Responding to Abusive Language and Behavior

Controlling your reactivity in a relationship is a powerful communication tool for strong and healthy relationships. But, what about abusive language or behavior in relationships? How should you respond to that?

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The last two blog posts have discussed the difference between a Survival Reaction verses a Wise Response, and how to harness the power of your response to affect real relationship improvement. Today, we will talk about  what to do in response to emotionally or physically harmful behavior. But first, let’s explore the tactics abusers use to keep us baffled, degraded, and powerless.

Tactics Abusers Use

Shock and Awe: abusive, bullying or harassing behavior is shocking to an unsuspecting person. You may be asking a simple question, making a simple observation, or even  minding your own business when a cruel comment, a damaging putdown or physically aggressive action comes out of nowhere. It may catch you so off guard, that you don’t know how to respond.

One up One Down: at the heart of every abusive relationship is an imbalance of power. The abuser is threatened by egalitarian systems and seeks to control others to ensure he gets what he wants. From the simplest relationship dyad, to the most complex of corporate organizations, power imbalances are used in order to keep power in one localized place- namely with the abuser. The smaller you feel, the more powerful he becomes.

Projection: projection is often used during arguments by the bully to accuse someone of the exact thing he himself is guilty. For example, if Roger is guilty of having an affair, he may accuse his partner of flirting with the waiter saying, “You are such a tramp, always throwing yourself at guys.”

Incongruences: This is also called, “the proof is in the pudding.” when words don’t result in action, and when what he says is the opposite of what he does, then you know he is being incongruent. Two diverging messages come at you simultaneously, and you are unsure of which one is true. These incongruences are unsettling to the receiver because they “sound good” but “feel  bad.”

Power in Numbers: Abusive language and behavior is sometimes used in the midst of or with the help of other people as a means to over power you. Sometimes abusive people will make cruel remarks in front of other people to publically humiliate you knowing you will not retaliate in public.

Once you recognize these tactics in your relationship, you are able to make a choice about how to respond. It is extremely difficult to respond wisely in the moment to mean name calling, cruel cut downs, or physically abusive behavior. You may find that you need time to recover from the shock, talk with a friend or expert to validate your concern and then prepare to take action. Sometimes these steps take hours, and sometimes these steps take years. No matter the time frame, responding to abusive behavior in a healthy way is possible. It’s never too late to setting healthy boundaries in your relationship.

How to Respond to Abusive Behavior

Abusive behavior varies in degree, and I am aware that my readers in destructive relationships are not all the same. Some may feel relatively safe most of the time, and others feel constantly badgered and threatened. I tried to be general enough in these prescribed steps to apply to most situations.

  1. Talk about it with other people. You may be tempted to keep it to yourself, protect your abuser’s reputation, or blow it off, but don’t. It’s important to talk about what you experienced with other trusted people for validation and comfort. Even if you feel terrible admitting it, there are people who love you and want to be there for you.
  2. Seek support. Once you’ve recovered from the shock or damage, seek expert support. Counselors, human resource specialists, law enforcement, attorneys, doctors and advocates can help you determine your best interests and how to proceed. You simply can not handle abuse by yourself- asking for help is absolutely necessary.
  3. Set boundaries: As scary as this sounds, exploring and setting your boundaries is essential. Abusive, harmful language, manipulation, putdowns, harassment or assault is never ok. Putting up with it hoping it will get better never works in the long run. Even if you feel like you are partly to blame (a common feeling among victims of abuse), you must insist that the abuse stop or you will take further action (leave, report the abuse, etc.) Your support network can help you determine how to proceed. Abusive people do not stop abusing unless they are forced to.
  4. Follow through. Setting boundaries takes a good deal of energy. Congratulate yourself- you’ve already done some good work. However, your work is not finished. A person who uses abuse to gain power will most likely strike again if he/she is not held accountable. Make sure you employ stated consequences to broken or disrespected boundaries and hold to your demands. Working with advisors, advocates, and experts is essential to help you advocate for yourself.
  5. Refuse to be Hard on Yourself. People grappling with emotional, physical or psychological abuse in their relationship often feel a sense of shame. They question themselves continually, and even blame themselves for their partners’ destructive behavior. They doubt themselves and their ability to make good decisions. This is a symptom of abuse and trauma, but not the cause. Be careful to not do to yourself what has been done to you. Give yourself the encouragement you need to keep going, to stay strong, and to believe in yourself.

Next week I will explore specific examples of how to communicate boundaries and follow through when dealing with abusive behavior.

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