Tim and Bonnie participated in a lively group discussion on the question, “Are threats considered domestic violence?” Several participants subscribed to the “no harm, no foul” principle. If it’s just words and no one is touched, they thought, it shouldn’t count.

“I never hit her,” Tim stated emphatically. “Sure, we had some pretty nasty fights, but I did not lay a hand on her.” Tim struggled to understand why his wife accused him of domestic violence.

Bonnie agreed with Tim. “I know I threatened to hit my husband over the head with a baseball bat a few times, but those were just idle words. He should know that I didn’t mean it and would never do it.”

Why Are Threats Considered Domestic Violence?

Others disagreed, pointing out that threats can be harmful, even if we don’t carry them out. Threats that cause fear mean that our partners lose their freedom to choose and their ability to be themselves. People who are regularly exposed to threats often become anxious and lose confidence.

Threats can be harmful, even if we don’t carry them out.

Threats can take many forms. Certainly if we threaten to hurt or kill our partner, their children, other family members, or even their pets, they’ll feel extreme pressure to comply. Saying we are going to commit suicide, file false charges against them, or take the kids are also very damaging ultimatums. Violent, intimidating behavior or displaying a weapon is going to feel like a threat.

If we have already had physical fights with our partner, they can never doubt our ability to do them harm. Punching walls or furniture, kicking the cat or dog, or using any aggressive behavior around them demonstrates our ability to hurt them. Threatening words or acting crazy will cause fear, even if we don’t follow through or touch them in the process.

Domestic violence and domestic abuse are simply mistreating an intimate partner in a way that does them harm. Threats and temper tantrums plant a seed of doubt and insecurity about their safety. Some describe it like walking on eggshells, where they become so focused on not upsetting their partner that they cannot relax and be themselves. So the answer to the question, “Are threats considered domestic violence?” is a resounding yes–specifically it is emotional abuse.

What’s Behind Our Threats?

So why do we make threats, anyway? For some of us, making threats are part of what we learned about negotiating for what we want in relationships. My buddy Scott’s mother used to say, “I brought you into this world and I can take you out of it” when he misbehaved.

We may have grown up around people who threatened each other in ordinary interactions. At the very least, we’ve all seen this behavior often in movies and on television. Even though it’s common, that doesn’t mean that it’s healthy, good for our relationships, or good for us.

Making threats may be a survival strategy we learned earlier in life.

Looking more deeply, making threats may be a survival strategy we learned earlier in life. Childhood experiences like bullying, shaming, or abuse can create an exaggerated need to control our environment, including those around us. In an effort to not appear vulnerable or weak, we used threats to try to maintain control until it became a bad habit.

Motivation for Change

Explaining why a person might use threats is not the same as excusing the behavior. Even if it pulled us through challenging circumstances as a child, the tactic doesn’t serve us well as an adult. If you recognize that making threats is part of your conduct, it’s time to change so you can enjoy a healthy relationship.

The criminal justice system also recognizes the significant damage that making a threat can do. While intentionally, physically harming someone is called battery, threatening bodily harm with a perceived ability to do so is called assault. Both are serious, arrestable offenses with far-reaching legal consequences, giving us even more reason to modify how we act.

Doing Better

Like all personal growth measures, seeing what we need to change and committing to it is the first and most important step. Threatening to harm someone is not okay, and there are better and safer ways to negotiate our needs. One way to discover these other ways is to look around at how other people successfully handle their relationships.

Threatening to harm someone is not okay, and there are better and safer ways to negotiate our needs.

I’ve learned that asking nicely for what I want gets my wife’s cooperation far more often than when I take a hard or aggressive approach. Consistently treating my partner with kindness and respect yields huge benefits. Threats may get temporary submission, but like all dirty fighting moves, they do long-term damage to the closeness and intimacy of a relationship.

Sometimes I make requests and I don’t get what I want. That’s the reality of a healthy partnership. Believing that I must have something or that my wife must agree with me is faulty and distorted thinking. Learning that I can be okay, even when things don’t always go my way, is freeing. It is a far better and easier strategy than using threats or other controlling behavior, which never really works anyway.

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