“You are such an idiot!” she screams across the dinner table as a green bean slides off his plate.
The kids stare into their laps and quietly drop their forks, wondering, yet again, what battle is about to ensue.
“And what’s wrong with you?” She continues, glaring at her children. “If you don’t eat this nice dinner I prepared, then you can fend for yourself!” Little does she know the kids would prefer it…
“Don’t you dare talk to them like that!” he recoils, attempting to protect them from her cutting words. He lets her name-calling slide, again. He is used to it. Maybe he is an idiot, he wonders. After all, he feels he has failed for years to do anything about their chaotic home life that reinvents itself on a daily basis, and he has lost confidence to do anything about it. He feels powerless, stuck.
As a divorce coach, I hear many stories like this. One partner is verbally abusive, and the other is treading water, just trying to keep the peace and get through the day. Any reply just escalates the hostility. What to do?
And after being in this situation for so long, the abused partner cannot help but let the cutting words seep in and start to wonder what is real. Furthermore, the abusing partner becomes more skilled in tactics of verbal manipulation.
Here are 7 tips that may help the situation in the short term:
- Let your partner know how the words make you feel, using “I” statements. For example, “I feel scared when you yell at me like that.” Using “I” statements simply states what is, and avoids language that can be received as accusatory, which adds fuel to the fire.
- Set clear boundaries with your partner. For example, “I will not respond to you when you call me names.” Do not return angry sentiments. This helps you gain back your power.
- Whenever your partner resorts to verbal abuse – in the form of name-calling, blaming, shaming, dismissing, or threatening – simply disengage. This sends the message that you will not partake.
- Seek counseling. Often abusive partners will resist counseling, but that doesn’t mean that a professional cannot help.
- Keep a private journal of the facts when verbal abuse occurs. Recording or verbal abuse may be illegal, so you need to know your state’s laws.
- If you feel that your safety is at risk at any time, leave the premises or call the police discretely immediately. Have a bag of basic needs stored in a safe place in anticipation of such a time.
- If you have children, make their safety and well-being a top priority and motivation for action.
Persistent and unresolvable verbal abuse often necessitates separation and divorce. Do not be surprised if your spouse responds with stonewalling or aggression, as divorce threatens power and escalates fears.
When pursuing divorce under circumstances of verbal abuse, it is very important to get solid legal advice and strong advocacy for how to go about the process. Each state has different laws for divorce grounds, and what is required to prove verbal abuse and how. These laws and the facts of your situation bring up varying benefits and drawbacks of making the verbal abuse a central factor in negotiations. It’s important to get a full understanding of what is involved from your attorney, and to ponder carefully how to best work toward an agreement that secures your safety and well-being.
Finally, know you are not alone in your situation. Countless suffer verbally abusive relationships, but because you have bruises on your heart, and not your body, it is easy to feel isolated and confused. Seek confidential support and information from your lawyer, therapist, support group, coach, and trusted friends. Doing so helps you take back your power – the very thing that was stolen from you.