Help! My Spouse is a Bully!

By: Christine Hammond, LMHC

You don’t have to be 12 and in middle school to be bullied. It can happen anywhere, even in your marriage. But what does spousal bullying look like? You recognize the feelings of intimidation and fear after a verbal exchange but they are also mixed in with feelings of guilt and shame. This confusing mix of emotions causes you to agree to things you normally would not. How does your spouse do this? How does a simple conversation leave you feeling beaten up while they look better than ever?

The methods of bullying a spouse are far more subtle then the playground bully. By understanding their tactic, you can be better prepared for a response. Hoping they will change will not work. Instead, change your response to them.

  • Rage – This is an intense, furious anger that comes out of nowhere. It is intended to startle and shock you into immediate compliance. If you are a person who likes to “keep the peace,” this is a highly effective tactic. Most likely, your response is to immediately give in. This calms down the chaos and defuses the anger. While this idea works, it also leaves you feeling empty and defeated. Instead, view their rage as a two-year-old temper tantrum. Remain calm and don’t give in.
  • Gaslighting – The term originates from the 1938 play and 1944 film version called Gas Light. As the victim, you are given false information causing you to doubt your memory, perception, and even sanity. This is frequently done in a very calm, almost caring, manner. Naturally, you abandon your own perspective (because they must be right) and substitute it with theirs. In the end, a dependency is formed leaving you to feel like you can’t make a decision without them. If you have fallen prey to this tactic, remember that you make thousands of small decisions every day without them. Build your confidence from the good choices you do make.
  • The Stare – No explanation is needed when your spouse uses this tactic. Just the thought of their intense stare intimidates you. They don’t have to say a thing; you already know what they are thinking. But do you… This is a good time to practice assuming the best about your spouse. The next time you get “the look,” smile back and think something nice about them. (You might need to practice this in the mirror and have a couple of kind thoughts already planned out.) The change in your response will cause them to abandon this method for another.
  • Silent Treatment – This tactic is a one-two punch. The first punch is to ignore or cut you out of their life. As you feel the void they have left, you naturally try to reconcile. Then comes the second punch when they “let you off the hook” by demanding an apology even when you aren’t to blame. You can’t stop the first punch, as you never know when this will happen. But you can stop the second one by not conceding to their demands of an apology. Be prepared because once you take a stand, they are likely to rage in order to obtain compliance. Stand your ground, don’t give in.
  • Projection – Freud identified projection as a defense mechanism. Basically, your spouse dumps their issues onto you as if you were the one doing it, not them. Because you trust them, you look to see if what they said is true. Finding some small shred of truth, you accept full responsibility and completely let your spouse off the hook. They might even add that if you didn’t have this issue, neither would they. NOT TRUE. Everyone is responsible for their own actions. Only accept responsibility for your behavior, not theirs.

Unfortunately there are many more tactics then the ones listed. These are just a couple to get you thinking more clearly about your situation. Try a different response next time. Don’t let your spouse bully you into compliance.

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