Head bowed towards his knees, Steve spit out his words as though he wanted to disown the truth they conveyed.
“When Arline gets mad, she knows no limits. She wines like a spoiled teenager and scolds me in front of our sons. I feel humiliated.”
Sitting across from him, Arline looked out the window at the bay and smirked as she turned towards me. Mouth set in a frown, she retaliated.
“Judith, he is so nasty. He reminds me I need to lose weight if I want him to go dancing with me and he knows how much this hurts me.
"How can we stop insulting one another? This marriage is miserable but neither of us will give the other one the satisfaction of a fair divorce.”
She glared at her husband of 22 long and painful years, “Can you help us replace bitterness with the respect we both deserve?”
“Yes, but only if you consider your own verbal abusiveness honestly enough to create an atmosphere of mutual respect. You speak abusively to one another without hearing the nasty undertone in your voices and have done this for over a decade. You aim nasty words at each other to try to gain and maintain control of yourself and your partner,” I replied.
Both were taken aback by the frankness of my words, but it was necessary to help them investigate the mirror of their own dangerous behavior. Only if each was willing to learn simple techniques to offset this level of abuse might they celebrate a successful quarter of a century together. They deserved a better model of coupled intimacy than slicing at each other with sharp words.
“We wouldn’t be sitting in your office on a beach day if we weren’t serious,” Arline pursed her lips and looked at her husband. “I really want to love him again.”
Okay, I thought to myself quickly, trying to adjust my suggestions to what is feasible for them.
“Steve, can you cut the insults and replace them with respectful dialogue? You can be honest without being insulting,” I said. Steve looked blank but willing.
“I can try but I need you to coach me,” Steve said. He turned to his wife. “I’m really sorry,” he stammered under his breath.
“Arline, you tell me you are withholding being with Steve because you feel so enraged and lonely because of the insults. But the withholding leaves no exchange of feelings, opinions or thoughts, so the fabric meant to mesh your relationship together is lacking. Are you willing to acknowledge that you could help by being more open to Steve’s apology?” I asked.
Arline looked scared. “It terrifies me to think what would happen if I believed him and he abused me yet again… and he could.”
“I suggest you go home and decide if you want to learn the skillful communication that can replace your fear of each other. I can teach you to vastly improve your way of communicating through a combination of skill building exercises in a workbook I wrote and with individual, couples and couples group therapy. But this will require time, energy and commitment to learning how to manage your own behavior.
"Apologies are just band aids and do not suffice. Both of you must shift your behavior.
"Despite an honest apology or lack of intent from someone who has been intentionally or unintentionally abusive, abuse does not unhappen. The impact of the abusive behavior lives on in the heart of the people involved.”
I am delighted to tell you that they decided to work on their abusive tendencies and they are currently engaged in the therapy needed to stimulate new learning and damage repair.
“It’s hard work,” Steve said. He breaks into a big grin and completes his thought, “But worth every minute and every penny.”
And you? How do you and your partner fare? To ask to see if verbal and emotional abuse is part of your love ask these questions:
- Does your partner speak to you differently in private and in public? Or do you?
- Do you often leave a discussion with your partner feeling completely confused?
- Does your partner deny being angry or upset when he/she very obviously is? Or do you?
- Does your partner seem attacked by you when you are only trying to explain your feelings? Or do you?
- Does your partner discount your opinions or experiences? Or do you?
- Do you feel as though your self-esteem and your self-confidence have decreased? Or does your partner?
To consider: Is there anyone you inadvertently insult or attack or back away from because they terrify you? What might you both do to repair this disaster? How glad might you be if you can make changes?
To Read: Patricia Evans, in her book "The Verbally Abusive Relationship - How to Recognize it and How to Respond" lists 15 different categories of verbal abuse.
Dr. Coche practices clinical psychology in Stone Harbor and Philadelphia. She invites responses through her website, www.cochecenter.com