(5 minute read) Has conflict in your marriage reached a breaking point? Have you noticed arguments getting more intense, happening more frequently, and escalating to name-calling, explosive anger, or intimidation? Are you worried about the damage caused by parents arguing in front of children or directing verbal abuse their way? Or maybe you feel like your partner pushes your buttons, and there is no way to avoid a fight. While ending the relationship is an option, things aren’t bad enough yet. And besides, you’ve invested a lot and still love this person. At least for now, you want to learn how to deal with verbal abuse and how to resolve conflict.
Is this ‘typical’ marital conflict or signs of emotional abuse?
Before continuing, it is important to differentiate intense conflict in marriage from signs of emotional abuse and domestic violence. While name-calling and outbursts of anger certainly feel abusive and emotionally harmful, domestic violence and emotional abuse are different. Telltale signs of emotional abuse include monitoring of whereabouts, isolation from friends and family, demeaning put-downs, having rules dictated, financial control, and the use of threats and intimidation to ensure compliance. If you are experiencing domestic violence or emotional abuse, professional help is usually necessary. When difficulties are confined to arguments, it is more likely you are dealing with relationship conflict. This article addresses verbal abuse in a relationship and describes an effective way to put an end to verbal abuse. It will be less applicable to an emotionally abusive relationship or domestic violence.
What does verbal abuse in a relationship actually look like?
Both men and women can find themselves on the receiving end of verbal abuse. Hostility and verbal aggression can be brief (lasting seconds) or prolonged (lasting hours). It can involve one person or both. Often, a person is called names, such as ugly, pathetic, crazy, or stupid. There may be attempts to humiliate, make fun of, or offend with sexual swear words. Often threats are made, the past dredged up, sensitivities battered, and buttons pushed. Occasionally there are terrifying outbursts of anger that seem dangerous. In such moments, a husband or wife may seem determined to inflict as much emotional pain as possible. One may try and walk away, only to find themselves pursued or blocked by their partner. This is a dangerous place to find your relationship.
The escalation towards verbal abuse in a relationship
How did you get here? In many cases, intense marital conflict signals that one or both partners have entered extremely high levels of physiological arousal. Signs include imposing body language, wide eyes, increased heart rate, shallow breathing, and tension in the voice. While arousal helps us focus and assert ourselves, too much can be detrimental. Once we’re over-aroused, our ability to see reason is impaired, we judge things negatively, focus on threat, get defensive, and say hurtful things. In marital conflict, the partner is perceived as the source of threat.
If the problem is over-arousal, it follows that the solution is to manage arousal. Couples that do, are likely to transform a verbally abusive relationship into one that is healthier. Below I describe a series of strategies that specifically target several of the problems found in a verbally abusive relationship. They are organized into three topics: awareness, triggers, and communication.
(1) Improve Awareness
First, Stop making things worse
The first step in learning how to stop arguing is to leave behind attitudes that justify verbal abuse in a relationship. Both parties must let go of self-righteousness and any beliefs that your partner deserves your wrath. Know when to step back from a fight. You do not want to look back on your life and realize that you got your way by intimidating your spouse.
Notice your tone of voice and body language. The question, “Are you going out with your friends this weekend?” could be spoken in a supportive, critical, or dismissive tone. If you are not sure how you come across, or, you receive an unexpected comeback, ask.
Avoid the tendency to judge a situation or person. When you place judgments on your partner, your arousal will increase, along with the risk of conflict. Furthermore, believing that your partner ‘should do this’, or ‘should do that’, will also increase tension as you ruminate on the reasons that they don’t. Instead, try focusing on descriptions, for example, “my husband came home tired and sat on the couch, while I want some help with the kids”. Not only is this more accurate, it lends itself to a solution.
judge a situation, arousal goes up.
Describe a situation, arousal goes down.”
Become Aware of your partner
Remain curious about your partners’ facial expression, their body language, eye-contact, and any tension in their voice. This helps you stay focused on their message. This technique requires a lot of practice because argumentative couples quickly render judgments about their partner. Curiosity helps you stay calm, build empathy, and improve the chance of receiving respect in return.
(2) Anticipate Triggers
Anticipate arguments and change the cycle
Arguments typically follow a pattern and may occur at predictable points in time, for example, before a trip or after making a request. The solution is to break this cycle by changing your response. If an argument usually follows an attempt to ‘correct’ your partner, find a new and creative way of doing so.
Sometimes, verbal abuse in a relationship seems inevitable. At such times it can be helpful to simply call it out in a respectful way. For example, “Hey, I know this is an important discussion, but I don’t want to get into a fight right now. Let’s take a short break.”. Or, “I care a lot about you and what you are saying, but I’m a bit overwhelmed right now.”.
Anticipate Sensitive/Hot Topics
Once people have argued about sex, spending, packing for vacation, or childcare, then simply being in those situations can bring about anxiety. Even before anything is said, one or both partners are angry. Acknowledge when history looks likely to repeat. If an argument ensued after a party with friends, then acknowledge before the next party any fears you have of another fight occurring.
We’re all sensitive to some topics. But some childhood experiences can leave us feeling very sensitive to certain issues. Examples include abandonment, intimacy, shame, control, or trust. If these appear to cause frequent fights in your relationships, it is probably a good idea to see a therapist.
Respect the cool-down period
While some individuals recover from a fight in minutes, others take hours and sometimes days. While cooling down, we remain vulnerable to re-entering a state of high physiological arousal. Knowing how long you both need can help determine how long to wait until revisiting a difficult topic. Once someone has got upset, the calmer partner must show patience. The not-yet-calm partner must practice calming themselves down and avoid ruminating on the argument.
(3) Specific Communication Skills
Give Accurate Expression
People frequently fail to express what is upsetting them. Instead, they opt to say only a fraction of what they wish to say. For example, one might ask their partner not to go shopping when what they really want is some help at home. Or they might deny their legitimate needs. For example, a husband feeling neglected due to the attention given their newborn might despise admitting this to his wife, opting instead to criticize her parenting style as overbearing.
Neglecting to express what is bothersome decreases the likelihood your concern is addressed and increases the chances you will argue. Correcting this requires both partners to become comfortable disclosing and hearing vulnerable feelings.
Couples that argue often feel invalidated. This topic is too large to cover here, but in essence, it is about communicating respect, understanding, and acceptance. It is not about agreeing or providing solutions. Both partners have a role to play here in expressing and validating.
Take a Time-Out from Arguing
Enjoying time together can help shield you from the impact of arguments. When conflict has occurred, or when one person is still cooling-down (perhaps for days), time spent together can feel awkward. It’s important not to get stuck in a standoff. Taking a break to enjoy each other can build enough strength and goodwill to better tackle the problem down the road.
Counseling for verbal abuse in a relationship
Differences in opinion, personality, and preferred courses of action are inevitable. Yet despite best efforts, some people struggle to end the cycles of a verbally abusive relationship. Guidance from a therapist familiar with these issues can help individuals resolve these problems and improve their relationship with those they care about.
If you would like to speak with me about conflict in your life, please get in touch.