We typically think that bullies are primarily acquaintances from school or the workplace, or complete strangers who get off on bullying others. We are less likely to think that our loved ones could be bullies, but bullying behavior can occur in close relationships.
A number of men and women who have read my previous posts on bullying have mentioned that they have been, or are being, bullied by their spouses. How can you tell if a spouse has crossed that line and has become the bully in your life?
1. Name-Calling. A common bullying behavior is name-calling. Often these are simply negative names (e.g., profane, such as “asshole” “bitch/bastard” or worse), but may often take the form of belittling labels (i.e., “weakling,,” “idiot,” etc.).
2. Taunting. When you try to stand up to your spouse’s (or significant other’s) verbal (or physical) attacks, the bully taunts you, both as a put-down and as a means of controlling you (e.g, “What are you going to do about it?” “Go ahead, call the cops, they’ll just take my side”).
3. Verbal and Physical Aggression. Besides name-calling, a bully can go off on verbal tirades, and may get physically (or sexually) aggressive. Obviously, aggressive attacks are serious and are often the triggers to seek help or get out of the relationship. One friend left her bullying husband when threatened with a knife: “Often verbally abusive, he had only rarely resorted to physical violence, but when he used a weapon, that crossed the line, and I was out of there."
4. Controlling Behavior. Over-controlling and not allowing a spouse to have any freedom or autonomy is a sign of bullying. Constant criticizing and put-downs (“Can’t you do anything right?” “You’re doing it wrong!” “Let me show you how to do it right”) are designed to make the spouse feel small and emphasize the bully’s imagined superiority.
5. Put-downs in Front of Others. Belittling a spouse or significant others to others publicly is another bullying behavior. (“Let me tell you how stupid he is. . .”). Another way that the bully dominates is to share the spouse’s secrets with others in a negative way (“She really wants to be the manager at work, can you imagine that?” “He thinks he’s the world’s greatest lover, but believe me, he’s not even adequate.”).
There are many motivations for bullying. Many bullies cover up their own feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem by putting down others. Some bullies are egocentric and narcissistic, and uncaring of the impact of their behavior on others. Some spouse bullies were themselves targets of bullies, or may get bullied at work and bring it home.
What to do? First, it is important to get some help. Seek counseling to have a support system. Standing up to the bully can be risky and may lead to increased bullying behavior, but it is an important step.
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