Are Threats Abuse? How to Recognize One When You Hear It

July 13, 2018 Emma-Marie Smith


Threats are abuse and are considered obvious signs of abuse in a relationship. After all, a threat is pretty easy to recognize, isn't it? Not always. Threats can be veiled with humor or hidden within an argument, but, if we dig a little deeper, the perpetrator's message is clear: If you don't do what I want, I'll make you regret it. Making any kind of threat in a relationship is a power play that seems obvious on the surface, but it can be difficult to spot. Threats are abuse, so how are threats hidden in seemingly normal relationships and how can we call them out?

Are Threats Abuse? Yes, and Here's What They Sound Like

Threats are abuse. Some threats are obviously abusive but some are hidden.

Obvious Threats

Domestic abuse victims will often report threats made by their partners. Many of those threats are of a physical nature, such intent to cause harm to a person or their loved ones. Threats can also be made over possessions. Examples of threats include:

  • If you do that, I'll hit you.
  • If you leave me, I'll take the kids away.
  • If I find out you've been unfaithful, I'll have to kill you.
  • I'll make sure I get the house/car/business and you'll be left with nothing.
  • If you try to leave, I'll hurt you and the kids.

Subtle Threats

Threats can be more subtle and emotional, however, making them harder to identify, such as:

  • Please don't leave me. I'll have to kill myself.
  • You could report me, but then, no one would believe you, would they? Everyone will think you're crazy when I tell my side of the story.
  • Your body is mine. If you give it to anyone else, you're giving me permission to share intimate pictures of you on the Internet.
  • Do you really want me to tell everyone what you're like?
  • If you don't start doing things my way, I'll break up with you.
  • I could tell your colleagues/friends about your mental illness/secrets.

Even looks, actions, and gestures can be threatening if the intention is to manipulate or control you. Examples of threatening actions might be a tight hand squeeze when you start to talk about something your partner doesn't like or a look that says: keep your mouth shut.

Of course, gestures like these are difficult to contextualize and define, giving the perpetrator further reason to say it's all in our heads. 

Are Threats Abuse All of the Time?

Here's where it gets tricky. If you're anything like me, you may recognize some of your own behaviors in the list above. You might remember times you tried to manipulate situations to please an abusive partner or get them to lay off you, verbally or physically.

You might think about ultimatums you've made, such as: If you keep threatening me, I will leave you and take the kids.

You may be wondering if, after all the abuse you've endured, you've actually become the abuser.

Perpetrators of abuse are aware of this fine line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior in a relationship and they exploit it to their own ends. If the person abusing you has ever made you feel like you are the abuser, you're not alone.

Abusers often turn out the way they are because they think everyone is out to get them. While gaslighting and manipulation clearly play a part in the abusive cycle, it's possible the perpetrator genuinely believes he or she is not at fault. He or she may then take every threat you make as further evidence of your culpability.

Verbal and emotional abuse is never okay, but it often comes down to ownership of power. In every abusive relationship, the perpetrator is the one with that power and he or she wields it over his or her partner to get what he or she wants.

If you feel powerless in your relationship, this could be a sign you're being abused. 

Why Do Threats Happen in Abusive Relationships?

Understand that if you've started making threats in your relationship, it's because you're trying to survive. Clearly threatening to harm someone is not okay, however justified; and there are better and safer ways to stop abuse. But abuse victims will respond in all kinds of ways to try and preserve their sanity, and one of their most common coping mechanisms is to act like the abuser.

Abusers make threats in relationships because they know they have the power to follow through with them. At times, however, they desperately need to be reminded of their autonomy over us, so that they're not deemed vulnerable or weak. This is how and why threats happen. 

If you're being threatened by your partner and you're concerned for your safety, please call a domestic violence helpline today. 

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UK: 0808 2000 247

APA Reference
Smith, E. (2018, July 13). Are Threats Abuse? How to Recognize One When You Hear It, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 25 from

Author: Emma-Marie Smith

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June, 14 2023 at 7:22 pm

So I have a illness “arthritis” an too me it’s life threatening but I couldn’t tell my ex that cause of his mother just thinks all girls “manipulating” an whatever I had enough of the bullying that was even aim at me an then I was trying too speak up about the abuse an the bullying I got an I was threatened with a “avo” to keep my mouth shut about things so I wouldn’t speak up then I get blame from him “why didn’t u told me about your illness or your suicidal from bullying an it” I told him your joking right look where that got us, even now I still can’t speak up what happened or the bullying an abuse I got cause I get threatens an he even warned me an threatened me in a way that his the victim when I done nothing wrong to him at all as his the one abuse me with “ex’s” his the one who let his own mother an brother bullied me about my arthritis an out me down all the time

November, 9 2022 at 4:18 am

my ex gaslights me tells me im to be only his and he will break my rib if i tell anyone ....i already made the error by having sex with him even when we do have sex he likes to inflict pain {biting nipples digging nails into back etc} he is also trying to keep me from moving away to a better life just to keep control over my life ...what do i do? can i use this in court for my relocation?

January, 9 2023 at 7:16 am

Look up a domestic violence shelter and call them, even if they're not exactly right for your situation they will connect you with someone who can.

February, 16 2020 at 12:58 pm

my mom threatens to slap me when we have disagreements. is that abuse?

June, 19 2019 at 7:24 pm

He threatens to punch me in my face or knock me out if I don't do what he says. He slaps , chokes, corners me and spurs in my face. My self esteem is low and I don't feel beautiful.

April, 5 2019 at 4:11 pm

I love your article!
According to this article, I'm actually NOT crazy! Thank You for putting this on paper.

July, 22 2018 at 12:54 am

Thank you for this. I’m out of my abusive marriage 5 years next month. (DOES NOT SEEM THAT LONG), and likely because he still tries to harrass me secretly with some kind of manipulation. The threats I recall the most were long running “jokes”, (NOT), of how if I ever left him he’d move as close to me as possible to watch me come and go, and if I ever so much as had a smile on my face, alone or with anyone, he’d be at work the day I’m found with a bullet in my head. This went on for years subtly at first. Then not so subtle
No one believed me because he’d never been abusive to me around anyone. Like so many are so good at. Still these days I cannot stop from looking over my shoulder, and when I walk my dog I try to let someone know that just in case I don’t call or text when I’m back to call me and make sure we’re back. He owes me lots of money he never plans on letting go of, and I struggle horribly financially because of it and other things I got stuck with that he easily lied his way out of.
He did move close to me but even worse, very close to my grown daughter. Most disturbing and I will never not believe that if he had the right opportunity he’d make good on that threat. It’s just such a shame we’re made to feel like we’re crazy for that and they play the victim. I so hope people start seeing through that one day.
Thank you so much. I save so many of these for is my family ever wants to open their eyes.I have more than enough information to prove my points.

May, 17 2023 at 7:54 pm

I feel for you. I, if was your brother, dad, cousin, would not let this happen to you, first. I’d be in jail or dead before this would happen to my immediate famil, second.. So i am very upset you were not protected, a) and b) were not believed by those you did trust. They should be ashamed, the police, if your story was fact vs misunderstanding.
Not the point though, I digress and/or forget often (immediate term memory)played ball whole-life with TBI and probable CTE, What happens when the situation you describe is happening to your child, but your child is a man. The woman , multiple times a day, threatens him with false accusations of either causing her bruises or threatening her life. My son lives at home and for a year I listen to her talk very loudly to him in arguments. It progressed into breaking things did it progressed into her threatening to call the police on him and we had to ask her to leave that she was no longer welcome. Now that she’s not here he still thinks that she’s redeemable and she has gone to the point where she’s now threatening him to stay with her, because she realizes that she was triggered by him lying to her that ended up being her imagination. Now she is sneaking into our house, climbing up to the second story window, where my son lives to break in when he’s breaking up with her. Most recently she posted a set of photos that were bruises but it was not him he’s not in any photo and I saw actual text messages from her to him saying and threatening to do just that so what do I do?
And not only is this happening it happened to me. For years I was threatened by this girl that if I didn’t stay with her that she would call the cops on me. And I finally told her to call them I was done emotionally. He’s not there yet. I don’t know if he ever will be. I’m afraid he’ll end up in jail just because he’s accused.
What’s your advice?
PS just want to say that it’s not always the woman. But this is in no way to minimize this lady’s story in which I felt for her deeply.

Lizanne Corbit
July, 13 2018 at 10:24 pm

Thank you for sharing this. This is truly such an important read. It's helpful for us to not only recognize these behaviors in our partners, but as you so wisely pointed out, recognizing the behaviors in ourselves as well. It's important to be mindful of where a threat falls, but threats shouldn't be taken lightly and help is always available to those needing it. Thank you for sharing.

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