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? How damaging is name-calling in a relationship? I know he’s feeling guilty when he makes me upsets me or makes me cry but he doesn’t stop. What should I do?

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 nicknames 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.

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 be disrespectful toward others from their family-of-origin. Other men have a job where insults and abrasive language are the norms. Some argue it’s affectionate banter.

Still, other men are chronically exhausted and irritable, causing them to ignite into a litany of curse words at the slightest provocation.

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

What to do when your husband calls you 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 “That was such a stupid thing you did!”

While the first sentence focuses on your personality or insulting 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 the way you said it was contemptuous and hurt 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 phase 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.

Attacking a person, putting the “problem” in them, insulting their family or calling them 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 wanted to be listened to, we had 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 upon the previous conversation, might go like this:

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

Wife: “That’s contempt. It hurts my feelings. 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, 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, 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, learning how to recognize the signs of flooding. Take a break from the conversation, when that happens, 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 separate when either of you is flooded often stop name-calling and cursing. Check out our course on communication to improve your skills or reach out to learn more about intensive couples counseling!

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Dr. K

Dr. K is the President and CEO of Couples Therapy Inc. She maintains her online couples therapy and sex therapy practice for couples in Massachusetts, Florida, Arizona and California. She is a Gottman Certified Couples Therapist, has advanced training in Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy and sex therapist. She conducts in-person and online couples therapy intensives.

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  1. This all seems to be directed toward men who call their wife names. In my observation, this is at least equally common going the other direction. And it is equally damaging to the relationship (in some cases it is more damaging, such as in families with children, since the children learn to disrespect the father, which can cause the father to disengage from parenting). Interestingly, if you search the internet, most articles like this are written in the same way as this one (focused on relationships where men abuse their wives), which fits the stereotype that couples therapy as practiced is predominately female-oriented, couples therapists downplay or ignore toxicity and abuse when it comes from women, and for this reason is very often destructive to the very marriages it intends to help.

    1. It was an answer to a reader-wife who was called names by her husband. That’s why the bias.

      However, you are clearly correct that name-calling is a bad behavior both genders engage in equally.

      You are also right that in much of psychotherapy, women seem to have the advantage as the focus is often on feelings, while many men have been trained to be a bit alexithymic. However, keep in mind that there are about 400 Gottman Method Couples Therapists and under 20% of therapists who have any formalized training in working with couple (and even among those, it’s typically one survey course…)

      Fortunately, this isn’t the case with Gottman Method Couples Therapy (GMCT). The focus of GMCT is as much on behavior as it is on feelings, and the more “logically-driven” professions of engineers really take to it. It talks about all toxic behaviors, regardless of who is doing it, and challenges them to stop and learn better responses.

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