Robin Stern Ph.D.

Power in Relationships

Will You Please Just Shut Up?

What should you do when your partner disrespects you?

Posted Feb 13, 2010

I really enjoy riding the train, especially for long distances. I love to watch the landscape and usually find it so relaxing! But, last week it was anything but.

I was sitting behind a young couple engaged in what I would call an exquisite Gaslight Tango. It had actually been a while since I had heard a couple go at it in public.

It started like this:

She said: Are you thinking about it? I mean about going to my mom's after the party. You don't look ok. Are you ok with it?

He said: I am here, right? Genius ... I said I would think about it. Jeez, you are so insecure. Anyway, I can't imagine why you want to go there. Your mother puts you down all the time. I thought you were in therapy about that. I thought that is why we are spending all that money on your therapist!

She said: I told you my insurance covers 50 percent and I am talking about my relationship with my family. But, I really feel like going—please—could you please think about it?

He said (mimicking her): "I really feeeel like going..."

She said: Don't do that, ok? C'mon. It has been a month since we have been there. Before us, I was there every week. And I am not insecure—I just want to see my mom. How can you say I am insecure? Nobody else who knows me would agree with you.

He said: Right, right. your friends. Great observers of the world. I don't know any other 29-year-old who has to see her mommy as much as you do ... it's ridiculous ... how about growing up and facing the fact that you are just desperate for her approval. Didn't you figure that out yet?

She said (now her voice coming from high up in her throat): That's not true! How can you say that? I don't need her approval. I just want to tell her about my life. I know she doesn't agree with everything. She just has her own way of doing things and I am a very different person.

He said: Look. Stop whining. I don't want to hear it. I will go with you. The whole thing makes me sick. But, I don't want to listen to you whining anymore. There, are you happy? I said I would go.

(She didn't respond.)

He said: What ‘s wrong with you? I said I would go. Are you happy now?


He said (infusing his anger with contempt): What is your problem? I just gave you exactly what you want. You have got to be kidding — not even talking to me? This is such crap. Smile for me! I said I would go.

(She didn't respond, and I heard her crying softly.)

He said (in what sounded like a growling whisper): I can't believe this. You are so ungrateful. What the F is wrong with you? You got your way and you're still not happy!

The guy was nasty and he was gaslighting his girlfriend. He insulted her, gave her a hard time about visiting her mom, and undercut her throughout the conversation.

The twist was that he, after being a verbal bully, complained that there is something wrong with her for not being grateful and delighted that he "gave in" — that is, after he dragged her through the proverbial mud about it. He was, after all, "going with her." Why wasn't she happy? What was her problem? Why was she complaining? Why wouldn't she respond to him? How cruel. What did she want from him? He always gave her what she wanted.

He went on and on and on and on. She sat in silence. He continued haranguing.

Finally, she stood up in her seat, turned to face him, and said in a tense but strong, deliberate staccato: 

"Will you please just shut up? Just shut up."

Sometimes that is all you can say. And you hope it is effective. Sometimes you just can't listen to another word, even if you participated up to that point and danced the Gaslight Tango.

For this couple, it was an effective intervention, for that moment in time. Perhaps because he realized he was in public, perhaps because he was stunned that she stood up and addressed him like that. Perhaps he was just done.

"Good for you," I thought. But, I was left wondering what was going through her mind. Was she thinking to herself, "What is my problem? He agreed to go, after all. I did get my way. Why can't I just lighten up and be happy? Another woman might be better able to negotiate this in a relationship. Why am I so intense? Maybe I am just too uptight about the whole issue of my mom. Why am I focusing on all the negatives when he did say he would go. Why don't I feel happy?"

Sadly, listening to the back and forth, it seemed to me that insults, put-downs, and manipulation were a commonplace part of their relationship. Otherwise, from the very beginning when he said "Genius...." she would have opted out.

Hard as it is to do, that is the first point in the conversation where she needed to get out rather than get into the struggle. There were several points after that as well. Not opting out and continuing to allow the interaction to go on, while defending yourself in the process, just keeps it going. Often, you do end up questioning your own feelings and your own reality. Of course, even if you do technically get your way, you end up emotionally exhausted.

Have you ever been on that train ride? I would very much like to hear your experiences.