tango out of the rotation, you’ll find a whole world of other tunes to dance to. The first one might go something like this, “I love you very much. I’m interested in your feelings. I’m learning how to listen. I’m also very scared. Can we take this dance more slowly? I don’t want us to fall.” And one, and two, and three … and safe, and seen, and soothed … and look, you’re dancing.

Lori Gottlieb is a writer and a psychotherapist in private practice. Got a question? Email therapist@nymag.com. Her column will appear here every Friday.

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‘If We Always Threaten Divorce, Is Our Marriage Doomed?’