There are not many feelings worse than when someone puts you down, insults you, or invalidates you. And a put-down from your own spouse is like a straight-up punch to the psyche. It’s amazing how easy it is to hurt the ones we love the most with our words, but what do you do if you are the one on the receiving end of the verbal blows?
This issue has a certain level of complexity to it, which means we have to approach it with care. Many spouses deliver verbal shots and put-downs to their spouse, unaware of the harm it’s doing. This is Situation A.
Others are well aware and intentional with the harm. This is Situation B, and this is abuse.
Let me be clear about Situation B right off the bat: If you are experiencing an abusive situation where someone is physically harming you, you need to seek help. Use the hotline number at the bottom of this article.
You also need to understand that certain situations of verbal/emotional put-downs may be verbal abuse, and often accompany (or are a precursor to) physical abuse. (See the Power and Control Wheel below.)
Healthline gives some red flags to the characteristics of verbal abuse:
- They insult you or attempt to humiliate you, but then they accuse you of being overly-sensitive.
- They yell or scream at you frequently.
- The person plays the victim while they try to make you feel guilty. (“I wouldn’t have to scream at you if you didn’t…”)
- They get in your personal space as an act of intimidation or try to block you from moving away.
- They gaslight you—this means they manipulate you into questioning your own version of events in order to gain more power. For example, they may convince you to doubt your memory of them saying or doing something violent or try to convince you you’re crazy.
- They hit the wall or throw things.
- They want credit for not having hit you.
Sincerely ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I believe my spouse is putting me down with the intention to harm me, wear me down, or manipulate me?
- Do I think there is a possibility the verbal attacks could lead to physical violence?
- If I were to voice my concerns for how they talk to me, is there any fear that they would react with a heated backlash?
Unless you can answer each of these questions with a confident no, these are strong indicators of verbal/emotional abuse and warning signals for possible physical abuse. Do not confront your spouse. Go somewhere safe and seek help.
Let’s talk about Situation A.
Your spouse puts you down but they are unaware of how it’s making you feel. They are being careless with the words they use toward you—perhaps in front of the kids. But despite the unintentionality of what they say, you still feel devalued. It’s time to let them know how you feel.
- Approach your spouse to talk at a strategic time. Ask them if this is a good time to talk. And if it’s not, arrange a time, preferably within the next 24 hours. Don’t bring up your feelings right after they say something hateful; your emotions will be dialed up, and you want to be calm and able to think clearly when you talk. Choose a time when neither of you are tired or in a bad mood.
- Start on a good note. Marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman suggests opening difficult conversations with a positive. Begin the conversation with something you appreciate about your spouse. Say something like, “I know that you love me and the kids and that you’d do anything for your family.” Or, “I appreciate how hard you work to provide and take care of us.”
- Be specific about what you hear and how you feel. Make good use of “I” messages. For instance, “There have been many times when I’ve felt really undervalued and unloved when you’ve said certain things to me.” Name your feelings—beforehand, jot down some specific words that describe how it feels when your spouse puts you down. If it happens in front of your kids or other people, point out that it feels embarrassing or shameful. Err on the assumption that your spouse has been unaware of how they’ve made you feel. You may have to give them an example of what they’ve said. Describe the last incident and the effect it had on you. Avoid giving a laundry list of all the past wrongs they’ve done to you, though.
- Use a code word or sign. The point of addressing this with your spouse is help them be aware that they are putting you down and the negative effect it has on your feelings. Establishing some kind of code word or a non-verbal signal can subtly express to them, “You’re being degrading and ridiculing right now, and you need to dial it down.” This is especially helpful in front of the kids or in social situations. For instance, whenever you respond with “Oh, honey…” or you nonchalantly touch your earlobe, you can discreetly and calmly express to your spouse how they’re making you feel at the moment.
- Set boundaries. Let your spouse know that if they continue to ignore warning signs and keep putting you down, you’ll simply leave the room when they say something disparaging. Don’t threaten your spouse with divorce or the withdrawal of sex (although you probably won’t exactly feel “in the mood” after being put down). You set up boundaries to protect yourself, not punish others.
- Check your own thoughts and words. I mention this last step with a great deal of care, and I encourage you to approach it with humility and thoughtfulness. I have talked with many individuals who have felt insulted by others close to them; however, sometimes there was something within their own personality that colored the situation. Many were highly sensitive to remarks that weren’t overtly insulting, but they heard them through the filter of past negative experiences.
For instance, one person interpreted an invitation to exercise together as an affront to their weight, an issue to which they felt particularly sensitive. Others that I’ve talked to were offended by another’s insults, but had no problem being equally insulting toward that person. Part of the process of working through this is to consider what may be going on inside you that could exacerbate these feelings. Ask yourself: Are the words I hear from my spouse truly insensitive put-downs, or is there something inside me that makes me overly-sensitive to their words? And, are there ways that I put my spouse down without me noticing it?
Marriage cannot thrive in an environment of disrespect and insults. And no one deserves to be put down by their spouse. The above steps are a process that may take time before you see real change. There’s a chance that other things are going on under the surface of insults and put-downs being hurled your direction. If these problems persist after taking the above steps, ask your spouse to seek help with you through couples counseling. If they resist, seek professional help on your own. ☆ Sometimes it takes one person in the marriage to lead the charge toward getting help and improving the relationship before the other catches on.
***If you or someone you know is in an abusive relationship, contact the National Hotline for Domestic Abuse. At this link, you can access a private chat with someone who can help you 24/7. If you fear that someone is monitoring your computer or device, call the hotline 24/7 at: 1−800−799−7233. For a clear understanding of what defines an abusive relationship, click here.***