Shelia Wray Gregoire at To Love, Honor, and Vacuum just posted an article on how to stop an emotional abuse cycle in marriage. The bottom line is consistently drawing a boundary — saying something like, “I will not tolerate belittling words. Come talk to me when you’re ready to have a respectful discussion” and then walking away.
As both a victim and a perpetrator of emotional abuse, I back this advice 100%.
I remember the first time, back in our dating days, when my husband refused to tolerate my berating. It was a late night, I was tired and stressed, I was being a classic jerk, and we were using that greatest of all communication methods — text. A small problem that could’ve been solved with a good night’s sleep on my end spiraled into a nasty character assassination. He finally texted, “I’m done with this conversation. Good night.”
It shocked me.
But it wasn’t his words alone that shocked me. It was the fact that he really was done with this conversation. He turned his phone off and went to bed, ignoring the tirade of desperate, angry messages I sent him in response to his boundary. When we both woke up the next morning, he still didn’t respond — and I was the one shamefacedly scrolling through last night’s vitriol, all so clearly one-sided and petty in the light of day. I felt so guilty that I sought him out, apologized, and moved on to more respectful conversations.
Boundary drawing works. (Not to be confused with stonewalling, which is another characteristic of dysfunctional couples and only further feeds the cycle of emotional abuse.)
The simple skill of meaning what you say and walking away from unproductive conversations and unwanted behavior applies to many other areas of life.
I use this regularly in comment moderation. If I say I am done with a conversation, I mean that I’m done. Even if the antagonist responds to that comment and tries to bait me back into the conversation, I don’t reply. I stay done. When engaging with someone disrespectful and intrusive, the best defense is a firm, consistent boundary I intend to follow through on.
It seems too simple, but it’s actually quite rare. The majority of people enter back into hopeless Facebook threads after dramatically announcing they’re through with the conversation. “I can’t believe I’m getting dragged into this again,” they’ll say,
Say what you mean, mean what you say.
I instantly respect people who really do quit the conversation and refuse to budge, regardless of how the trolls play. And even if the trolls don’t share the same respect I do for that person, what can they do about it? They can’t touch a person who isn’t gratifying their disrespect with a reaction of any kind.
Oddly, this is the sort of thing we were supposed to have learnt in grade school. I taught my kids this little ditty about handling bullies and difficult people:
We don’t fight!
Talk it over, walk away,
Find another game to play.
(And always feel free to come tell the teacher!)
It’s the same principle as Sheila shares in her article for adults. If respectful conversation isn’t possible, walk away and engage yourself in something else. Don’t get dragged into a cage match. It never ends well.
It’s unfortunate, but not unexpected, that many adults do not know how to appropriately deal with conflict or regulate their emotions even on this grade school level. We don’t talk it over and walk away. We don’t only say something when we have something nice to say. We don’t hold our hands and find our patience.
We all learned the catchphrases, but nobody explicitly taught us or modeled how to apply them when emotions ran their hottest. Now as adults, we feel as justified in lashing out because of our big people problems as we did throwing tantrums as little kids with our little people problems.
In fact, I see a direct correlation between a child having a meltdown and screaming out, “I hate you!” at her mommy and the wife having a meltdown and screaming similar epithets at her husband. There’s so much bottled up, legitimate, but unregulated pain and frustration that it explodes in verbal violence.
A parent’s response, much like a spouse’s, is often to fire back with sarcasm or equally hurtful words, to domineer, to in some way out-emotion the offender — or on the other end, to stonewall, cave in, bend over backwards, and just buy that bag of Oreos in the checkout line already. But none of those things are effective in the long-term, neither for children nor for emotionally unregulated adults.
That’s how I view both adult and child tantrums now — desperate cries for a cool head to step in and help deal with crushing emotion. And the first step to stepping in is often bowing out.
I once worked with a child who threw major tantrums — we’re talking overturning desks, hiding under tables, refusing to budge, along with the general symptoms of crying, screaming, and abandoning reason. I was at a complete loss until I picked up the simple tip of ignoring his tantrums.
“J,” I would tell him over his screams. “I can see you are frustrated that you can’t tie your shoes. I would love to help you. When you’re ready to calm down, come tell me and I’ll help you tie your shoes.”
Then I would walk away. Nothing he did drew my attention back to him. Inevitably — and it was a shorter and shorter period each time — I would feel a little tug and turn to find his tear-streaked face trying to burrow into my arms from shame and exhaustion. I would again reiterate how happy I was to help, and we would talk about how to handle future problems, and we would hug and spend some extra quality time together as we waited for the buses to arrive.
His behavior improved dramatically. All he wanted was attention, and he knew, both from my words and my avoidance of his tantrums, that the only way to get my attention was to approach me directly in a more regulated manner.
I think this is often the case in emotionally abusive relationships where the abusive partner isn’t suffering from a personality or character disorder like narcissism.* Something goes wrong in the relationship — someone doesn’t feel heard, loved, understood, respected, etc. — and the repeated efforts to fix what’s wrong fall on deaf ears and a hard heart. That’s when the adult tantrum — verbal and emotional abuse — starts to seem not only appealing but necessary.
If he doesn’t listen when I’m calmly, sweetly, respectfully presenting my thoughts and feelings, maybe he’ll listen if I scream it at the top of my lungs, slam a door, or throw a pillow or two.
This is, obviously, a two-fold problem of emotional regulation on the one spouse’s part and of whatever behavior the other spouse committed that was contributing to the first spouse’s desperation.
Drawing emotional boundaries — and more importantly, keeping them — won’t snap boom bang fix the initial problem, but it will allow for the respectful conversations that will eventually bring about a solution. That’s a fresh start all relationships need from time to time.
*I’m going to offer a caveat similar to Sheila’s — many times the root of emotional abuse isn’t a misunderstanding compounded by emotional dysfunction but a serious psychological, personality, or character flaw in one individual. Drawing boundaries with this sort of person will neither save your marriage nor change your spouse. If you find yourself married to this kind of person, please empower yourself, seek professional help, and keep yourself and your children safe.