The eight most likely outcomes that empty threats can create.
In the four-plus decades I’ve been working with couples, I have had the opportunity to witness many fighting patterns. These negative exchanges are expressed in many different ways and too often endlessly repeated.
Of all of the negative patterns that couples demonstrate, one of the most destructive is the use of wipe-out, empty threats that are meant in the heated moment but are never carried out. Often most easily identified by the words “never,” “ever,” “anymore,” or always, they are meant to intimidate the other partner into compliance by fear of loss:
“I get it now. You’ll never change. I’m so done with you.”
“I just can never love you again, so just don’t expect it.”
“You’ve always been mean when you get cornered. I’m just not going to put up with it anymore.”
“Don’t even think I’ll ever forgive you for this.”
“If you don’t get it soon, I’m out of here.”
Like the boy who cried wolf, these empty threats, often repeated, take on a life of their own over time. Even when the partners on the other end of them know they are unlikely to manifest in actual behavior, they may eventually grow immune to their effects.
Following are the eight most likely outcomes empty threats can create. Separate or together, they can predict that a relationship will eventually break apart under their weight.
1. Losing credibility. Over time, empty threats, hurled in fits of anger and never followed through, will lose their credibility, sometimes to the point of being meaningless to the other partner. The partner on the other end of them, begins to ignore them, scoffing, eye-rolling, walking away, or making fun of the behavior. They might retaliate with retaliatory remarks like “Just try me,” or “One of these times, you’ll get your wish.”
2. Backfiring, when the threatened partner one day takes them seriously. As empty threats continue, the partner on the other end of them becomes inoculated, no longer receptive or affected by them. That numbness can easily grow into a lack of reacting that can often result in a sudden reversal. “You know, it’s time I took you up on those threats. I’m done.” “I think you might really mean what you say. If that’s true, I have no reason to stay here anymore.” And it’s not an empty threat.
3. Setting off a reaction in the other person to counter-threaten. Empty threats often create retaliatory empty threats. The couple, now regressing into schoolyard rants, throw empty-threat statements at one another designed to push the other away, scare them into doing what the threatener wants, or indirectly wanting to be reassured. “Oh, yeah? Well, two can play that game. If you keep threatening me, then I’m not going to be here for the next round.” “Well, I’m just beginning to think you’re not worth it.”
4. Activating buried trauma. Prior trauma and teachings from childhood often arise when emotions are running high. Those triggered traumas can result in regressions, i.e., the person experiencing them is re-experiencing their prior trauma as if it is happening in the current moment. The partner on the other end becomes a replication of the person who caused the earlier trauma as the threatening partner acts out a personal prior role, or one they have witnessed. “You obviously never cared about me so it won’t make any difference what I do. You’ll never change. I’m about ready to give up.” “You’re just like my father. He never cared about anyone but himself.”
5. Creating drama to cover up feelings of powerlessness and fear of loss. Empty threats are rarely, if ever, expressed without drama. They can be identified by raised voices, angrily focused facial expression, stomping, walking in and out of the encounter, arms flailing, and often throwing things. The person feeling the need to threaten is out of control, feeling powerless and afraid. There can be physical shoving or finger-stabbing. The threats often end with rapid disconnects, throwing up of hands, or a steely silence. “I’m giving up on you. You’re useless.” “Why did I ever think you would show up for me?”
6. Triggering passive/aggressive behavior in the other partner. If the partner on the other end of an empty threat tirade takes the expressions seriously, he or she may become fearful that the threats will actually manifest one day. Fearful of loss, they become overly submissive, promising anything to keep the person from following through on what they’ve said they would do. But, because that response is simply to stop the threatening behavior, they will, of course, return to their old behaviors as soon as the threats stop. “I’m so sorry you feel that way about me. I’ll do anything to fix this.”
7. Creating a loss of faith in others. People who make empty threats often make them in front of others or boast that others support them. When other people’s views come to light, they may not only be unsupported, but typically distorted. Those confrontations may make the person delivering empty threats feel even more alone and frightened. The people unknowingly or unwittingly brought in to corroborate also begin to lose trust in what has been threatened. “You keep making those threats and then not following through. We’re having trouble believing you anymore.”
8. Preventing deeper reflection and potential healing. Resorting to empty threats under stress can easily be a behavioral pattern that keeps the person expressing them from ever looking at what drives them to consistently test a relationship. Do they fear that the relationship will end anyway and are simply controlling that rejection by rejecting first? Do they truly feel unable to deal with the pain of the relationship at the time but losing it is more terrifying? Are they aware that the partner on the other end of them may someday take them seriously? “The only time you ever pay any real attention to me is when I threaten you.”