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Toxic Relationship: Couple Quarreling

This article will be written as if the males are the abusers and the females are the victims, which is true according to research the majority of the time.  However, if you are a male that is the victim or a female who is the perpetrator, please just swap the pronouns in your head.

It is easy to understand that sexual and physical abuse can be traumatic.   It is also easy to understand that severe verbal abuse (i.e.-yelling, name calling) can be traumatic.  However, there are more subtle types of verbal abuse that can be equally traumatic.  The abuser could be doing verbal abuse consciously or unconsciously.

The underlying purpose of the abuse is often to make sure the abuser gets his way, stays in control, avoids being the vulnerable one or can believe he is “right.”  The victim of the abuse is often the more pliable of the two, trying to adapt and adjust to the relationship situation to make it work.  Here are some of the statements I have heard from victims of subtle verbal abuse:

  •      “I don’t know, maybe he is right; maybe it is me.”
  •      “I always feel like I am walking on eggshells around him.”
  •      “I always feel like I am the crazy one.”

One particular couple I was seeing was comprised of a very emotional female and a very repressed, yet successful male.  She would express some very legitimate feelings about some real issues in the relationship (this was during the session).  He deflected her important statements and said some complaints about her that also were true.  She got more agitated because he was not listening and then he said that this emotionality is what makes him think of divorce.  At that point, he looked at me and said- “You see the crazy person I live with?”  And I responded- “Yes and I see the ‘crazymaking person’ she lives with.”  If you could imagine, that was an interesting session that continued with the hope that this subtle verbal abuse (it was subtle until he called her crazy) would be recognized by him as provocative and unacceptable.

The verbal abuser has a hard time owning his own stuff.  The victim often takes too much responsibility for the relationship problems.  If you recognize yourself as a victim or a perpetrator of subtle verbal abuse, do yourself a great favor and get some professional help.  Subtle verbal abuse can deprive both partners of a healthy and robust marriage.  It saps the emotional and physical health of each person, especially the victim.  It can trigger old wounds and deprives those involved of a healthy self-esteem.  Low self-esteem can affect how people are in their other relationships and it can lower the chance of career and financial success.  Please address this problem.  There is reason to hope!



  • Lee Brubaker, Ph.D. says:

    Read the book “Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them”.

    An eye opener!

  • Michael Cohn, Ph.D. says:

    I find it highly offensive that you chose to portray males as the perpetrators. Apparently you have not read the research, or if you have, you have disregarded it or not understood it. The relevant and most methodologically sound research indicates that domestic violence is perpetrated by males and females at essentially equal rates. Bashing men does nothing to enhance your credibility.

    Michael Cohn, Ph.D.

    • Todd Creager says:

      Michael- Slow down. I said up front that it is not always males to females. The research I know is that the majority of abuse is male to female but I have personally had many couples where it is the other way around. I specifically said something in the beginning so that I could more simply write the content without always writing “him or her.” Noone is bashing men here and I don’t understand your inference. As a professor at USC, I am aware that there are many conflicting research studies and that the essence of the blog, I am sure, is not missed by most people because of the pronouns I used.

  • While the dismissive and defensive patterns you point to here are critically important (whether performed by a male or female), I believe calling them “abuse” obsficates real abuse and confuses the issue. I have had more than one couple come into therapy where one of the couple has run across this kind of article and is using it to justify their equally defensive behavior. In all three cases, because they had become so convinced that they were being victimized, it took some delicate work in therapy to help them understand that there were patterns of defensive behavior that both were participating in, which had became a vicious cycle. We all know that most couples come into therapy believing that it is their partner who is the perpetrator of the problem. The last thing we need is PC literature that adds to this confusion. And at the same time confuses the issue for individuals who are being abused.

  • Todd Creager says:

    I missed your intelligent comment so now that I see it, I wanted to respond. I agree and as a writer of these blogs, I need to take great care to not be reductionistic and be more precise in my writing. There is no doubt that vicious cycles are always operating along with self-fulfilling prophecies and each partner needs to take a look at their own defensive and provocative behavior.

  • Brandon says:

    Based on this limited excerpt above, it’s quite possible that the woman is the abuser and just great at hiding it (many are great at making the man look like the enemy and, let’s face it, in today’s US society, they basically are blamed for everything). How you could begin labeling this man the “crazymaker” so quickly after just a few sentences is nothing less than unprofessional, much less attacking, name-calling, and abusive in and of itself. What if he’s just being honest? What if it’s the truth? It’s impossible this early to know for sure who the abuser is and we know what assume means, do we not?

    Another real possibility is that they could both be abusers. Case in point: my parents. They were both abusers but my mom was great at playing me against my dad until I got older and wiser. Now, I just stay away from them and let them abuse each other as they wish.

    • Todd Creager says:

      Brandon- When writing, I cannot give all the points and details of a case because e few people would read it if it was too long. I am just trying to illustrate a point. In this particular case that I was talking about, this was not our first, 2nd or even third session. He WAS being manipulative, not looking at his own part in the problem and she was reacting to his statements in very reactive ways, Your situation was different and your parents’ dynamics were different than this couple’s dynamics. I am glad for you that you re learning how not to get caught in their unhealthy patterns.

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