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The Woodsfellow Institute for Couples Therapy
The Woodsfellow Institute for Couples Therapy

Angry Fighting, Verbal Abuse

The Woodsfellow Institute for Couples Therapy

In any relationship, we may say things we don’t mean. But things can get out of hand and turn into real issues when angry words become verbal abuse. Learn more about what you can do to help your relationship below.

For couples therapy from experts you can trust, request marriage counseling or a marriage intensive online, or call (404) 325-3401 for your preferred appointment time at The Woodsfellow Institute for Couples Therapy in Atlanta, GA.

Learn about our approach to angry fighting and verbal abuse:

Watch Out for Contempt

Conflict is inevitable in any relationship. We all know that. But we need to make our conflict positive, not negative.

Contempt is the hardest, most negative, destructive kind of conflict. Because contempt is when we say or do things with the conscious intention of hurting our partner’s feelings. People get contemptuous when they are feeling very hurt, scared, and angry. But getting contemptuous is still not okay.

Here’s a crucial principle: Don’t EXPRESS your contempt. Don’t say it. Don’t act it.

Instead, take a time-out. Calm down. Think things over. Get some perspective. Maybe, talk with someone else. Or write. Or figure out what this replays from your childhood.

But before you get back together, work through the contempt.

Sure, there’s a problem. Sure, you need to talk about it. Sure, things need to change. But contempt won’t help. It will just make things worse.

So, when you feel contempt, watch out. Take a break until you can calm down and be softer.

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The Problem of Being Flooded

When you have so many strong emotions that you can hardly think straight — that’s called flooding.

When you’re so upset, hurt, and angry that you don’t care what you say — that’s flooding.

When you’re scared that anything you say is going to be wrong, but you also feel that if you don’t say anything at all, you’ll be in trouble — that’s flooding.

One amazingly simple measure of flooding is your pulse. For most people, if your pulse goes over 100 beats per minute while you’re just sitting and talking — you’re flooded.

Flooding doesn’t feel good. When we’re flooded, we don’t think clearly and we’re not very good problem solvers. And flooding can lead to more trouble, because when we’re flooded we too often say things that hurt our partner’s feelings.

The solution is simple. WHEN YOU’RE FLOODED, TAKE A BREAK. A ten minute break is enough time for many people to calm down. Some need 20 or 30 minutes.

Then, there are two important points to remember:

  1. During the break, you have to try and calm down (not rev up).
  2. After the break, you have to continue the conversation.

When the break is over, the problem still needs to be addressed. But you’ll have a lot better chance of making progress with it when you’re not flooded.

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Going Cold Turkey

Most of us have some bad habits that we know we ought to quit.

When we think about changing these bad habits, it can be like the five stages of death and dying:

  1. Sometimes we are in denial about how bad these habits are.
  2. Sometimes we’re angry at the thought of having to give them up.
  3. Sometimes we’re bargaining as we make deals with ourselves about when, and how, and how much.
  4. Sometimes we are depressed about what life would be like without these habits.
  5. That last stage, acceptance, can sometimes seem pretty far away.

Here’s an important idea. But it comes with a big caution: THIS ONLY WORKS WHEN YOU APPLY IT TO YOURSELF. It backfires when you apply it to anyone else. (I apply it to myself. I do not apply it to my wife.)

Here’s the idea: Quit cold turkey. Just go ahead and quit 100%. All at once. Dramatically. With no warm up, no build up, no gradual increments. Just quit. When you’re ready to be done with the habit, just quit it. Cold turkey. Stop doing it.

If you don’t think you should be yelling at your loved ones, then stop yelling. If you think you should spend more time with your family, then do it. If you want to change your eating habits, change them. If you want to start exercising, go ahead. If you want to say loving words to each other every day, get started today. Just do it.

You’ll still have to struggle with all the old feelings, thoughts, and habits. There’s no quick way out of that. But you can end the drama of "acting out" the bad habit. And maybe you should — maybe right now.

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Freedom, Oppression, and the Drama Triangle

Sometimes the freedom we need is freedom-from-someone. We want to be free of their control, or dominance, or oppression, or persecution, or abuse.

In fact, power struggles about control (who’s right and who’s wrong) and power struggles about dominance (who’s good and who’s bad) are not unusual at all. These struggles can definitely involve feeling oppressed, persecuted, and abused.

However, we all need to beware of something called the "the drama triangle," a three-handed game of victim, persecutor, and rescuer. When we see ourselves as the only victim — and our partner as the only persecutor — our relationship is in trouble.

No doubt, there are circumstances where this perspective IS the most important one. But, there are other circumstances where this perspective can be a serious oversimplification of the situation.

There may be more than one victim, and more than one persecutor, and more than one rescuer. There may be a way in which each of you plays all three roles.

Consider a recent conflict you had:

In which role do you see yourself? (Hint: most of us usually start by seeing ourselves as the victim.) Who do you see in each of the other two roles? Who is the persecutor? Who is the rescuer?

Now try rotating these roles. Try seeing yourself as the persecutor. Can you see the validity of this perspective? Now who is the victim? And who is the rescuer?

Now try seeing each person in each of these three roles.

Sometimes the freedom we need is freedom-from-the-whole-drama-triangle. This would be freedom from narrow vision, freedom from blaming, and freedom from self-righteousness. It’s a whole other kind of freedom.

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The Importance of Making Up

My mother always told me how important it was to "make up" after a fight. You know, she was right.

After arguments, disagreements, harsh words or angry feelings — we all need to make up. We need some process that puts us back together. We need to mend the rift and repair the relationship.

The simple passage of time is helpful. We calm down, we put things in perspective, and we remember the big picture. All this helps.

We need other repairs too. An apology is helpful. So is letting your partner know that you can understand their point of view. Kind, soft words let them know that you are feeling loving again — or at least that you’d like to feel that way.

Simple gestures help: offering a cup of tea, or reaching out to touch, or offering to help with something. Little actions can make a person feel cared about and loved.

Laughing together is always good too. It changes the mood, it brings you together.

Usually there’s a series of little words and actions that leads back to loving and caring and feeling good. Then, after a while, you realize you’ve gotten past it. You’ve made up. Good for you.

As my mother would say, "Now you can go out and play again."

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The Benefit of the Doubt

It’s nice to give someone the benefit of the doubt. We all do it with our friends. When we hear something unusual or surprising that our friend has done, we automatically put the situation in the best possible light. We think of reasons why they might have done such a thing; we jump to their defense. It’s part of our friendship.

Marital researcher Dr. John Gottman calls this "positive sentiment override," because our positive feelings about our friend override our doubts about the new situation. In a healthy marriage, we have positive sentiment override with our spouse, too.

The opposite perspective, "negative sentiment override," is when our negative feelings about our spouse override our trust in them. This is not healthy for marriage.

Political elections are a classic example:

Most people have positive sentiment override with one candidate, and negative sentiment override with the other. With one, you see what he is doing as fair, legitimate, understandable, and reasonable. You construct valid reasons why he has to do what he’s doing, given the circumstances he faces.

With the other, you see what he is doing as cheating, arrogant, irresponsible, and unreasonable. As you think about his motives, you see no validity in them.

These are perfect examples of positive and negative sentiment override.

Closer to home, think honestly about whether you are in positive (or negative) sentiment override with your partner.

If it’s negative, you need to make some changes. You need to become better friends. You need to learn about each other again and re-discover one another. You need to re-cultivate your appreciation for one another. You need to find ways to welcome one another’s overtures and not be so rejecting of one another.

Re-building your friendship is the way to shift sentiment override from negative to positive. And positive sentiment override (giving each other the benefit of the doubt) is the key to cooperation in times of conflict.

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