My husband calls me names and swears at me. I’ve told him I consider  him verbally abusive when he does it and have asked him to stop. It never becomes physical abuse, but it hurts my feelings and makes me feel bad about myself and our marriage.

He uses such hurtful words that I end up walking on eggshells so as not to make him angry. He says just because my feelings hurt doesn’t make it abuse.

When is it abuse when someone resorts to name-calling? What are the effects of name-calling in a relationship, and how damaging is it? I know he’s feeling guilty when he upsets me or makes me cry but he doesn’t stop. What should I do?

Let’s address each issue one at a time.

How damaging is name-calling in a relationship?

Verbal abuse is one of many types of abuse in relationships. In a toxic relationship, the words you call your partner often gradually turn from sweet-sounding (but condescending) nicknames (“my little airhead…”) to swear words and constant criticism over time.

That’s the danger.

This is not acceptable behavior. You should never tolerate verbal abuse in a relationship from any family member.

Whether you are being insulted or called names or your partner swears at you, emotional abuse includes not only the words that are used but the facial expressions as well. Sneers, eye rolls, and a mocking tone all communicate just as powerfully as words.

Why does my husband call me names?

In some relationships, husbands have learned to show a lack of respect toward others from their family of origin. Other men have a job where insults and abrasive language are the norms.

Some argue this abusive behavior is “affectionate banter.” It’s not. Resorting to name-calling is an emotionally damaging form of verbal abuse.

Still, other men are chronically exhausted and irritable, causing them to ignite into a litany of curse words at the slightest provocation. Sometimes the long-term deterioration results in physical abuse as well as feeling bad. In healthy relationships, partners feel good about themselves and speak well of each other. Acceptance of vulnerability and weakness in your spouse (and in yourself) is a hallmark of a loving marriage.

But regardless of why your husband insults you, the behavior needs to stop.

What to do when your husband calls you stupid (or other names)

There are three steps to take when you are being called names:

1. Recognize that you are being insulted, criticized, or treated contemptuously.

It sometimes takes reflection to realize that the eye-roll, the insinuating questioning, or the comment followed by “I was only kidding!” is verbal abuse.

If your spouse can point a finger at you when he’s talking, it falls into this category. These sentences usually start with “You,” as in:

“You are so stupid!” or “You do such stupid things!”

While the first sentence focuses on your personality or insults your intelligence (“stupid”), the second one is often not thought of as abusive to mental health. But it is. There are ways to ask someone to change their behavior without insulting that very behavior.

When someone’s actions are criticized, that is an alternative way to name-call. It’s one of the things we teach couples to stop doing in marriage counseling.

2. Label the statement as hurtful using “I” statements.

Don’t debate the truth or inaccuracy of the statement. Label it. Tell him how the words made you feel, and ask for it to be re-phrased.

Husband: “That’s a really idiotic thing to say!”

Wife: “That’s contempt. It hurts my feelings when you say it that way. Can you rephrase that?”

Husband: “Well, it was idiotic!”

Wife: “I’m not debating the facts. I’m saying that calling me names is contemptuous and hurts my feelings. I’m asking you to put it in another way.”

3. Don’t debate the statement or sentiment. Focus on the harmful impact that the words have on you, and ask for a behavior change.

Husband: “If you don’t want me to call you an idiot, stop saying idiotic things!”

Wife: “I want to listen to you, but when you use insulting words, I just get upset and stop being able to hear you. I think calling me names is abusive, and I’ve asked you nicely to stop. Will you please phrase what you’re saying in a way that doesn’t insult me?”

How damaging is name-calling in a relationship?

Name-calling or insulting someone’s behavior is unacceptable for anyone, whether it is the wife calling her husband names or a husband insulting his wife. No one deserves to be verbally abused.

Attacking a person, putting the “problem” in them, insulting their family, or calling them “crazy” or mentally ill is all called “contempt” in science-based couples therapy. Gottman calls it “throwing acid on love.”

Contempt is the one behavior only found in distressed marriages, and changing that behavior is the go-to treatment option when helping couples.

Couples attending our intensive couples retreat often say:

“What saved our marriage was learning how to express our frustrations with the other in a respectful way. We learned that it was okay to be annoyed or even angry. But how we expressed that annoyance really mattered. If we want to be listened to, we have to learn to talk respectfully to each other.”

Aim for greater respect.

Men are often as deeply hurt by being spoken to in a disrespectful way as wives, yet they sometimes consider it as their wife’s character flaw (“She’s just being mean.”) They don’t necessarily see it as abuse that can stop.

To change around a marriage where one or both partners regularly swear or call each other names takes work.

But it’s worth it.

As each partner identifies what annoys them, they then learn to make effective complaints. Making complaints (instead of criticism) changes the overall tone of the marriage.

Partners also learn to fight better. When they make “deposits” in the other’s “emotional bank account,” it improves the overall atmosphere of the marriage.

They become better friends by acting kindly and with consideration. Expressing annoyance, even anger can be done while owning your emotions. An example of this, based on the previous conversation, might go like this:

Husband: “That’s a really idiotic thing to say!”

Wife: “That’s contempt. It hurts my feelings when you talk to me that way. Can you rephrase that?”

Husband: “You’re right. That was out of line. I get so angry when I hear you talk about my job. I like to tell you things and want to.

“But when I do, I start to feel like you aren’t really listening to me. You are just jumping to conclusions. And it makes me really mad.”

Wife: “That’s not how I want to come across. I love when you talk to me about your work. Please tell me the next time I do that.”

Husband: “Just now, I was talking about the safety inspection, and you laughed like it was a big joke.”

Wife: “Ya, that wasn’t very respectful. I didn’t even hear the whole story. I’m sorry, honey…I didn’t mean to upset you.”

Keep your cool.

Some spouses never cuss or get insulting unless they are emotionally upset. When their heart rate goes above 100 beats per minute (85 for the physically fit among us), they enter into a state called: “Diffuse Physiological Arousal” or “flooding.” We teach couples how to recognize when they are flooded and to separate before they say mean or hurtful things.

If your husband gets verbally abusive after he floods, learn how to recognize the signs of flooding. Take a break from the conversation when that happens. Read a book, take a walk, and get your mind off of the argument for 20 minutes. That break can go a long way toward greater marital happiness.

Strategies like learning to make complaints, talk from your own perspective and separating when either of you is flooded often stop name-calling and cursing. Study tips on effective communication to improve your skills, or reach out to learn more about intensive couples counseling!

Get Help.

Practicing a different way of relating and understanding the reasons why insults are harmful and simply don’t work is what we do in marriage counseling retreats. It is money well spent to learn a different and more constructive way to relate to one another.

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