"He makes me feel stupid. Like I can't do things right."
"She talks so condescendingly to me in front of others."
Physical abuse in marriage is devastating. But verbal abuse—putdowns, blame, harsh or bitter words, profanity—can be just as destructive.
Verbal abuse uses words as grenades—designed to punish the other person, to place blame, or to justify actions. It's poisonous putdowns that one spouse uses to make the other feel bad, appear wrong or inadequate.
The book of Proverbs is filled with warnings against unleashing poisonous words: "Do you see a man who speaks in haste? There is more hope for a fool than for him" (29:20); "A fool gives full vent to his anger, but a wise man keeps himself under control" (29:11); "The tongue has the power of life and death" (18:21). Clearly the Bible warns against verbal abuse.
Confront lovingly. Marilyn and Jeff struggled with this issue. Jeff would make cutting, nasty remarks if he didn't like what Marilyn was doing. She finally came to me for counseling.
I encouraged Marilyn to confront Jeff lovingly. Later that night after the children were in bed, she told him, "I've been thinking about us. I remember how kind you were to me when we dated: your tender touch, your kind words, the fun we had. Sometimes, though, I lose that vision when I'm hurt by your verbal attacks. I believe that gentle, loving man—the one I married—is the man you really want to be."
Take time away. Two weeks later Jeff exploded again in harsh words to Marilyn. Since confrontation needs to be progressive, I encouraged Marilyn to up the ante.
Marilyn had another conversation with Jeff: "I've made a decision. I've explained how deeply I'm hurt when you lash out at me with critical and demeaning words. It takes me days and sometimes weeks to get over the pain. I've decided that the next time you lose your temper and yell at me, I'll take some time away from you in order to recover. I'm not abandoning you; I'm trying to take constructive action. I'm sharing this with you because I believe in you and want to improve our marriage."
"Your leaving isn't going to help," Jeff scoffed. "Perhaps not," Marilyn said, "but at least it's a step in the right direction."
A week later when Jeff erupted, Marilyn packed up their children and spent three days with her mother.
That's when Jeff got serious about his destructive behavior. He sought counseling and started down the road to recovery. While not all spouses will respond as quickly as Jeff, most will face reality when confronted with tough love.
Don't give in. We must never allow verbal abuse "to work" for the abuser. Giving in encourages that negative behavior to continue. If you recognize this in your marriage, you might say, "I realize I've encouraged your verbal outbursts by caving in. I understand now that this is wrong. In the future I will no longer be responsive when you lash out. If you want something, ask nicely, and I may well do what you desire. But I won't give in when you rant and rave." Then be consistent in following through. Love confronts and love is consistent.
Pray. Loving confrontation is best accompanied by prayer. We aren't praying simply for our spouse. We're asking for God's wisdom that we may know how to be constructive in our situation. We're asking for emotional strength to take positive action and not become victims of our spouse's wrong behavior.
Does the above approach guarantee your spouse will eliminate the abusive behavior? No. We can't determine another's choices. We can, however, be responsible even when our spouse is being irresponsible. Retaliation (fighting fire with fire), capitulation (giving up and becoming a doormat), denial (acting as though nothing is wrong) are all common responses to verbal abuse. None of them, however, are Christian responses. The Christian response is loving confrontation (Galatians 6:1).
Copyright © 2004 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.