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3 Ways Verbal Abusers Control and Derail Discussions

1. "This is just not the time to talk about this."

Key points

  • When control is a partner's focus, any real kind of discussion or conflict resolution will remain hopelessly out of reach.
  • Some of the tactics used to maintain control can be subtle in how they intimidate or manipulate a partner; yelling need not be involved.
  • Perhaps the most effective tool a verbal abuser has at hand is the blame-shift which further consolidates his or her control over the partner.
 Ayo Ogunseinde/Unsplash
Source: Ayo Ogunseinde/Unsplash

It’s the words of marital expert John Gottman, to which I always return: It’s not whether you fight or argue—there are bound to be disagreements in any relationship, after all—it’s how you argue that matters. Again, a single knock-down-drag-out fight in which each party has his or her worst self show up isn’t going to deep-six a relationship, but if that’s the pattern of how things don’t ever get worked out, that’s a different story. What Gottman calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”—the real death knells to a relationship—are worth keeping in mind as we explore this topic: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. It goes without saying that any of these behaviors, alone or in combination, will also stop the possibility of a real discussion of a problem, much less its resolution, dead in its tracks.

Taking a Look at the Question of Power

Let’s start with what makes it possible for people to resolve conflicts and arguments; it’s actually a cocktail of sorts. Two people with secure attachment—who’ve felt loved, supported, and listened to in childhood and who had a fairly decent model of conflict resolution in their family of origin—are more than likely to sweat less than the rest of us when they argue. They tend not to be into power plays and, moreover, really understand the power of listening. The securely attached couple reminds us that equal investment in the success of the relationship is a huge leg up.

Then, there’s the mixed-bag couple—one more securely attached and the other with an insecure attachment style—but they may be able to stay on track because the secure partner is likely to be sensitive to his or her partner’s triggers and work at keeping the conversation civil and emotionally unloaded. Mind you, this is not necessarily a cakewalk or a guarantee of success; for example, a person with an anxious-preoccupied style is usually hypervigilant when it comes to rejection or criticism. So keeping the dialogue going can be exhausting and frustrating.

Let’s take a look at how insecurely attached people respond to disputes, especially when there is an imbalance of power. I keep emphasizing power because it became clear during the research I did for my forthcoming book, Verbal Abuse: Recognizing, Dealing, Reacting, and Recovering, that an imbalance of power is at the heart of almost all relationships that cannot sustain dialogue.

It’s when you have two partners with an insecure style—especially one with a dismissive-avoidant style—that we step into what is often a warzone. People with a dismissive-avoidant style have a high opinion of themselves and a low opinion of others; while they don’t eschew relationships entirely, they need them to be on their terms and their terms only since they pride themselves on being self-reliant. (Yes, people high in narcissistic traits have this attachment style.) These are the partners who are most likely to use the ploys I am describing.

That said, the fearful-avoidant may also sometimes resort to them because while they may actually want to be in a relationship, “fearful” is the operative word; it’s the fear of being rejected or left that motivates these partners. They are unlikely to pick fights but also may retreat at the drop of a hat or defensively resort to stonewalling.

3 Common Ploys

Aside from the “Four Horsemen”—criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling—I have come to see that there are common tactics used to maintain control of the discussion; these are all anecdotal, gleaned from interviews with people, but once you see them, they may give you a better understanding of the dynamic.

1. Focusing on the “Right Time”

Have you ever noticed that when you try to start a discussion, your partner shuts you down with the words, “Now isn’t the time to talk about that”? This isn’t to say that timing isn’t important—if your partner is in a bad mood, struggling with an issue, feeling exhausted or unwell, it probably isn’t a good time—but have you noticed that there’s never a good time from his or her point of view? If that’s so, you’ll probably also realize that, somehow, you end up apologizing as though you were remiss in bringing up this issue at this very moment. Recognize this behavior for what it is, especially if it always happens: a manipulation and an effort to control you.

2. Deriding the Repetition

If your partner’s first words are “Not this again” or something akin to it—“Are you a broken record?” or “That same old tattoo? Don’t you ever have anything new to say?”—you are being played. The point is that you are bringing the issue up again because the issue is important to you, but he or she swats it away with a deflection. The chances are good that the real opportunity for a discussion is shot, but you’re now on fertile ground for a fight. Mission accomplished by the controller.

3. The Sleight-of-Hand That’s the Blame-Shift

This is perhaps the most powerful ploy which is making you feel at fault for speaking up about the issue—whatever that issue may be—in the first place; shifting the blame effectively makes you the bad guy and your partner the poor, unwitting victim. One reader described how this worked in her marriage for years until, one day, it didn’t:

“His tactic was more subtle than obvious and I honestly didn’t see it for what it was for years. He would adopt a look of deep unhappiness—stopping short of tears, of course—and then say things like ‘Well, if you’re so unhappy, why don’t you just leave? It makes me miserable to think that I am the cause of your unhappiness.’ Of course, I didn’t want to leave; I wanted him to address his behaviors but, believe it or not, I would panic and start apologizing for bringing whatever it was up and that would be that. He never yelled so I didn’t think it was abusive or controlling but it was. He effectively muzzled me without ever raising his voice.”

Blame-shifting, especially when combined with brinksmanship, is an effective tool for the controller and verbal abuser.

Verbal Abuse Need Not Involve a Loud Voice

Our cultural view of verbal abuse is vastly oversimplified—we bring to mind someone in a wifebeater tee shirt, brandishing a beer, yelling—and, at the same time, remarkably naïve when it comes to assessing the damage it does. It’s time that changed.

Copyright © Peg Streep, 2022

Facebook image: Daniel M Ernst/Shutterstock


Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Fireside Books, 1994.

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