The term “bully” has taken center stage in recent years. We hear stories about bullying in the news and our school age kids are inundated with “Stop Bullying” campaigns designed to raise awareness and address the issue.
If your child was being bullied on the playground, I’m sure you have an idea of how you’d handle it. You’d probably talk to their teacher or the school administration. You might visit with the parents of the bully or accompany your child to an activity – or pull your child out of one – based on the bully’s participation. And I bet you’d make sure your child knows how to respond to the bully.
You’d have a plan.
But what if it’s not your kid? What if it’s you that is being bullied?
Tell-tale signs you are married to a bully
Bullies come in all shapes, sizes and genders. If your spouse regularly exhibits one or more of these behaviors, you are married to a bully.
- Anger & Verbal/Physical Aggression – Name calling, taunts, verbal tirades. Condescending or overly critical comments. Dominates conversations. Slams doors and throws things. Once a bully has a reputation of using anger as a first response, just the fear of the anger often keeps their victims silenced.
- Controlling – A bully limits your freedom, dismisses your ideas or thoughts as silly and invalid, or insinuates that you are incapable. Crying can also be a controlling behavior when it’s used to intentionally manipulate the outcome or you.
- Passive/Aggressive Behaviors – Some bullies like to punish you into submission. It could be hanging up, giving the silent treatment, withholding sex, leaving chores undone or coming home late. They are quietly daring you to call them on their behavior.
- Threats – Divorce. Move Out. Cheating. Or even suicide. All are self-sabotaging behaviors that bullies resort to when they are desperate and scared of losing you.
Understanding why bullies bully
At its core, bullying is about trying to gain power and control. It’s going “one up” to make the other person feel less or “one down”.
Bullies use coercion, manipulation, and intimidation in an attempt to control outside factors and force our compliance. Fear – usually driven by the bully’s own insecurities – motivates their behavior.
What bullying does to your marriage
In a functional relationship, the two partners are equals. But when one of the partners is a bully, there is an imbalance and the relationship is unhealthy and generally unsustainable without change.
Additionally, if you have kids, bullying takes on an even bigger consequence. Research shows that children growing up in a home with a bully parent, are more likely to become bullies – or be bullied – themselves. That is a cringe-worthy legacy to leave your offspring.
What to do if you are married to a bully
Stop Making Excuses – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard “But it’s not that bad. He/she isn’t always like this”. Well of course they aren’t! If they didn’t have some redeeming qualities, you wouldn’t think of staying. No one would. This is exactly how a bully gets to continue bullying. They justify their bad behavior by reminding us of the good times. If your spouse is a bully even part of the time, you deserve better. And your kids deserve better too.
Quit Taking It – Often spouses believe they aren’t taking it if, instead of ignoring the bullyish behavior, they fight back – by yelling, screaming or issuing empty threats NEWS FLASH: This is still taking it! Lashing back at your spouse in abusive ways only escalates an already awful situation and creates a destructive cycle of abuse in your home. Resist the urge to feel justified in this type of response because of all you have put up with over the years. If you can’t respond in a healthy reasonable way how can you expect your spouse to learn to control him/her self?
Bullies have a way of targeting those who don’t have boundaries. Stay calm and use firm direct language to set limits. “If you continue to yell and scream, I am going to pack up my things and the kids, and spend the night elsewhere tonight.” And then follow through and do it.
Be Prepared to use an Ultimatum – Ultimatums are to protect you and the relationship. They can be a scary but necessary last resort when your spouse has refused to make repair and you no longer feel safe, secure or respected in the relationship. Remember, you cannot control your spouse, but you can control what you will tolerate. For more on ultimatums, go here.
Keep a Journal – I’m a big fan of journaling. Document episodes of bullying – what your spouse did or said, how you responded, and your feelings. This can be a valuable tool to reflect back on and help you confront the behavior and verbalize how you experienced your spouse.
What if you are the bully?
If you are the bully in your relationship, the good news is it does not have to be a terminal diagnosis. There are steps you can take to move away from your bullying behavior and begin to repair the damage you’ve done. But to do so will require a level of humility and self-awareness that will be new and very uncomfortable for you. It will also likely take you asking for – and being willing to receive – help from a qualified therapist – one who can help you identify the source of the fear and pain that led you down this path.
Almost all self-defeating behavior stems from painful emotions that are the result of childhood experiences. Our Breaking Free Workshop can help you heal from those painful experiences and learn how to maintain functional adult relationships.
It can be difficult to admit there is something wrong in your marriage. Whether you are the bully or the bullied, there can still be hope for your relationship. But don’t wait any longer to get help.