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How do you stop emotional abuse?

I’ve run a number of posts on emotional abuse lately. Last week I wrote about how men can be victims of emotional abuse, too, and yesterday I ran a post by my friend Natalie on how to recognize emotional abuse.

The question then becomes, though, what do you do about it?

Natalie has a great community and support group at her blog Emotional Abuse Survivor.

Last week, though, one reader left a really interesting series of comments on how to actually draw some firm boundaries so that you’re not sucked into ridiculous conversations where you are belittled, yelled at, criticized, or blamed for things that were not your fault.

I want to run those comments today, with this caveat. What I’ve noticed when it comes to abusive marriages is that you can divide them into two groups:

  1. Marriages where a spouse is controlling, critical, and domineering, and where really dysfunctional communication patterns have developed where the spouse treats the other horribly;
  2. Marriages where one spouse is controlling, critical, and domineering, and the problem is not communication patterns. The problem is that the spouse has a personality or character disorder (usually narcissism).

You see, sometimes we can actually develop an abusive way of relating to one another because we allow someone to treat us badly, and soon that becomes the norm. They end up treating us in ways that, given a different set of circumstances, they would never normally have done. But some people honestly are evil. And no amount of changing how you act can rescue the marriage.

I’ve watched a couple close to me walk through this recently, and I do believe that it’s more a #1 type of marriage. He was controlling, but he also recognizes it now and he wasn’t narcissistic. It’s for marriages like this that these steps listed below may actually restore the marriage. And I posted last year a wonderful story of a marriage that emerged from emotional abuse, because the wife demanded to be treated with respect.

In cases with a narcissistic husband, you should still take these steps because it will keep you sane and it will stop the verbal dance. But it will not fix the marriage, because it’s essentially a character issue.

With that preamble, here’s BCMan (and he’s writing from the perspective of a male being emotionally abused; what he’s saying can just as easily be switched around and it’s still right on):

How to Stop the Emotional Abuse Cycle: How to respond when a spouse starts being abusive.

I was in an abusive marriage for 24 years. I lived with harsh relentless criticism and tolerated verbal abuse on a regular basis.

I’m happy to report that our marriage has been free from abuse for the past three years. I’m 100% certain it will continue “abuse-free”.

My advice to men in abusive relationships. You are in your current situation (to a large part) because the first few times your wife engaged in abusive behaviour, she got her way. She received positive reinforcement for her negative behaviour. By accepting unacceptable behaviour, the unacceptable behaviour became acceptable.

When you accept unacceptable behaviour, the unacceptable becomes acceptable. #stopabuseClick To Tweet

Don’t expect your wife to change. First, you must to change yourself and your response to her behaviour.

Instead of positive reinforcement, provide negative reinforcement for her bad behaviour.

Sheila wisely advises “draw boundaries and confront”. Here’s the step by step implementation plan I used effectively to end my wife’s abusive behaviour in six weeks:

  • Get clear on your boundaries. What is the specific behaviour you will no longer accept or tolerate? Write it down (don’t skip this). I wrote “I will no longer tolerate demeaning or belittling speech”.
  • What are the exact words you’ll use when confronting that behaviour? Write them down. I wrote “you have a right to feel frustrated or angry; you don’t have a right to demean or belittle me”
  • What will be the negative consequence if she continues her behaviour? Think of an action you can take immediately that will clearly show that you no longer tolerate her old behaviour. My action was to end the discussion immediately and leave the room.
  • What are the exact words you’ll use to communicate the negative consequence? Write them down. I wrote “stop now or I’m ending this discussion and leaving the room”.
  • What is the new behaviour you want her to exhibit and the reward for exhibiting the desired behaviour? I chose resuming the discussion in an environment of mutual respect and working on the resolving the underlying issue that she was angry about.
  • What are the exact words you’ll use to communicate the desired behaviour? Write them down. I wrote “I’ll be glad to resume the discussion in a mutually respectful manner and work to resolve what you’re angry about”.
  • Anticipate how she will likely react. What are her “go to” strategies she has used in the past when you’ve attempted to stand up and confront her? Does she:

-Deny her behaviour is abusive?
-Justify or rationalize her behaviour? “I do x only because you do y. If you stopped doing y, I wouldn’t have to do x” or “this is the only way I can get you to listen to me”.
-Deflect and play victim? “I do x but you do y which is so much worse. In fact, you’re the one who should apologize to me”

  • Ignore completely whatever she says in her attempt to derail you and restore the status quo. Responding to her specific derailment attempt takes the spotlight off her bad behaviour … and she wins.
  • Firmly repeat what you said and start implementing the negative consequence.
  • Practice practice practice your lines until you’ve memorized them and can say them without getting flustered in the heat of the moment.
  • Execute your new plan.

You may see an escalation in abusive behaviour as she attempts to restore the status quo. STAND FIRM.

How do you draw boundaries when your spouse is emotionally abusive? A game plan: Click To Tweet

After the third implementation within a 6 week period, the verbal abuse stopped completely because it was no longer effective. The new habit of mutually respectful discussion proved more effective.

Great advice! The Big Lesson: Decide what you will not tolerate. Set a consequence. Stick to it. Do not get sucked into any other conversation. Do that, and you will stop the crazy cycle.

Note: sometimes when we start doing that, spouses react very badly, because they are used to having control. If you fear that your spouse may physically harm you, please get you and your children to safety.

Let’s talk in the comments: Have you ever had to draw clear boundaries about what you will and will not accept? What was the hardest part? How did it work for you?

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