Q: We have been married for 42 years. From early on my wife has been sharp tongued and has verbally abused both our children and myself. It is always verbal accusations of how sorry you are, you are a screw up, and using the past as nothing but a weapon of hurt. It has escalated to physical abuse a few times on myself mainly. She did lash out at our children when younger but never in front of me. That I would have never tolerated. As the children have grown and moved away the shared abuse has now been mostly targeted at me. My company I worked for closed about a month ago. So the tension has grown. Not that it needed anymore fuel to the fire. I am tired of it. It has gotten vicious. I am weary, and no words ever help or apologies seem to never come unless they are from me. She gets almost violent. I am a big man and would never hurt her. How do I deal with being verbally abused, and can our marriage survive and I survive? -- Willie D.
A: You use some very accurate words to describe what it’s like to be verbally abused. I’m sure others can relate to how you feel: “I am tired.” “It has gotten vicious.” “I am weary.” “No words ever help.” Women just as much as men can get abused verbally too.
You also give several really good examples of what being abused verbally can look like:
- A common form of verbal abuse is the put down - as she tells you "how sorry you are."
- Another way we can be verbally abused is by name-calling - "you are a screw up." And we all know that the names can get even more hurtful than that.
- The final one you describe is extremely common in a lot of relationships - "using the past as nothing but a weapon of hurt." I can't tell you how many times I've had men tell me that their partner never forgets anything. A guy in counseling this week described how his wife told him last weekend (for the umpteenth time) how he had let her down for the last 24 years and then listed all the ways.
Now to your question about how to deal with being verbally abused. How you deal with it is to stop dealing with it. Another words stop accepting it. Most likely, barring a miraculous change by your wife, the only way to stop her verbal abuse is for you to stop tolerating it.
If you stop accepting her verbal abuse, one of two things will have to happen. Either she will change and stop being abusing you, or your relationship will change and potentially end.
It's very important to note though that since you've been together for more than 42 years there's a long history of her abusing verbally and your accepting it that has to be overcome. That means it's going to be hard and take some time for you both to start creating some different ways of doing your relationship.
How do you begin to stop tolerating verbal abuse? In many small and large ways you send the message "I won't accept it anymore." Here are a few examples:
- Walk away, hang up the phone, or leave the house when you're being verbally abused
- Tell her how you feel when she speaks to you like that and then follow that up by doing one of above
- Start to set consequences if she continues to be verbally abusive. That can look like things like you no longer do activities that she wants to do together, you don't pay for things she wants, you stop doing things for her that she expects from you. In different ways you have to exercise consequences for her continuing to mistreat you.
Can you marriage survive? That's up to you and whether or not you'll continue to accept getting abused verbally, and whether or not your wife will choose to change. You've lasted 42 years, but certainly not in a happy or healthy way. Sadly, a lot of people just accept the abuse and don't ever do the hard work to force change. I hope that's not you. For the best interests and happiness of you, your wife, your kids and family, I hope you'll start today to stop accepting being verbally abused.
--Kurt Smith, Marriage Counselor