Verbal Abuse in Marriage is No Excuse for Divorce
I have a confession. I have hissed, screamed and snarled the cruelest, most hurtful things I could think to say to my husband. I’ve attacked him. I’ve been dismissive, loudly disrespectful and worse. I punctuated these harsh messages with cursing, slammed doors and terrorist-style threats to leave him.
In other words, I have been verbally and emotionally abusive.
I’m also a prominent relationship coach, so I see the underbelly of a lot of marriages. What I’ve learned is this: I’m not the only one. There aren’t many of us who have said, “I do” who haven’t also had the perverse pleasure of raging at our loved one.
You might think my research is lopsided—that it’s just because I deal with troubled relationships that I see so much verbal abuse in marriage. You might think there are those relationships where seldom is heard a discouraging word. There might be. There may also be intelligent life on other planets, but we haven’t found it yet.
I’m not saying it’s okay if your spouse is putting you down a lot, but I am saying I wouldn’t endorse a divorce because of it. That’s because in my 15 years as a relationship coach I’ve never met a married couple that didn’t match. Water seeks it’s own level; verbal abuse in marriage is always a two-way street. But like a child who punches his brother and is shocked by the fist that lands on his own head, some of us see only the egregious behavior we endured—not the horrendous behavior we engaged in.
I first realized this when a client told me the litany of things her husband had said to her—all of it appalling. As I gathered my thoughts to respond, she added, “so I told him he was a bleeping %@&# and that he had a small penis.”
That’s when I realized that there was a culture of verbal abuse in their relationship, not a perpetrator and a victim, as she believed. To my surprise, that’s been the case for 100% of couples where the wife complains about her husband’s verbal or emotional abuse.
If you have been the recipient of a litany of curse words and insults, consider the possibility that you are looking in a spouse-mirror. You may not realize that you’ve been sabotaging the relationship, but telling him he’s just like his father when he knows you don’t think much of his father is hitting below the belt. Telling him you love him even though he’s lazy is another low blow. Saying that some day you’re going to leave is the cruelest threat of all and it’s likely to contribute to nasty verbal conditions at your house.
When I was hurting my husband inadvertently, my comments didn’t seem as abusive as his did to me. At all! But to my husband my disrespect was devastating. His defense was to be mean back. The pain of knowing that the woman who knows him best in the world didn’t think much of him was too much to bear. That’s not right and it’s not fair, but it’s human. If your man’s hostility seems to come from out of nowhere, it may also be his inappropriate response to feeling hurt and scared.
Fortunately, there is a powerful antidote for a culture of verbal abuse in marriage and my experience is that any woman can effect dramatic change in her relationship with a few practical skills. The result of applying the Intimacy Skills is that couples return to feeling playful and connected instead of distant and angry.
First, you’ll want to take stock of your own verbal abuse. Have you said something hurtful, even if you were joking–even if it was the truth, even if you were just trying to help? Once you identify an offensive comment that came out of your mouth, you have an opportunity to create a respectful relationship by apologizing for being disrespectful. If you’re anything like me, you were you disrespectful when you said that he wasn’t very ambitious, or that he needs to learn to be more patient or when you said nothing–but rolled your eyes at him dismissively.
Apologizing is simple—but not easy—and powerful for restoring the peace. As Winston Churchill said, “Eating my words has never given me indigestion.” You might be surprised how quickly the wall comes down, the tenderness returns and the man that you had vilified as verbally abusive is bringing you your favorite dessert and putting gas in your car because he didn’t want you to have to pump it yourself.
In other words, reminding yourself why he’s the one you chose to marry and deciding to treat him with respect can turn a hostile home into an intimate, passionate, peaceful one.
Just as fish are always the last to discover that they’re in the ocean, for years I had no idea I was engaging in verbal abuse in my marriage–that I was the one sabotaging our relationship. When I stopped, the peace returned, and so did the emotional safety. I had no idea I had such great power. And Spiderman was right; with great power comes great responsibility for the culture in my home.
It’s good news if you think about it. The emotional safety and peace you crave is well within your reach. Let there be respect in your home and let it begin with you.