“Beware of rude and abusive people who love their mouths more than they love you.”
~ J. E. Brown
You think you are being verbally abused by your partner. In fact, you suspect that you are in an impossible situation, living with a partner who doesn’t honor you, wants to change you, or at least wants always to be in charge at your expense.
It’s hard to admit it. It’s terrible to give up the image you once had of your guy as a loving, strong, smart and caring mate. But it’s been a long time since you saw him that way. Instead, you find yourself always braced for the next verbal assault; the next incident where you are found lacking in some way or to blame for things being the way they are. You feel ashamed and sad and angry but stuck. It’s hard to believe it. You don’t understand what happened. You even sometimes think it is all your fault.
Why do women stay with men who put them down? The reasons are varied and complicated.
It’s not uncommon for partners to be completely taken by surprise. Often, people who abuse do nothing of the sort while dating. If the person in pursuit makes any negative comment, it is quickly explained away. There are apologies and promises. He may even cry. Once married, the situation turns. Now that he has her, he doesn’t feel the need to keep himself in check. Afraid that she will in any way have the upper hand in any discussion, he begins a campaign to keep her off balance. The wife is mystified. She wonders what she did wrong. Where did the fun guy she married go? He tells her it’s all her fault. If he is artful about it, she wonders if he is right and works overtime to fix it – not understanding that he doesn’t have any intention of fixing it.
Other women think they can see the insecurity inside the person who is always asserting control. She tries to help him. She agrees with him that life has been unfair to him. She sides with him against the world, not understanding that in his eyes the world includes her. When he turns on her, she tries to be understanding and to explain the situation to him. Once in a while, he even accepts her help, which gives her the false impression that things are changing. What she doesn’t understand is that his insecurity is bigger than his love for her. It is bigger than rational thought. It is bigger than his desire to have a mutual, equal partnership.
Still other partners think the problem is one of communication. Couples therapists and counselors will tell you that the most frequent presenting problem is “we can’t communicate.” Often enough, what that means is that one of the partners doesn’t really want to communicate if communication means sharing decision-making and power. From his point of view, she stubbornly won’t understand when he is being perfectly clear that he’s the one in charge. She is sure that the therapist will help him recognize that he needs to hear another point of view. After all, he is a rational person, right? She thinks he wants the relationship to succeed as much as she does. She doesn’t get it that a need for control isn’t rational and, yes, he wants the relationship to succeed, but only on his terms.
Other women are too scared, insecure, embarrassed, or dependent to leave. Her confidence is shot. Over time, she’s been worn down and worn out. She may have given up trying to have friends since he always objects to her spending any time with them. She may have lost any say about the finances, even if she is making the bulk of the money. She is so convinced of her own powerlessness, she doesn’t think she can make it on her own or that she can find a better match. Feeling unlovable, worthless and helpless, she sinks into a low-grade, or not so low-grade, depression that keeps her stuck.
What to Do if You Are Being Verbally Abused
After soul-searching, you admit it. You are in a relationship that is making you feel bad about yourself. You don’t want to give up on it but you also can’t stand the idea of spending the rest of your life fearing that you’ll be torn down whenever you begin to feel good about yourself or whenever your opinion differs from that of your spouse. You know it isn’t good for you. Just as important, you know that it isn’t good for your kids to grow up believing this is the way people who love each other treat each other.
7 Reasonable Responses to Unreasonable Verbal Abuse
- Give up on the idea of trying to change him. You can’t. There are important but mistaken reasons why he is the way he is. It may be grounded in his own upbringing, his insecurities or in a narcissistic personality disorder. You can’t do his therapeutic work for him. But – if he wants to change himself, there’s hope. Unless he has a history of being violent, you could ask him to get into some therapy before your relationship is beyond retrieval.
- Never match his verbal abuse with that of your own. It won’t teach him a thing. It will only confirm in his mind that you are the irrational one. Instead, take the high road. Calmly tell him that you are sorry he feels that way about you but that you don’t share his opinion. Tell him that you love him too much to put him down.
- Set limits. If your partner calls you names, treats you with disrespect and sarcasm, or loses it when you act only like the equal person you are, calmly tell him you expect to be treated the way he would treat someone he values, admires and respects. If he keeps it up, tell him that you will leave the conversation if he doesn’t stop. If he doesn’t stop, calmly leave the room, telling him you are giving him space to think about his behavior; you’ll be back in an hour or so. (Caution: Don’t do this if he is likely to escalate. See No. 7.)
- People who need to control their partners often try to prevent them from having a life separate from the couple. You can’t leave if you have nowhere to go. Maintain your own support system. Make sure you spend time with your friends and stay in touch with family members you love. Friends can remind you that you are a valuable person when you start to feel like your partner is right that you aren’t.
- If you think things won’t improve or will only get worse, start a savings account for yourself. Put enough money away that you always feel it is a choice whether or not you stay. Have at least enough for a bus ticket to your family or a friend’s. Better yet, save enough to pay rent for a few months so you never have to feel trapped.
- Get counseling if you think your relationship is salvageable. If you’ve tried your best but you and your partner haven’t been able to forge a loving, mutually supportive relationship, find a couples therapist to help you. If your partner won’t go because of his pride, stubbornness, or his conviction that you are the only one who needs “fixing,” go yourself. You need the support. Your counselor may be able to help you identify ways to make counseling a little less threatening to your partner so he might join you.
- If your partner has escalated from verbal to physical violence – leave. There are domestic abuse programs in almost every city in the U.S. Counselors there can help you figure out where to go and what to do. If you are in a rural area of the U.S. or in a country without such help, go online. Make sure you use a computer your partner can’t use. Some people become violent when they see that their partners have tried to reach out for some help. In the U.S., you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. For more information about their services, click on thehotline.org