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. 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.

Want your questions answered?

Send us your questions about relationships, sex, intimacy, and couples therapy. If selected, we will post your question (and Dr. K's response) without identifying information. Simply fill out this form to contact us.

Ready for a change in your relationship?

It starts with a no-obligation 15 minute phone call with our client services team.

Dr. K

Dr. Kathy McMahon (Dr. K) is a clinical psychologist and sex therapist. She is also the founder and president of Couples Therapy Inc. Dr. K feels passionate about couples therapy and sex therapy and holds a deep respect towards those who invest in making their relationship better. She is currently conducting online and in person private couples retreats.

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  1. I came from and still part of a 10 year abusive relationship. At first, my way of getting out of an argument was to leave for a soda or drive around. Then she would hold onto my legs, or jump on my back. Then it got into breaking things, and one upping the stuff broken to family memories, and total sadness. Eventually it got into physical intimate partner violence, to just threats, affairs. And eventually it led to separation. Grant it, my step son was into drugs and drug sales, so I didn't want my daughter, from a blended family around that.

    We ended up moving out and now for 4 years, we tried to live 15 mins apart amd still see each other. It wasn't physical, but not emotional abuse constantly, name calling back and forth. I filed for divorce last year, and let service lapse. And recently she contemplated filing after a summer of just brokenness, loneliness, and just abadonment. I just couldn't have her in my house yelling and screaming in front of my kid, and her now adult son just instigating things in her house.

    So now she's moving to Texas next week for 4 months for work. It's like I'm happy, so I can start therapy again, and let God work on us. But I choose to stand for our marriage and hope I can get broken and destroy the old marriage and come back with her with a different idea of true marriage, love, compassion, and encouragement. God is in the business of miracles.

  2. I have never been able to enjoy sex with my husband. After 17 years I finally found out about pelvic floor therapist and I’m going every other week and doing daily exercises for it. I started having flash backs and realized i was molested as a child. Hence my years of complicated sex with my husband. I made huge progress yesterday and while on a date with my husband I tried to tell him about it and he told me that it turns him off when I talk about the medical side of our sex life. He wants me to come to him when I’m healed. I told him how healing for me requires trusting him to be with me and talking about these things. I need intimacy before the sex is back on the table. He told me I was insensitive to his needs bc it causes him pain to discuss it. I told him I’m in pain and doing work every day to overcome this we have to go through some discomfort to overcome this. He told me I was such a manipulative bitch bc I was trying to make him feel guilty about not wanting to talk to me. Then I tried to talk and he told me to shut up. I got up and left the restaurant. He finally texted that the food had come and he wouldn’t talk to me. So here we are the next day and neither of us have talked to each other. I think he is being extremely mean and not trying to understand how this will help us both for me to be able to talk about this. Especially bc my pelvic floor therapist told me how I will eventually have my husband do the same exercises to me. I 100% won’t feel comfortable letting him do them when I cannot even discuss me doing them to myself right now. I feel hopeless and wonder if this is gaslighting? I don’t know how to talk to him. Bc when I brought up my need to talk to him about it he turned it all around how he doesn’t need to talk to me Ans it is damaging our relationship if I try and make him.

  3. Just to clarify something for all of the readers, Steve: “You made me do it!” or the more modern version, “You triggered me!” as an excuse for bad behavior, is never acceptable. One can request behavior change, of course. “Please don’t do X. I’d really appreciate it.” But it’s a request, not a demand. On the other hand, doing things you know will upset your partner after repeatedly being asked not to is marital sadism sometimes or just plain inattention. That’s not acceptable behavior, either. As a general rule of thumb, if you’d treat a friend that way, and they’d still be a friend after a year of that behavior, you’re on the right track, assuming that friend has good boundaries.

    Also, just for clarification, Steve, if you have to be “extremely careful with everything” you say or do, that’s not a marriage, that’s a prison and you married your prison guard. And keeping track of slights and tossing them out whenever you need to demonstrate how “in the right” you are is poor fighting skills.

    Get help.

  4. We have been married for 19 years, have 2 boys 16,11. My husband got so angry decorating for the holidays and while he blames us for causing it, he snapped at us, shut down the Christmas music etc. my teenager called him a d***. Today after we all lay low we tried to speak about it and he told me I was a c***. He still denies behaving that way yesterday and is saying we exaggerated it all. I grew up in an emotionally and verbally abusive family so I am familiar with the “snap” and change of behaviors. It to this day tenses me up. I just feel awful when he snaps and I always remember it and within a few days we move on. He gets mad when I say this has happened before. He says I’m not allowing him to grow and change. I told him it’s so hurtful that I see a pattern and that he calls me that. I asked if you won’t call me that in front of our children, should you be at all? It’s so messy sometimes. He can be so supportive and also so destructive.

    1. It’s pretty clear to me, Lynn. You have asked your husband for behavior change, and he has said no. That’s now the issue: His behavior is destructive, and he’s going to cling to that bad behavior or change it. Pretty simple.

      I’d write it down all the specific words he says that you want to be taken off the table, even “when he’s angry.” If he can’t control himself when he is angry with you, does he control his anger when a police officer pulls him over for a traffic violation or when his boss makes him angry,? If he can in those situations he has control of himself. He just refuses in other circumstances or with other people (like you.)

      If you write out the unacceptable behavior, he can’t say he “didn’t know.” You wrote it down for him. Any behaviorally-regressive, verbally abusive language he’s using isn’t the “growing and changing” he says he’s doing. It’s just destructive.

      Also, the teen is getting into the action. Neither of you should tolerate verbal abuse from anyone, including your children. Bad, bad modeling.

  5. My Husband calls me horrible degrading names and I beg him to stop yelling, cursing, calling me names and breaking things and he won't and says I deserve it. Please help, where are you located?

  6. My husband calls me stupid a lot and I feel like he belittles me.
    He is always yelling about something because he is frustrated about selling his stores.
    I can't say anything about his two youngest children as he gets mad at me.
    So much more to tell!
    He does not abuse me physically but mentally.
    He says he loves me and I think he really does.
    I just feel like my self esteem has left the building! Sometimes I feel worthless and hopeless (NOT SUICIDAL)

  7. I've told my husband of not even two years to stop being abusive to me I'm the focus on everything that is wrong. He doesn't listen to my feelings so I often send him these articles last night he said the article was exactly what I do to him lol he's in such denial of his behavior towards me that he tells me I make his behavior up and that I'm nuts and I'm the abuser. By doing that it justifies the nasty things he calls me or he'll flat out lie and insist he never called me A bitch cunt whore that's the newest one. I've been called a niggar ( I'm white) a thief crazy , a drug addict, a user , I'm a widow so he told me I'm such a bitch my husband died to get away from me. He's called my 10 year old grandson a loser he's won't come to my house anymore because he's scared of him he started sleeping on the couch two days after we got married. He prides himself on his 6 figure salary I don't work he told me I don't have to. But he screams at me I don't contribute to the house hold. He accused me of trying to sell my car so I could take his truck that he needed because his work truck was being taken away. That was a lie his work was never going to take his work truck. He recently choked me because he thinks his behavior towards me is ok because I make him mad. He still refuses to answer my question that if daughters partner called her a bitch cunt whore. If he told you she made him mad would it be acceptable for him . since make him mad it's totally except able for him. That made him livid but he would give me a answer. Im filing for a annulment. I just want him out of my life and I don't want him to trash my character because that's he does when woman leave him. .

  8. We need this type of help.
    Can we attend one of your workshops either online or in person?

    When I sense I'm losing my cool I try and separate to calm down but more often than not, my wife will follow me and press the issue when I need some time to calm down.
    Then I end up saying the wrong thing and swearing out of frustration.

    It normally happens when I can't believe she doesn't understand how I'm feeling.

  9. My husband calls me dumb we live in upscale neighborhood he thinks everyone here is dumb including me. He doesn’t get it people do not want to talk politics. He told me to shut my mouth and never stop him I dumb. I have no ide how to handle this situation.

  10. I was in a physically abusive relationship before my current partner. He and I have been together for almost 9 years. Whener we disagree or argue, he said the most hurtful things, disrespectful things. Name calling, just really hurtful, go for the jugular hurtful. When I try to talk yo him about this he tells me I’m too sensitive, or he was just upset and wanted to hurt my feelings. The eorst is he gets all defensive and begins to tell me that I act like his name calling and hurtful comments are as bad as my ex who physically abused me. I feel like he thinks just because he doesn’t hit me its not abuse and makes me think I’m crazy for thinking and feeling this way.

    1. Well, clearly you now know differently. Regulating affect (keeping calm when you get upset so you can control your actions) is an essential skill of adult development.

  11. My husband drinking a lot and he can say some mean things about me that hurt. I try to let it hurt me he been doing it for years. I can do something he sometimes say hurtful word and the way he says them. I can't do anything right. you are stupide. you a lie. I never thought that someone call say the things he says to me about me. He said it my fault he drinks and do other things. We been married for over 20 years now. He told me he right about everything that he says. I am quiet and he don't like that. I know that God is inside of me just the way that I am. I can't let him take my joy. I know I am special and not what he said about me.

  12. Dr k I need husband and I have been married for 19 years we have two daughters.He is abusing me emotionally and verbally.He says he wants to slap me and he is gonna hit me . He constantly finds faults on me.He screams out bad things about me for my neighbours to hear. He say and call me a whole lot of things n the next minute act normal I don't know what's happening with him. I'm from Durban South Africa .

    1. Forget what’s happening to HIM, Anne. Pay attention to what’s happening to YOU. This is emotional abuse and he’s often threatening you with physical abuse. If you can’t set boundaries safely, seek out a therapist to help you figure out what to do. This isn’t a situation you should be tolerating. Dr. K

  13. Our adult children were coming over on Saturday to celebrate a birthday. I cleaned and did all my stuff that Friday. My husband was in charge of the carpets. Later that night, I was coughing and sneezing so much so I took a Covid home test. It was neg. However, the next day, Saturday, as I was laying down, my husband came in to our bedroom and sprinkled deodorizer to soak in despite having the entire rest of the house to vacuum. It was so strong! I was pretty incensed. He quickly apologized but not really. Later, the whole house was sooo full of the stuff, I could taste it. I got mad and my husband mumbled under his breath something about me overreacting and I got really upset. Through tears and yelling, I said it was a stupid thing to do considering I wasn’t feeling well and that I had done my share yesterday and was trying to rest. He said I belittled him. So how do you handle a situation like this when ur not feeling good to start with? I don’t want to belittle him but I really do feel it was insensitive and thoughtless. I had no problem w him vacuuming as I wear ear plugs. But to dump that horrible stuff first before doing anything else in the one room I was resting in upset me. Thanks for any guidance.

    1. People lose it for all sorts of reasons, and feeling ill, being exhausted, griefing the loss of a loved one, work pressures, etc are just some examples. The question is: “Now what will you do?” Will you just it because of your current state, or will you apologize? Apologizing doesn’t mean you approve of what your husband did. Clearly, it was horribly distressing to you and you don’t feel like he appreciated just how upset you were. That’s an appropriate topic of conversation. But two wrongs don’t make a right. After heads cool down, you can apologize for how you spoke to him, sincerely, and ask for his forgiveness. Talk to him about what he did and why it was so distressful, but not as a way of justifying your reaction, but so he can understand you better.

      And boy, it is really hard to be married to humans. They can be pretty infuriating at times. And their behavior is inexplicable.

      Sorry that happened to you and I hope you got over the condition that made you ill.

      Dr. K

  14. 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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