Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Dealing With Verbally Abusive Husbands

September 12, 2005

I received this question from a woman who after many years of marriage was able to identify a pattern of verbal and emotional abuse that was going on in her marriage almost from the start.

How do you detect these tendencies of verbal abuse early in marriage and what methods can be used to work through them before things develop until there is no communication and no sharing of ideas and responsibility. Could you please cover these areas in your column? - A Reader

What makes him tick? First, let's review the kind of husband we are talking about. He is a hard charging, perfectionist who is single minded in his approach to life. It is all about him. It is his life, his career, his needs, his pride and reason to be. He has an intense need to get things done. When he sees something happen that he feels didn't need to happen, he tries to take control by correcting the offending person or get him or her out of the way.

His verbal tongue-lashing isn't personal. Yes, he is loud, forceful, intense and demeaning but it is merely an means to an end - getting the job done right. In the occupation, he is constantly fighting, the end justifies the means. Though he won't admit it, he is scared, insecure and frustrated. If he is to win, everything has to go his way and to be done right - the first time.

He is a determined man with a mission. He has built something and wants to keep it going. He doesn't like to be slowed down. He is afraid it will all unravel without his constant vigilance.

This shades into another one of his less endearing qualities. He is rigid and close-minded. His ideas are the one's that count. He is knowledgeable and argues emphatically to prove his points.

He has a low tolerance for criticism. New ideas are seen as a challenge to his authority and knowledge. To be wrong is to be humiliated. He comes across as domineering, controlling and manipulative. It is his way of dealing with uncertainty.

These traits may be well disguised in courtship but should be easy enough to spot in early marriage. It is the driven way he relates to his work that brings out these qualities.

Taking a stand. How do you deal with verbal attacks, correct them and work them through before too much alienation has taken place?

Here are three things not to do: 1. Don't get angry or counterattack back, 2. Don't try to explain, defend or justify your actions, and 3. Don't shut down and withdraw giving him the impression that you are weak, fearful or wimpy. Thee approaches generally don't solve the problem and they may make it worse.

Treat him like a wound up toy that needs to be wound down. Let him rant and rave and then ask, "Is that everything? Is there more?"

Stand your ground. Look him straight in the eye. Remain deadly calm, cool and in control. Summon all your confidence and self-esteem at your disposal. Your goal is to command respect. You have to communicate you are strong and capable.

Interrupt his attack by saying his name over and over -firmly, clearly and repeatedly. Backtrack to his main point quickly. "So you have a problem with how often I talk to friends and family on the phone." Then give a quick summary of your point of view. "Well the way I see it is ... and I am not willing to discuss it with you further until you are willing to talk to me with respect."

Reassure him that you and he are on the same side. "I want this to go as smoothly as you do. There are some things I probably didn’t understand about how you felt. I refuse to discuss this with you until you can tell me in respectful language what it is you want from me in this situation."

Expect respect and you'll get it. Give him some room to save face without having to admit his mistakes.

The sincerity and firmness of your tone means everything. That's when you win your battle. You win the war when you refuse to accept verbal abuse from him the next time it happens. He'll get the message. Many women can give the time and circumstance of when they took a firm stand against disrespect in the home or with work.

Believe it or not, he appreciates give-and-take interactions as normal. He needs to hear the message that he will get things done better and faster if he treats family members with respect and dignity. He needs to see you as a respected and resourceful partner in your life together.

Getting across to a know-it-all. You have to be patient, flexible and clever. Do your homework. Know your stuff. Discuss areas of his concern with knowledge and authority. He needs to see you as contributing a unique and valued perspective to his ideas.

Make sure he knows how smart you think he is. Then he won't have to prove it every time by shutting you out. Pump him for his knowledge and ideas. He likes being put in the role of mentor and will view you more favorably as a result.

You know his ideas. Piggyback your ideas on to his. Present your views indirectly. Connect your ideas with his and then they will be taken seriously. Confront him directly and Mr. Know-it-all will strut his stuff at your expense.

These men are good men and are easier to get along with if you can get beyond their off-putting communicating styles. If they can see you as a knowledgeable ally in their drive to get things done, you won't be their target.