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How to Respond to Verbal Abuse When You Hate Fighting

Sometimes good insights come when you least expect them and from someone who’s cutting your hair.  Anna is a lovely, collected lady.  Even though she’s good at it, she hates fighting.

Her husband is the nicest guy to others, yet he is an Olympian in verbal abuse  to her.  He never misses an opportunity to pinch her sensitive spots and rubs her nose in every possible flaw a human may have.  She feels belittled over pretty much everything under the blue sky.

And then there’s the mother in law.  If Anna’s daughter showed any lack of manners or basic life skills the monster in law would immediately point out that the girl must have inherited this behavior from her mother.

Naturally, Anna was combative and willing to engage in every fight.  She said “I felt like I had to respond to his attacks and respond I did! But the worst came from my mother in law.  I felt instantly sucked into all of her attacks, many times engaging in the most pitiful fights.  I just felt that if I did not respond to accusations “their” words would be validated. Some of the arguments would drag out for hours.  It was exhausting.”  She fell a victim to depression and massive headaches.

Enough is Enough When You Say So

Then one day Anna decided enough was enough.  She was sick of it all.  While drying my ever greying hair she just said: “Then I changed and it was over.” My curiosity was peeked and I almost jumped up from the chair.  “Changed what, changed how?!” She said: “I just changed.” This was slowly driving me bonkers.  I elevated my voice over the hair blower: “Anna, how did you change?!” “Oh” she said proudly, “I just stopped responding to his verbal abuses.  First, it was very difficult; I would turn away and leave the house to cry.  I would sit on the street curb and weep.  But then it got old and I stopped crying.  In fact, I somehow managed to train myself not to respond and was able to keep my calm.  Then it hit me: I was validating his rudeness while responding to his every accusation.  I was giving him the fuel to elevate his ego.  It felt good to have that thought and ever since I feel stronger and more in control of how I feel.”

Naturally, I was curious how did her husband take such a tectonic shift in her demeanor.  She said with a small smirk on her face: ”Oh, he’s still grouchy but does not direct it at me.  He knows I’m not interested in fighting and I do not intend to to attend every argument I’m invited to. I am still nice to him when he is nice but when he starts belittling me, I write him off as a grumpy old fart and go on about my business.”

“So what about the mother in law?” I wondered.  “Oh its a similar story.  One night I just stood up from the dinner table during her usual finger pointing game and said “Your words are bitter; they are hurting me and braking up our family.  I will no longer listen or respond to your verbal abuse.  You should be paying a closer attention to your son’s behavior anyways,” and then I walked away.” “And….?” I was even more curious what happened next.  “And nothing…, the result was that she doesn’t talk to me as much but then she never did, however she doesn’t insult me anymore either.” I laughed from the bottom of my lungs: “This is awesome!” I said.  I was so happy for her.

Interdependent Causation

I used to be an avid fisherman and this was making total sense for me. Let me explain.  When you’re out on the lake you have to try casting your bait in various places.  If you float in one spot for three hours and do not reel in a single fish you know one of the two things are wrong: either your worm is on the hook looks like deadbeat or there are no fish here!  Naturally, you move on and never come back to that place because it’s a waste of time.  Verbal insults are something like a bait, honey glazed earth worm. You have to be smart fish and know that even though it looks like a delicacy the moment you bite into it a razor sharp hook will pierce your cheek and you will become a victim of a hungry fisherman.

Eastern Wisdom Traditionss (Buddhism in particular) teaches that all phenomena are arising together in a mutually interdependent web of cause and effect. 

In the progress of personality, first comes a declaration of independence, then a recognition of interdependence. – Henry Van Dyke

When one cause changes or disappears, the resulting object or phenomenon will also change or disappear, as will the objects or phenomena depending on the changing object or phenomenon.  Meaning, if there is a fisherman, there is a bait; if there is a bait, there is usually a fish.  If the fish does not bite, there will be no need for the bait, and even the fisherman will no longer be able to exist.

Anna’s Little Triumph

Not responding to verbal abuse was a simple, yet effective solution in Anna’s circumstances.  Instead of becoming defensive or reclusive she became an island.  An island that storms can hit but not sink, as its base is deeply rooted in earth’s core.  Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D. says it well in her column Headshrinker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

It takes courage to face the truth because the truth comes witl all sorts of anxieties, disappointments, and responsibilities which we would rather avoid. The truth can be painful. It can be challenging. It means we must pull our heads out of the sand and do something to help ourselves—wake up, get up, stand up, pony up, man up, grow up.

Sidenote: Anna’s approach works well if a man is not a violent type.  Unfortunately, for way too many women this technique would only expose them to more physical abuse. So my advice would be to carefully asses your situation before trying this at home.  If your partner is more like Anna’s then go for it.  From now on you don’t take the bait and let the fisherman starve his sorry arse (English term for that fleshy part of the human body that he sits on)!

{ 6 comments… add one }
  • TinaDoris May 29, 2013, 2:43 pm

    This is EXACTLY what I’m going through right now. My husband has an incredibly short fuse, and when it sets off, he screams and blames me for everything. My mother-in-law sends him emails every day, constantly pointing out what she considers to be my faults. In person, she’s verbally abusive, which of course my husband ignores. Last night I realized that I needed to stop responding. When he’s angry, I need to retreat rather than buy into the fight. His anger, his problem. Thank you for this post. You’ve been incredibly helpful.

    • AM Tadas May 30, 2013, 8:01 am

      You’re welcome TinaDoris. Its bad enough the husband is verbally abusive but when his mother gets involved it sure takes it to another level. 🙂

  • Marge June 10, 2013, 1:47 pm

    I did the same thing. Started to find myself again after getting lost in a verbally and emotionally abusive marriage. I had the monster-in-law who told me just months after we were married that “she just couldn’t help being so disappointed about her son’s marriage to me, “cause she knew how much better he could have done”! She said this to me, in my home that I was paying mortgage on, while putting her son through school etc. the only basis we could ever figure was because I had been married, (widowed from a tragic accident) and had a young son. My so was easily adaptable to the new marriage. We had been to counseling, my MIL claimed she had no issues with my previously being married. My son was excellent mannered, a bright student, involved in music, sports, choir very and very talented. She bullied him with smirky insults. Soon when she came over he went to his room and ignored her. My husband gradually started adopting her attitude toward me and my son. Flash forward 20 years and two of our own sons together. We moved across country to get away from mommy dearest, but my husband resented me I think. So eventually I disengaged in the arguing too and was doing quite well. Felt much more confident and in control. The boys were getting ready to graduate. Lots of wonderful opportunities were available to them. It was a great time. But my husband was a jerk, and decided to get involved with a homely, promiscuous employee, ( single mom; no idea who father is), and lavish his time, money, attention
    adoration on her. He says they “we’re just friends” but I have proof that is a lie. He was addicted to her, obsessed but feels it is okay cause he did not care about her, just wanted sex. After a year if upheaval in our home which I could not understand, I learned about their relationship. It was out of his need to control and he was angry because I had changed the dynamics, so he had an affair, as if to say, “take that you disobedient spouse!” He feels that because he did not love her it was okay and now we should go back to the drama and live happily ever after. He grossly underestimated the devastating effect the affair would have. It was the last straw.

  • Flower August 6, 2013, 11:10 am

    Hi There, I found your “wisdom words” couple days ago in one of my husband’s episodes of anger about anything . At this moment is about our 2.5 million house which surprisingly requires a lot of work. What did he expect that a house at such price would be easy work? In order to make sure we will be able to pay the mortgage he works a lot! Also he works a lot to pay his “ego”. He is a lawyer and he does have some addrenaline in what he does and he likes it . The truth is: He is an angry guy. When I found your website I was ( I am still…) on my last rope and hope. And the fact that you said you were once an angry person gave me some perspective. Unless you are back on you anger stage again…
    The thing is I am tired! I have being feeling massacrated ( English is also my third language so I appologize for the make up words!!). I am tired! I dont know what else to do. In the beggining I was a listener and crier , now I am the swallower and once in a while the explosion by saying: “DO NOT TREAT ME LIKE THAT”. At times works and he goes down to “chinatown” and gets humble to see he is not the BEST in the world neither the most RIGHT in everything. However today after my little son ask me if the reason I was sad was because “papai” yelled at me… I had my explosion! In any event, I am tired and I wanna go home (my country) and I can’t because I have children. I want to be done. I have thought so many times is have not being worth to swallow and to see him yelling at me in front of the children (we have two). Since I am not a money interested type of person that is not what holds me. So I love him very much, he does WONDERFUL things but i cant take his anger anymore.
    Thanks for listening,
    hope you are on the good path and not anger anymore . Think on your child . You love him Im sure…

  • EmCee September 18, 2014, 10:55 pm

    How true! I have been verbally abused by my young adult son for years. Him taking drugs didn’t help. I realised how miserable I was becoming by trying to justify myself to him, so one day I said, “I’m not doing this anymore.” and I didn’t. I just stopped listening. He got worse, of course, as one does when one is not being heard, but I just let myself be aware it was HIS ego needed validation, not mine. HIS needs to be controlling were to do with deep issues of lack of validation and his own anger at his own behaviour. It’s called ‘projecting’ He was angry at himself for his own lack of control, so he would take it out on me. Not to say it was easy for me to stop being his scapegoat victim, but over time he started to lessen his attacks. For us who ‘put up with it’ thinking we are just victims, remember it is not about US but them. Be strong!

    • AM Tadas September 24, 2014, 12:46 pm

      Such good points EmCee. Feeling less of a target of his attacks is quite an achievement. When it comes to mind’s projections, I learned the ego needs a subject (oneself), the object (another person or thing), and action (projection itself). If the chain is broken in any of these three elements, projection can not happen and feelings and thoughts dissolve back into where they came from.

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