Most of us have probably socialized with a couple in which at least one partner verbally abused the other. I can recall a husband calling his wife “a stupid idiot” in my presence. On another occasion a woman referred to her husband as a less than masculine “big p….” These couples are in your face so it’s not a stretch to assume that they have an abusive relationship in other contexts as well. But what about the more subtly abusive—the sneakier types who chip away at your self-esteem? John Gottman has contributed a great deal to the research on couple communication but I thought I would offer a few examples of this type of abuse—those that I find not only common, but particularly destructive. Here goes:
1. Keep telling your partner that he/she hasn’t accomplished enough. For example, repeatedly tell your husband that he doesn’t earn enough money. Men view this as particularly castrating but it’s all too common. Hey, if your hubby isn’t trying to live up to his responsibilities I get it, but a consistent pounding in this area won’t improve matters, especially if there isn’t much he can do about it. A fed-up car salesman whose wife constantly nagged him about his income finally responded: “You knew I wasn’t a neurosurgeon when you married me.”
2. Keep telling her that she doesn’t look good enough. Assault her figure: “Your thighs are too big; your breasts are too small; your butt is too flat.” What woman would appreciate this information even if they believed it to be true? If you have a problem with your partner’s physical features there’re less insulting ways to convey the message. For example, if your partner is overweight you might suggest that you’re worried about his/her health. You can add that you’d gladly help him/her to drop weight, even offering to go to the gym. Insulting someone will just make them feel worse and less likely to be able to do anything about it. You can also stop obsessing about your mate’s physical features and focus on other more positive traits.
3. Fail to support your partner’s triumphs. I recently saw a client who phoned his wife after winning a major award at work and she responded with: “I guess they thought you deserved it.” Another client told me that her husband simply grunted when she excitedly told him that she’d just received a significant raise.
4. Openly sabotage your partner’s accomplishments. Some partners are so competitive that they take turns trying to ruin each other’s achievements or potential successes. One way to do this is to counter a mate’s triumph with a failure. For example, a week after a female client received a big promotion at work her husband decided it was a good time to have an affair. The objective—whether conscious or unconscious—was to take the wind right out of his wife’s sails. It’s also not uncommon for one partner to make a scene when his/her mate is receiving an award. Alcohol is often used as a vehicle to reach this objective.
5. Criticize your children for emulating your spouse. This is an indirect or “guerilla” attack that usually causes loyalty conflicts in children. Here’s an example: “I can’t believe you want to be a lawyer like your father.”
6. Rarely if ever let your partner make decisions. A male client claimed that he trusted his wife’s judgment, but every time she offered an idea, he shot it down. On some occasions he told her that her suggestion was “downright stupid;” sometimes he simply vetoed them. While some partners refrain from interfering with their partner’s decisions, they might consistently badger him/her with detailed questions regarding the viability of the decision. This conveys the message: “I let you have your way but I think I just took a big risk by doing so.” Hardly confidence building.
7. Consistently try to get your partner to do things he/she is uncomfortable with. This may not seem so bad, but the message you’re conveying is that you don’t quite care about your partner’s anxiety.
8. Consistently ignore your partner’s requests. A former client was hurt and angry because his wife never bought the kinds of food he ate. He first appealed to her gently, but to no avail. He finally made his point by throwing some refrigerator shelves out the window.
9. Set your partner up. Give your partner permission to do something and then punish him/her for doing it. For example, I treated a man whose wife would tell him it was okay to go on a trip with his buddies; but when he would check in with her while he was away, she would shun him. This sabotaging behavior would ultimately ruin his good time.
10. Subtly criticize your mate in public. Sniping at your mate publically is bad enough, but the sneaky betrayal of airing dirty laundry is the icing on the cake.
11. Have an affair and continue to keep your lover even after your mate has discovered it. I’ve saved this one for last because this is the ultimate betrayal—the one I believe is perhaps the most humiliating, often producing severe long-term effects. If you really want to bring your partner down and ruin your relationship, this one will go a long way towards reaching these objectives. If you are in an affair or contemplating one, have the guts to tell your partner how unhappy you are, or to at least warn him/her that you’ve been thinking about seeing other people. Let go of the affair as soon as possible if you have any thought of rescuing your primary relationship.This at least gives your mate a chance to save the relationship...and some face.