I Call it Verbal Abuse; You Call it No Big Deal

So you are thinking that what I am calling verbal abuse is really no big deal? Let's see.

Here are some questions you might ask:
What's wrong with verbal abuse, specifically, name calling?
Why can't people just take a joke anyway?
And here's another question, Dr. Smarty: If I'm mad at someone, shouldn't I be able to express my feelings so that she/he knows they did something wrong?

Good questions. Let's look at each of them twice, once for marriage and once for parents.

What's Wrong With Verbal Abuse, Specifically, Name Calling?

  • marriage

In a marriage, you are supposed to be equal partners. Right? Ok, now follow my thought: The person who pins a label on another person is the one with the power.

That is the reason why, as a marriage counselor, I do not believe in giving people a diagnosis--It, too, is a process of labeling people which gives me unfair power and I don't need to do that in order to help people. As a therapist, I actually am placing judgment on people when I label them with a diagnosis. It's as if I said to myself that I am perfectly sane and they are crazy. No wonder people are shy about seeing a therapist. And that's a shame, but the psychiatrists and psychologists caused this problem.

The same is true in relationships. As soon as I call you something, I have given myself power and taken it away from you. That's why name-calling is a form of verbal abuse. Marriages are not supposed to be power struggles. In fact, if I call you anything except something you would agree with or a compliment, it's verbal abuse. So, for example, let's say you were the president of a small company, and your spouse called you "Bill Gates," that would be abuse. It's not only factually incorrect (unless you were Bill Gates), but it does not respect what you actually do. It's as if your own true love was saying, "Anything less than being Bill Gates is no good." It's sarcastic; it's a put-down. In short, it's verbal abuse.

There's also a pragmatic reason not to do it. Do you really want your wife/husband to hate you? Of course not. Do you really want one more war? Of course not. Do you like being called names? Of course not. So obviously, it's not a good tactic.

  • parents

You can read what is written above and logically argue with me that a parent is superior to a child and can pass judgment and therefore should be able to call a child names.

Sorry, it doesn't follow. It's verbal abuse. Yes, a parent is superior to a child. Yes, parents do make judgments. They have to. For example, "No, Mikey, you're not ready for the two-wheeler" (or to the teenager, "...for your driver's test").

That does not mean you can therefore call a child names. Superior positions demand handling them responsibly.

Responsibility means thinking through to the outcome of your actions. A parent, like a boss, has a job to get done. The boss has a product or service to produce and the parent is no different. The parent's job is to teach a child how to fit into our society, find a place for him/herself, succeed in it, get along, and be happy. Right? Plain and simple, that's what the parent has to do.

The main word in that paragraph above is "teach." The parent is a teacher. Obviously, to do that a parent has to make judgments. But where does name-calling come in? When the child hears himself/herself called a name, that child actually learns that that is what he/she is. Whether you like it or not, as a parent, you are teaching every single minute.

So when you call your child an "idiot," the child learns, "I am an idiot." At that moment, all other doors close for that child. The door to success slams shut. The door to happiness slams shut. The door to loving or even liking himself or herself slams shut. The door to being smart, capable, talented, slams shut. You, the parent, shut it. You taught your child that he IS an idiot.

You want to rethink your language, now? Ok, you're saying, so what do I do when my kid needs a kick in the pants but I don't want to be abusive? Good question. Go to my articles on discipline, consequences, leniency, or browse the book page for more.

Here's Another Question: Why Can't People Just Take A Joke, Anyway?

  • marriage

Ok, ok, Dr. Deb, I hear you saying, I did NOT mean all those things. Of course I love my wife and I don't want her to think I'm trying to make her feel bad, but I didn't mean to be verbally abusive! It was just a joke. I mean, she was pretty clumsy that time she dropped the dinner. It was just a little harmless joke.

In reply, let me ask you a question: Where do you draw the line? When you see the story on the news of the car accident in which someone got hurt, is it funny? How about if they died?

Oh, THAT'S where you draw the line. I see. It's only funny if it's a little thing, not a life and death matter. You might be right. So let me help you out with another question: Where does your wife/husband draw that line? The one who was the target of your "humor"?

See, if your marriage partner thought it was funny, then you are right--it's funny. If not, then you lacked compassion, that ability to feel for another person. You were miles apart. The idea in a marriage is to be on the same page. It's a step beyond not passing judgment. It's about being in the same ballpark. Remember the reason why you got married? It was for sharing, right?

I can hear you grumbling, but why does she/he have to dictate if its funny or not? Why do I have to walk on eggshells?

Excellent question. And the answer is simple: You should never have the freedom to hurt someone. Remember, by definition, verbal abuse hurts. If she doesn't think its funny, then you're being hurtful--and putting yourself out of the ballpark in the relationship. Listen, it is really ok to let what her mood would be dictate what you'll say. Trust me. Because the next time the tables are turned and she is tempted to call you a name, she won't because you've been decent to her.

  • parents

Children don't--can't--see the world through our perspective. We're from a different generation, a different era. We have more life experience, more education (when they're still getting their schooling, usually), more years. And because they are in a lower position to our higher authority, they are vulnerable. Whatever our actions, good and bad, they are magnified. A little dig on our part can feel like a knife jab to them. So we have to be very careful; our joke can be their shame. And you really don't want to do that. When that happens, it's no joke; it's verbal abuse.


Here's Another Question: If I'm Mad At Someone, Shouldn't I Be Able To Express My Feelings So That She/He Knows They Did Something Wrong?
  • marriage

Absolutely, you should. The question is, how? And a question I'd ask you is: How is name calling an expression of your feelings anyway? You call your husband an S.O.B, let's say. What are the feelings there? Maybe you need a lesson on what feelings are. Do this exercise: Complete the sentence, "I feel...." using only one word. Feelings are one word. Like "angry," "depressed," "bad," and so on.

You see, name calling is NOT an expression of feelings. The feeling behind the name calling moment may be anger and it may be understood by your listener from your tone of voice, but you never did express your feeling in plain English, like "I am angry at you." Now, that's an expression of feelings. Besides, even being honestly angry has big-time draw-backs. (See my article on anger to know how to handle it constructively.)

So what is name calling if it's not an expression of feelings? Plain and simple, it's an attack on the other person. And what happens when one person attacks another? A number of possibilities, all bad.

    they could start to hate you
    they attack back sometimes
    they want to get away from the pain you dish out
    they don't feel like being in a relationship with you
    you've lost your best friend

Name calling is like put-downs in that they destroy the listener's soul, the speaker's soul, and the relationship that they once had, like any other form of verbal abuse.

  • parents

With children, not only is it true that name calling is not a valid expression of feelings, but even if it were, it's not necessarily true that you ought to be able to express your feelings anyway. Let's look at some examples. Suppose your child is physically handicapped and struggling with a physical therapist to learn to walk. If the child falls and you feel frustrated, would it be in his best interest for you to call him "clumsy" because you're frustrated? No. Obviously.

Calling him clumsy is not an expression of your frustration. It's just a put-down. But you shouldn't express that frustration anyway. You would be best keeping your frustration to yourself. Now suppose he wasn't handicapped, but seems to be a clumsy child anyway. Remember, a parent's job is to be a teacher. If you call him "clumsy," are you teaching him not to be? No.

So you're neither teaching him how he should be nor are you really expressing your feelings. What are you doing? One or more of:

    making him feel bad about himself
    making him resent you
    making him spend his life trying to please you--and never succeeding
    making him think that he can never be graceful, skillful, accomplished, etc.
    setting him up for a bad marriage because he only knows screwed-up relationships


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I'm not sure I agree with you completely; however, what you say does have merit. I am more into "adjective calling" such as grumpy, bitchy, inconsiderate, ridiculous. When I resort to actual name calling it is usually a playful meaningless name like "Bo Bo" - as in "Hah, you Bo Bo you really messed that up." However, lately my daughter has become very sensitive about words. She came up to my place for a rocket launching event. From the get go, I sensed she was in a very negative mood. We had a small meeting about how to run the event, and she objected to every idea that was offered. She refused to smile and walked very slowly staring down at her feet. The thing is I don't even remember calling her any names directly, but I had mentioned to someone else that she seemed abnormally upset and "bitchy" attacking everything I did or said. Since then she has been sending me hate emails which I let my wife screen because emails can be so easily misread. The hate mails continued until my wife suggested I respond with an agreement to "no name calling". That's fine, but chances are I'll mess up because I throw around a lot of senseless meaningless names just to get a laugh. The thing is, she is worse than me. We went on a vacation and she constantly kept referring to me as being senile, having alzhiemers, dementia, etc. just because I kept getting lost on the ship. I never responded to the name calling. But just once when I called her grumpy she absolutely fell apart all day (she was very grumpy). Now I feel like I'm walking on eggshells when I'm around her. I know she has been traumatized by her late husband's death, but it is getting very hard to even be around her because she actually tries to turn a fun good time into a self focused conflict.

DrDeb's picture

It sounds like whether or not you *theoretically* agree with me, there are big problems in your home with hurtful speech. What's the advantage of using names that hurt even though your intention may be good (to get a laugh)? Every subscriber to my newsletter will be entitled to a 25% discount on my book, the Healing is Mutual when it comes out (probably just after the 1st of the year or maybe in time for Valentine's Day) and I think you might find it helpful to read. Give it a try; you have little to lose.

My ex called my fat with stretch marks after having his children, I was told I was washed up and wasted after he had an affair with another woman. and that no one whould want me once they started pulling back all my layers. He said he didn't want me losing weight because I would leave him if I did. The truth is he projected alot about himself onto me, once I got smart after the cheating and disrespect that came along with the name calling I divorced him. I wanted a healthy relationship not a toxic one, so I gave up on 18 years to be safe and happy

DrDeb's picture

Thank you for sharing your sad story. You are entitled to live a life of no pain and if there was no hope for change at that point, then divorce was your option. I hope, however, that readers of this site will see that there are other options. My goal is to help abusers to change. See, if they don't change, and there are kids, then the family is in a painful place long after the divorce is over. The children don't have the two parents that they want and they have many mixed feeling of resentment and anger and sadness. If, on the other hand, the abuse was so bad that even the children are happy there's been a divorce, then as they come into marriageable age, they will carry this baggage with them. Either way, it's tough on them. I hope that is not the case with your children and that they are adjusting well to this big change.

I have been married for 3 years and we have been together going onto 8 years. I have 2 step children and we have 1 together and 2 of my own from a prvious relationship.My question is how do i get my husband to actually see what he says to me hurts me? I get called a goofy *unt all the time it is an every day thing I tell him that it hurts me and he tells me he will never change and if i dont like it to leave. The thing is I cant leave for some reason i can not walk out that door. I love him even though he calls me names and makes me feel like the lowest scum on earth he calls me alot more names than that. We fight constintly over his children I am a strict parent I want my kids to be respectfull and responsible get good grades you know all the thing a parent wants and he doesnt back me up. I just dont know what else to do. CAN YOU HELP ME???? Thanks
The person who desnt belong!!!!!!!

DrDeb's picture

I am going to guess that you had a very unhappy childhood, one in which you were not made to recognize and value who you are. You met two men who must have treated you nicely for a short time and that was enough to "hook" you. When a person is hungry, crumbs will do. What I would like you to do is start to learn how to value and love yourself. That needs to come first. This is not a quick and easy job and it will require help. If you can't afford personal therapy, there are wonderful self help books available. I will eventually be compiling a list for this site. Once you are strong within yourself, you will have the ability to gently and lovingly talk to this mean husband. If you use his own aggressive method, he feels he must be right to put you down. If you're wimpy, it will frighten him and he will put you down.  But if you are strong enough to be gentle and feel good inside, he might be able to listen.

Hey, I'm 22 years old,my problem is that I'm called a lot of names at home especially from my mother and sister, stuff like b*****rd, and a whole lotta different stuff which just hurts. My dad passed away when I was 14 and since then my mother brought us up for which I am forever thankful to her,but at the same time being verbally abused really dents my self-worth and confidence. I'm a social failure and dont really have many friends, also I have a keen interest in music and want to to follow my passion, currently I work for a Multinational Bank, work hours are long and stressful and although I'm not being forced to work there, I know for a fact that I'll be degraded even more at home for quitting my job. I'm really really stressed about it. what should I do?

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