Hostile Venting: Mean Phrases Scar Intimate Relationships
How negative words can destroy love.
Posted July 31, 2011 | Reviewed by Gary Drevitch
New lovers carefully watch their word choices even when they argue. They don't want to say anything that could deeply wound or distance their partners, and watch each other closely for signs of distress. They treasure their closeness and cannot bear being at odds for long.
Unfortunately, as relationships mature, partners too often forget how angry or hurtful words can damage their intimacy. The longer partners have been together, the more likely their negative phrases will resemble what they heard others utter when they were growing up. When their tempers flare and their frustrations build, they more often use destructive phrases from memories of long-forgotten events.
Most couples exhaust every attempt to get what they need from each other before they resort to hostile exchanges. They began as devoted friends and lovers, going out of their ways to be considerate, but lose that capacity to put each other first. From living in each other's hearts, they become verbal enemies, struggling to survive emotionally at the expense of the other.
As their exchanges become more heated, they begin to lose touch with the effect of their words. They rationalize their righteous venting with little remorse or need to apologize. Over time, they may escalate more quickly to hostile levels of attack. Winning becomes more important than maintaining trust or intimate connection, with each verbal blow leaving an invisible permanent scar.
How Scars Last
All intimate partners have two crucial relationship dimensions:
- How much they scar their relationship.
- How much the partners are able to grow beyond their current limitations.
Those partners who fight frequently but continue to learn from their mistakes can heal by leaving painful emotional scars behind them. Though their battles hurt at the time, they become more determined to treat each other better each time.
Those partners who frequently fight in hostile and uncaring ways but do not learn and evolve will eventually destroy their love, whether they stay together or end their relationship. The scars they create become more destructive as their love for each other diminishes.
Physical scar tissue loses its elasticity and its flexibility. Emotional scar tissue is painfully similar. Both lessen opportunities for new options. Those partners who continue to create scars without growing beyond them will eventually be unable to maintain their commitment to the relationship.
As partners slide from love to indifference, their caring comments also lessen. The percentage of phrases used to heal the relationship give way to those that are likely to destroy it. Even if they end the relationship in time to avoid further damage, their negative patterns may remain, and affect subsequent relationships.
New partners may not have the resiliency or desire to respond with understanding, and will be unlikely to tolerate the level of learned hostility. The person who has developed the bad habit of falling quickly into hostile venting may become more cynical with each new failed relationship.
Hostile remarks fall into the following six categories:
- Character assassinations
- Threats of abandonment
- Threats of exile
Partners typically use phrases from more than one category in an argument, and can deliver them with sarcasm, rage, or tears. When hostile statements increase in depth and frequency, one or both partners will escalate their defenses and retaliations. After they have exhausted their angry fury, they often retreat into non-communicative disconnects.
Every one reacts differently when hurt or angry. After a hostile interaction, one partner may want to reconnect before the other is ready. That disparity can start another round of retaliatory arguments. Each round is more likely to create yet more scars and make healing less likely.
Though exaggerated swear words often accompany hostile venting, I have not included only three examples in the following descriptions, using asterisks to fill in letters. If you routinely use profanity for extra shock value, you may find the succeeding examples milder than you are used to using or hearing when you and your partner are fighting.
There are only a few of those shock-intended words in every language and both partners have to agree that they are insulting or they would not have the capability to cause the insults they do. If you pay careful attention to where you may add them in your actual hostile interactions, you can explore what effect you are trying to have on your partner.
1. Character Assassinations
Character assassinations are wipe-out statements that partners use to define the other as someone who has always been, will always be, that bad. The phrases are intended to make the described partner as permanently and irrevocably doomed to be that way. Their intent is to hurt, deprecate, and demoralize.
For example, if you are complaining about your partner's behavior as temporarily distressful, you would use words like, "You're being really bitchy right now," or "You drive me crazy when you act like this." Those are descriptions of temporary behaviors that are only occurring in the moment. They tell your partner that you're angry at what he or she is doing, not who they are.
Character assassinations tell people that they are innately bad, incompetent, or valueless. When the accused partner takes them personally, they will cause damage that last longer and may leave emotional, indelible scars.
Here are some examples of wipe-out statements that attack a partner's basic character rather than his or her temporary behavior:
- "You're just too much work."
- "Why do I even try? You'll never get it."
- "You only care about yourself."
- "Let's face it; you're not the sharpest tack on the board."
- "You're completely irrational."
- "I can't believe anything out of your mouth. You're a liar."
- "You are a major screw-up."
2. Threats of Abandonment
There are two sets of hostile statements that arouse the most primitive fears in people of any age. The first is to make a threatening statement that implies permanent indifference or abandonment. You would use that kind of statement to make your partner feel worthless and no longer needed. You may only feel that way in the heat of the fight, but your partner may take that threat more seriously. If he or she does respond that way, you may not be able to take it back later.
If you recall one of your parents saying this to the other, you will probably also remember your other parent's response. Typically, it would have been to either plead for regained value, or a counter-attack with feigned indifference. Being a helpless child, you may have felt terrified that your life, as you knew it, would end.
Here are some examples of threats of abandonment:
- "I don't care what you do anymore."
- "You're too much trouble; I'm out of here."
- "You disgust me. I don't even know why I stick around."
- "I'm sick of this relationship. I need to find someone who knows how to love me."
- "I don't need you anymore."
- "You don't get it. I'm done."
Though similar in some ways to character assassinations, invalidations do not attack your partner's core self. They are, instead, meant to invalidate your partner's arguments and make them less convincing. By focusing on your partner's contradictions or weaknesses, you're attempting to neutralize his or her advantage, or to feel superior in the argument.
If you succeed, your partner will become defensive and less able to fight back. On the other hand, if your partner has a strong sense of self, you may be in for a counter-attack that invalidates your position.
Here are some examples of invalidations:
- "Bull s**t."
- "You just don't get it."
- "That's the stupidest argument I've ever heard."
- "Can't you ever get anything right?"
- "Maybe if you ever made sense, I'd understand what you mean."
- "You don't know what you're talking about."
- "Don't bother trying to convince me; it won't work."
- "You're not even worth listening to."
4. Threats of Exile
Exile is more threatening to most people than abandonment. It is one thing to say to your partner, "I'm not interested in you anymore." Threatening exile is more potent and terrifying. You are telling your partner to get out of your life. Even if you just mean it in the moment and would never want that person gone in a permanent way, you are taking the chance that you will be taken seriously.
If you threaten exile enough times, your partner will actually begin to believe you and no longer expect the relationship to continue. Unless you're sure you want out, you'll be smart to use different phrases if you feel this uninterested in staying connected.
Here are some examples of exile:
- "Just get out."
- "I don't need you anymore, and don't slam the door behind you."
- "I want you out of my life."
- "You're a pain. Get lost."
- "You've worn out your welcome here."
- "Find somewhere else to go."
- "You don't have anything left to offer me. I don't want you anymore."
- "Why don't you go back to your old girl-friend? You deserve each other."
Hostile challenges are questions or statements that are delivered with sarcasm or defiance, and are never true questions of inquiry. They don't go after the partner's innate personality characteristics or the validity of their statements, but rather their right to even make them.
If you are challenging your partner's basic rights to feel, think, or behave in certain ways, you will ask mean questions to "show" your partner how stupid or incompetent he or she is. Each time your partner tries to make a point, you will interrupt and push hard for your win by undermining whatever his or her reasons are for that opinion.
Here are some examples of mean challenges:
- "Do you even know what you're talking about?"
- "That is totally wrong. How can you possibly justify something so stupid?"
- "You actually believe what you're saying?"
- "How can you justify what you're saying? It's baseless."
- "An idiot could come up with a better idea."
- "Do you ever think about why you say the things you do? They're meaningless."
- "I can't believe you'd think I'd fall for that."
- "Where'd you come up with that dumb logic?"
- "You're so biased; why would I ever listen to you?"
When people feel hostile, they often pull the parental card. Pointing or wagging their finger, they quote authorities, absent friends, or previously established prejudices, in order to push home their point. If you use unchallengeable hierarchy to make your partner feel like a chastised child, you'll use information from an outside source to add weight to your argument.
This kind of hostile venting can have the most negative impact because it activates childhood guilt or embarrassment. It is particularly hurtful if you know your partner's history and use what vulnerable memories they've revealed to you to make your point.
Here are some examples of preaching:
- "For a person who claims to be decent, you ought to know better than to do what you've done."
- "You know, if you were a decent person, you wouldn't talk to me like this."
- "Sorry isn't good enough when you act so infantile."
- "Why do I have to keep telling you what you should already know?"
- "You don't have any integrity, do you?"
- "Do you even know what a good lover is?"
- "Why don't you do what's right?"
- "A person with any reasonable compassion would never do that to me."
- "I've told you a million times; you just don't care."
- "You're so immature."
- "You're whining again."
Breaking Verbally Hostile Patterns
There are five ways that hostile behavior can be understood and eventually stopped. They are very simple to learn, difficult to practice, and very effective. In order for them to work, both partners must genuinely want to stop their negative patterns and understand that their relationship can otherwise be in jeopardy
1. Childhood Origins
Anyone can get angry. When people are frustrated, scared, hurt, rejected, or suppressed, they like their partners to know how they feel. Suitably expressing negative feelings is part of every successful compromise, but raging, hurtful, destructive venting is not healthy for any relationship.
People learn destructive anger in childhood. Their first exposure to dysfunctional outbursts of anger happens when they are small, whether directed at them or observed. When parents are mean to each other in front of their children, they teach those children to cower, to run away, or to react with their own hostility. If they are not taught successful conflict resolution or healthy coping responses, they will make the same mistakes in their adult relationships.
When adults display those unhealthy patterns, they often don't realize their own inner child is who is driving them to behave that way. Despite their being adults in their current interaction, inside they are all the ages they've ever been. If they were the targets of their parent's hostilities, or witness frequent verbal insults between their parents, they are likely to react to similar phrases as adults.
Each partner has different memories and different experiences. Neither partner can ever fully understand the depth and details of the other's feelings. In an argument, the person being attacked is the only one who can define whether a hostile phrase is abusive or not.
Childhood hurts re-experienced can feel as they did the first time they happened. When one partner issues a hostile phrase, he or she cannot guarantee that the other partner will experience it as it was intended. Each partner may feel differently about any chosen phrase, whether uttering it or experiencing it from the other.
As arguments escalate and partners forget their caring for each other, they will regress in to those childhood responses. They will begin to fight back as if their partners were their angry parents. They may feel more empowered to fight as an adult than they could have as a child, but nevertheless, respond as if they are still as vulnerable as they were then.
2. Virtual Videos
Once partners help each other identify anger patterns in their families of origin, they must then see where those same patterns play out in their adult lives. To do this effectively, they must let a part of their minds observe their hostile interactions from outside as they happen.
The most powerful tool a couple can use is their own mental virtual video. This exercise requires that both partners have agreed to help each other become alert to any childhood reactions they mutually activate as soon as they begin. They both stand outside themselves running the camera, objectively observing their hostile interactions while continuing to fight. They're looking for any signs that they may be regressing: raising voices, increasing tempo, interrupting, and changing postures or facial expressions. Their mental video will likely show them as young enemies, out to destroy each other as they grow desperate to hold their positions.
If they can imagine that they will be playing back that video for anyone they would want to impress, they might be more able to change the nature of their interactions to hold them within boundaries they both respect. This technique works best if both partners consciously attempt to move the camera to focus on different parts of the scene, zooming close in to each of them and then moving away to encapsulate the whole picture.
Within a short time of repeating this exercise, both partners will see how deeply embarrassed they would be were their hostile actions to be observed. Watching themselves recreate the negative patterns they were taught as children will help them revisit their childhood experiences and can help motivate them to break the inter-generational patterns.
3. Evaluation of Hostile Phrases
Whichever of the six hostile patterns you may use, you will be more likely to break your patterns if you face them courageously. Begin by writing down the mean phrases each of you uses most often. Then ask yourself where you learned them and what you mean when you say them.
Do not do this during a fight, but as soon as possible afterwards. Put your phrases in each category, or add a new category if needed. If your partner will do this exercise with you, you will both move more quickly toward healing your negative interactions.
After you have helped each other identify those hostile phrases and their origins, share the feelings you had as children when you first heard them. Tell each other why you still use them, what you feel when say them, and how it affects you when you hear them. Talk to each other about what you want when you are upset, and if there would be anything else you or your partner could do instead of escalating into these destructive patterns.
4. Stopping Emotional Cascades
Once you have identified where you learned your hostile phrases, watched them from your virtual videos, and evaluated them together, you're ready for the next step. Anytime you want to lessen damaging behaviors, you will find it easier to prevent them before an argument begins than to stop them once they start.
Sometimes your feelings of anger, hurt, or need to retaliate begin slowly. At other times, you may find yourself erupting instantaneously, especially after many fights have ended without resolution. How quickly you react to conflict typically follows your history of past destructive interactions, but some partners are sensitive to any conflict and move to a defensive position immediately. Exhaustion, overload, or illness can also lower frustration tolerance.
Try to note where feelings of hostility begin in your body as soon as you become aware of them. What are your symptoms? Many people feel anger in their lower bellies building as it rises to the top of their heads. Others feel it as a pit in their stomachs or in their throats. You can expect accompanying symptoms of rapid breathing, clenched hands, a higher-pitched and louder voice, and more rapid verbal exchanges. You may anticipate losing something important, or of being unfairly condemned.
As those physical symptoms arise, most people stop experiencing their partner's actual presence, and perceive them like hurtful people from their past. The verbal attacks escalate and formerly loving partners become temporary enemies until the hostile interactions end. Then they must do damage control and try to reinstate the love they felt before.
Once you recognize the symptoms of building hostility, the next step is to pay attention to how you felt before the cascade began. Ask yourself these following questions:
- What did your partner say that got you going?
- What did you hear?
- What reactions did you feel?
- Why were those words so painful?
- What were you afraid of losing?
- What could you have done to stop your negative reaction?
- Are you staying accountable to your own behavior?
Once you and your partner have helped each other understand the impact of your hostile words, you are ready to change how you handle yourself in succeeding arguments. Take each hostile phrase you have examined together, and tell your partner how he or she could have expressed those same feelings in ways you could have accepted.
When you are doing the exercises together, you may come up with examples that more accurately fit your personal relationship. Partners who are willing to do the work can undo the negative spiral. It takes time and patience, but the end result will be well worth the effort.