One evening while I was slicing some zucchini for dinner, my (now ex) wife and I got into an argument. I don’t even remember what the argument was about, but in my frustration, I stabbed the knife into the cutting board. The look of horror on her face said it all: my intimidating behavior scared her.

Intimidating behavior is any behavior that would reasonably cause a person to fear injury or harm. An action that is strong, aggressive, or violent, even if it is not directed at anyone, can intimidate. It’s using force that is beyond what is justified to defend ourselves.

For those of us who have been violent with our partners but are trying to change, recognizing and stopping intimidating behavior is very important.

For those of us who have been violent with our partners but are trying to change, recognizing and stopping intimidating behavior is very important. We should expect that our mate will easily feel threatened, especially if they’ve been on the receiving end of our aggression in the past. Intimidating behavior will make it impossible for us to have a trusting, close, or loving relationship with them.

Examples of intimidating behavior

Stabbing a knife, of course, is not the only way we might intimidate another person. Raising my voice is one of my most common violations. I’ve also been guilty of pounding my fist, kicking objects, slamming doors, and throwing things at the wall. I’m ashamed of all of these acts, and they have not served any good purpose in my relationships or life.

Other forms of intimidating behavior include leering looks, towering over someone, death-grip handshakes, and friendly-looking touches that are actually painful. Directly or indirectly threatening to hurt someone also qualifies and is criminal assault. Of course, exhibiting a weapon is clearly intimidating behavior and likely to land the offender in legal trouble.

Size matters, but it isn’t everything

My friend Brian stands 6’4” and weighs over 250 pounds. His wife is a good foot shorter than him and is maybe half his weight. If he acted aggressively and it intimidated her, would anyone be surprised?

On the other hand, another one of my friends is barely 100 pounds, but her boyfriend is seriously scared of her. He knows that even with her small demeanor, she’s capable of inflicting injury. And, he also knows he doesn’t want to fight back, so any physical altercation is going to be one-sided and not in his favor.

If you’re bigger than your partner, an extra burden of care is necessary. Even if you’re not, we all have a responsibility to act in a way that does not create fear in those around us. This of course applies not only in intimate partnerships, but also in the workplace and social situations.

I didn’t mean to

I did not intend to intimidate anyone. My actions weren’t aimed at her. I was just releasing frustration.

I find that, for a lot of people, their intimidating behavior is not intentional. In fact, we’re often not aware that we were intimidating until our behavior is pointed out (or we get into trouble for it). What we’re doing by raging with violence or aggression is a form of bullying nonetheless.

Intimidation is a terrible long-term game plan.

Still, others are intentional about their intimidation. They’ve learned it is a strategy they can use to get their way. However, intimidation is a terrible long-term game plan.

Why we should care

Regardless of whether intimidating behavior is subconscious or intentional, our actions end up hurting us. People quickly see our tactics and actively work to neutralize us. We end up facing their resistance, whether we’re using the bad behavior or not, just based on our reputation of intimidation.

I remember thinking, “Well, she shouldn’t be scared.” But when I honestly put myself in her place, her reaction made sense. Besides, trying to convince someone to not be scared when they are never works.

When a person feels intimidated, our relationship with them suffers. They will be less engaged and are likely to withdraw. It creates a tense atmosphere of anger and resentment. All of this is counter-productive to what we really want: a close, loving, harmonious relationship.

Why we use intimidating behavior

Think about a cat with its back arched and the hair on his back standing in a ridge. What the cat is trying to do is scare or intimidate whatever creature or object it just encountered. The cat’s behavior, however, is driven by its own fear of that same item.

That’s similar to what’s really going on when we use intimidating behavior. We may not be aware of it at the time, but chances are we’re feeling threatened in some deep, psychological way. If this person doesn’t back down or give in, our sense of wellbeing is somehow going to be compromised.

When my wife said negative, critical things about me in a quarrel, I was letting her define me as a bad or inadequate person. When she didn’t listen to me, it meant she didn’t like or respect me and I had no influence with my partner. Both felt awful, and I thought I couldn’t let her think or say those things about me.

I tried to get her to change her thoughts, words, and actions by intimidating her. This wasn’t a planned strategy, but a subconscious course of action conjured up in my mind. It also wasn’t a good or effective plan, but simply a desperate and dysfunctional attempt at self-protection.

How to stop

I didn’t want to be “that guy” whose relationships and reputation were tainted because he was a raging hothead. I saw people who did not use intimidation to get things done or relate to others. I envied how they seemed more effective, while their life sailed along more smoothly without all of the anger and nastiness.

One strategy that helped me was recognizing my intimidating behavior when it started. Before I jabbed the knife into the cutting board, I was yelling and I could feel my body getting tight during our argument. These became warning signs I was getting upset, should take a time-out, and should get curious about why I was feeling threatened.

Understanding why we intimidate also helps us stop.

In the long term, understanding why we intimidate also helps us stop. When I thought about how my actions were a response to a perceived threat, I could see how misguided that was. I was protecting myself from that a threat that didn’t exist.

Having a partner that’s upset does not mean she’s condemned me as a person. Similarly, just because she’s not listening now (in the heat of an argument) does not mean I’ve lost all say in the relationship. My mind made up those interpretations, then deemed them as threatening, which led to my intimidating behavior.

This process of identifying my thoughts and emotions when I got upset, then challenging those distorted thoughts, helped me make changes. I was less likely to misinterpret the situation the next time it came up. My wife and I would argue again, but I didn’t take her complaints and criticisms so personally. And when I stopped hearing her words as bigger threats than they were, my reactions got smaller.

Faith note

God gives us more than a command to not intimidate others—he gives us the remedy. God certainly doesn’t want us to intimidate or bully others. He says this because he cares about his children and he doesn’t want them to be hurt or scared.

But God also doesn’t want us to use intimidating behavior because he knows it hurts our relationships and us. He wants a good life for you and me. And, he knows that behavior is not going to help us get it.

Here’s the cool part about God. Through our faith in him, he takes away the fear that causes us to act in self-protecting ways. As we trust God to be our provider and protector, we stop feeling the need to do those things for ourselves.

As we trust God to be our provider and protector, we stop feeling the need to do those things for ourselves.

Because I can trust that God will provide for me, I don’t have to get tough and nasty in the marketplace to get my way. When negative, critical, and even untrue things are said about me, I can trust that God will protect me. There is no need to do it myself. This isn’t about becoming a doormat; it’s about living free from unnecessary fear.

God loves you and is waiting to have a relationship with you. His son Jesus set a perfect example of how to navigate the challenges of life without using intimidation. If you haven’t experienced how transforming it is to put your trust in God, I encourage you to check it out.