This is one of the most difficult issues to write about. Let’s start by talking about what it means to threaten somebody.
Threats fall along a spectrum. At the low end are small threats, like, “If you leave me I will scream!” or “If you walk out that door I will never talk to you again!” These can be painful and messy, sure, but they aren’t too serious.
“If you leave, I’m taking the kids!” This is a more serious threat, although it may be one that’s not so easy to carry out, as it involves lawyers, lots of money and time, as well as a court order. Nevertheless, it is a threat, and is ugly on multiple levels, since it implies that the children are tokens or pawns to struggle over in a marriage fight.
“If you leave, I will hunt you down!” Depending on what “hunt you down” implies, this could be a pretty serious threat.
“If you leave, I will probably kill myself.” This is a more serious threat, too, though plenty of people exaggerate about killing themselves these days. Nevertheless, it isn’t a nice thing to joke about with your partner.
“If you leave, I will kill anyone you ever date.” Scary. Serious.
“If you leave, I will kill you.” This is truly terrifying. The only thing more serious is a threat to kill both of you, or your children.
What do all these threats, from the innocent to the deadly, have in common? What links them, from a psychological perspective?
Threats are about controlling another person. That’s the simple truth of it. If someone threatens you – “…or else!” – they are trying to make you do what they want, not what you want. Every type of threat described above, from the simple emotional threat of a scream or fit, all the way up to actual threats of murder, is an attempt to control you.
So if you have a partner who threatens you, any type of threat, try to recognize that for what it is. Threats don’t come from love. They aren’t about passion – no one loves someone so much they threaten them. That doesn’t make sense. Threats are about control, just as a master threatens a slave with flogging or death or other such punishment if they run away.
Your partner may love you very much. Indeed, they probably do love you, or you two wouldn’t be together. But threats against you don’t come from the loving part of them. Threats come from dark places, from anger, hatred, and, most likely, fear. Your partner is afraid of losing you, of losing control of the relationship, and so they lash out, desperately, trying to force you to stay with them.
You aren’t a slave. You are an equal partner in a relationship, an adult, a responsible, free human being, and you should never forget that. By giving in to threats, whether large ones or small ones, you perpetuate the unhealthy relationship between you and your partner or spouse.
Small threats aren’t so tough to deal with, depending on how you handle them. But the healthiest thing is to assert your independence one way or another. You don’t need to dump your partner if they issue a minor, angry threat. But you need to make it clear – to yourself above all, but also to them – that you are staying in the relationship for positive reasons, not because you have been threatened. You choose to stay because you love them and because your relationship is important to you, because it works and because it makes your life better. But both of you have the right to leave at any time. That is a basic rule.
When it comes to serious threats, threats of suicide or hurting you or killing you, then you have to be very careful and protect yourself. It can feel nearly impossible to leave someone who is threatening suicide. But you cannot stay in a relationship just because the threat of your partner’s suicide hangs always over your head. What kind of gray, ugly life will that be for you? Remember this harsh truth – if you left, hypothetically speaking, and your partner decided to kill themselves, it wouldn’t be your fault. It would be theirs. That isn’t always easy to see, but it is true. Your partner may very well be mentally ill in some way. But although you sympathize with them over their emotional problems, you didn’t cause them, and you can’t cure or control them. Do not take on the burden of your partner’s psychological health. It can and will crush you.
If you’re seriously worried about your partner harming themselves, find help from friends and family or from a professional suicide hotline. Don’t feel you must solve this problem on your own. It isn’t your responsibility to solve it. You may feel an urge to help, and that’s fine, so long as you aren’t sticking around under duress. Make sure your unhappy partner has support from others and access to professional help, and then take care of yourself. Put yourself first. If you need to leave the relationship, then leave.
Physical threats against you are terrifying and must be handled very carefully. If you’ve already been attacked or harmed, it may be a good idea to call the police. This creates a “paper trail,” or record of threats and physical violence against you, and that can deter further violence and also give you a legal edge if you need to apply for a restraining order or other protective measure.
Many people balk at the idea of calling the police on their own partner or spouse. It seems somehow to violate a rule that domestic problems should be handled at home, out of public view. But that’s wrong. Calling the police sends a message that you are serious about not being hurt. You may fear further violence when the police have gone away, and that’s a reasonable fear. But you will have taken a serious step to protect yourself and break the cycle of violence in your relationship. You may still choose to stay in the relationship, supposing your partner gets the help they need to control their anger. But you may also choose to leave. It’s up to you.
Unanswered threats tend to lead to a pattern of more threats, of tighter control and, eventually, inevitably, to domestic violence of some sort. If you do a little research on murder, you will find, sadly, that many, if not most murders are domestic, mostly men killing their wives or girlfriends. Don’t let yourself become this sort of grisly statistic.
Above all, don’t fall into the depressing, demoralizing trap of thinking you have to fight this fight alone. Whatever level of threats your partner is using against you, there are other people out there who can help you. Seek them out. Ask your friends for advice, and your family. Talk to a professional therapist or counselor, who will know of many community and medical resources that can help you. Remember that you aren’t alone.