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  • Leona LaForce

Threat of Punishment

Threat of punishment. This is one kind of abuse and toxic behavior we can experience. We have to be able to recognize it before we can respond.

This is a common tactic of abusers, but often misunderstood. It brings to mind someone telling you that they are going to leave you or kill your pet, a raised fist ready to strike, and a particularly horrifying story I once heard from a survivor that her abuser would wake her up every hour with a gun to her head tell her he was going to kill her.

That’s not a complete picture.

The threat of punishment goes far beyond that and it goes along with my blog on trusting yourself. If your gut tells you that if you don’t do something, or DO do something, you will lose something good from your abuser, or you will receive something bad from them, you are experiencing the threat of punishment. It is true that most often an abuser will speak the threat to you, but we can also *know* that if we behave a certain way that our experience has told us that the abuser will have a negative reaction.

Standing up for yourself is one very common way to elicit an abusive reaction. This can happen in the workplace. Speaking out against situations like wage theft, hostile environments, sexual abuse, unethical treatment of employees, and others, can elicit a loss of employment. How many of us submit to things of this nature because we don’t want to “make waves” or be a focus of additional abusive treatment? How many people have avoided going to HR about inappropriate “jokes” because we know that most human resource departments will do very little to address situations like this? That in and of itself is a threat of punishment: not being listened to or taken seriously. Indeed, this is the reason why there are anti-retaliation laws for whistleblowers. Unfortunately, the whistleblower is still fired while the lawsuit or investigation proceeds.

Recently a friend told me that she had been evicted from her house because she told her landlord not to wander around her house and use her personal items while repairing something in her absence. She told him not to do that anymore and within five minutes she was told she had 30 days to move out because he didn’t want to deal with her any more. Standing up for yourself.

I was once told that my “behavior has consequences”, in that instance definitely a threat. Yes, behavior has consequences. If you drive drunk, for example, your risk of bad consequence can be quite high depending on the level of accidents, injuries, death, arrest. That is entirely different from a consequence of punishment by someone trying to control your behavior, particularly when that behavior is not in and of itself something that would produce a bad consequence.

An older woman I know was helped out by her son in her final years. She lived in a senior living home, not a nursing home, but she had suffered for years from a mental condition that made her very suspicious of other people. She was unable to ask strangers for help, including and especially the staff there. Her son brought her library books and special food that she liked, and every single time he came he would tell her how busy he was. The special food would have been available through her paid meals; it was not exotic. He did not attempt to set her up with a Kindle account, which I think she would have been able to handle. He kept her dependent on him, and the threat of his “busy-ness” kept her from making waves, from potentially losing his visits. She was afraid of him and also afraid of losing him. He controlled her behavior through this threat of punishment.

I can go on and on. You certainly have someone in your life who does this. The silent treatment, being shunned, laughed at, “consequences” to your behavior, but meted out by an abuser, not just the consequence of the behavior itself. Verbally expressed or just implied.

Some of these instances you can stand up to, but some you may choose not to, particularly if doing so will create an unsafe situation, like losing your job. That’s okay. What I want to do here is alert you to this dynamic. To let you know that it’s manipulative and controlling. You may feel really lousy when experiencing it, and I want you to know that your feeling is legitimate. Some instances you may be able to and want to confront, or spend less time with the person who uses punishment or threat of punishment to control you. Remember, what you do with this information, this knowledge, is completely your own decision. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to respond to my posts. I support you. You are valid.

As with all abusive behavior, it can be very open and direct (gun to head) or extremely subtle (“I am SO busy, but I'm making time for you”). If it causes fear or doubt within you, an unsafe feeling that if you are honest and express how you feel, there will be consequences, there is a likelihood that it is manipulative in nature. Trust yourself. Listen to yourself and trust yourself. <3

A future blog post will explore some of the ways we can respond to threat of punishment. If you learn that you are experiencing this in a relationship, you can reach out to the national domestic violence hotline for support at 1-800-799-7233.

If you have questions, message privately to

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