Recently, I met with a couple in my office and was listening to them describe recent instances of heated conflict in their marriage. In fact, one of the main issues they wanted to resolve in their work with me was her tendency to leave in the middle of these arguments, which he said made it impossible to resolve anything.
My ears perked up because I knew there must be some reason she was leaving so abruptly in the middle of what they otherwise described as a rational exchange of ideas. At that point, I asked him directly about any incidence of physical abuse and he denied it.
A few moments later, however, he used the word “altercation” to describe their last fight and said the police were called – – not because he had touched her physically – – but because he had blocked her from leaving “again”.
Conflict is normal in every marriage . . .
. . . but because it’s so rarely discussed in an open way, couples often ask me, “Is this normal”?, “Does this mean we should divorce?”, and “How can we finally resolve these things that we’ve been arguing about for years?”
The answers to these questions hinge not on the quantity of disagreements, but on the quality of these discussions, how they are ultimately concluded, and how you come back together as a couple.
It can sometimes be very difficult—even for someone like me who’s been working with couples for more than 25 years—to tell when one partner has crossed the line from “tough love” or normal “boundary-setting” to abuse. Numerous factors, including timing, whether other people are present, and anger management skills can play a role when deciding what type of behavior is problematic, inappropriate, or downright dangerous.
Those of you dealing with this daily know just how damaging unhealthy conflict can be, both for you personally and for anyone it impacts, including your children! Many parents think they’re shielding their children from their arguments when, in fact, children are typically very aware of their parents’ conflict and this can create everything from anxiety to depression, behavioral outbursts, and other serious issues that have a lasting impact.
And, of course, the partners themselves often feel an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and confusion about what to do. If they can’t find a way to break the cycle of conflict and bickering in their marriage, whatever feelings of respect, love, and trust in the relationship begin to erode to the point that the prospect of divorce looks more inviting.
In addition, the prevalence of this problem should not be underestimated, as the National Domestic Violence Hotline reports that almost half of all adult women and men in the U.S. have dealt with psychological aggression from an intimate partner!
Because communication, trust, and respect are crucial to sustaining a happy and satisfying marriage, it’s worth exploring the difference between tough love and abusive behavior in marital conflict.
If you have a spouse that backs you into verbal corners, read our article
Her Way or the Highway: How to Deal With My “take it or leave it” Spouse.
Things to Agree On
Let’s start with the fact that conflict does not have to be abusive. In the heat of the moment, it may be hard to calmly discuss a major divergence of opinion but this doesn’t mean that the conversation needs to escalate or that abuse is ever justified.
Another principal we should agree on here is that abuse is about the abuser; not about the person who “triggers” it (otherwise known as the victim)! It’s common for abusers to blame their victims for their own wrongful actions in the form of statements like these:
“You make me so mad, I just can’t control myself.”
“I told you never to say that, and you did.”
“If you just wouldn’t _______, then I wouldn’t _______.”
If you hear these statements – or comments like them – from your partner after episodes of verbal, emotional, or physical abuse, you have reason to be alarmed.
4 Ways Tough Love Is Different Than Abuse
If you’re caught in the vortex of marital conflict, considering these four things may be helpful:
Tough love is not about power or control. Abuse is about both. Abusive relationships are sustained by uneven power dynamics, while tough love is focused on the willingness to cooperate. When the partner using tough love relinquishes an appropriate level of control, there is mutual respect, but when an abuser demands power and control, trust and respect are diminished. This is one reason why it’s vital to create a healthy balance of power and control from the outset of a relationship—because both partners (abusers and their victims) begin to acclimate to the healthy or unhealthy status in the marriage.
Tough love creates and reinforces healthy boundaries. An abuser does not honor boundaries. Tough love reinforces the appropriate responsibilities of both spouses in a marriage. This type of divide bolsters equality rather than diminishes it. It highlights the normal ebb and flow, give and take, of a durable partnership. Personal boundaries can prevent misunderstandings and poor communication and keep a marriage strong by defining who is “inside” and “outside” the marital circle. By establishing clear limits, tough love never crosses over into abusive behavior. Even the first incident of abuse should be a warning signal to the victim that their personal limits and boundaries may no longer be respected.
Tough love is ultimately used to benefit the other person. Abuse only benefits the abuser. Whether abusers are insecure, jealous, or just need to feel like the ones in control, their behavior is designed to maintain their position and weaken their partner’s ability to move away from them and make good choices for themselves. Abuse may be presented as a loving act designed to protect the person they say they love, but the behavior itself only benefits them. Tough love IS motivated by wanting to protect the other person and help them learn and grow. The motivation is entirely different and has the other person’s best interests at heart. Helping a partner grow—even develop more independence, when warranted—is at the center of the tough love approach.
Tough love never relies on threats or demeaning language. Abuse creates fear. By using under-the-belt tactics such as name-calling, threats, and physical force, a perpetrator causes low esteem and unnecessary pain to their spouse, further extending the cycle of abuse. Tough love does not rely on hurting or terrorizing the other person. While many assume physical abuse means only hitting and striking someone – – shoving and even blocking them are also signs of abuse. Without the kind of healthy boundaries described above, it’s easy to see how “tough love” can sometimes morph into abuse.
If you’re confused about what constitutes emotional abuse, check out
this article on 21 Warning Signs of An Emotionally Abusive Relationship.
3 Common Rationalizations of Abuse
Unfortunately, in many cases of spousal abuse, the victim becomes a master at rationalizing their partner’s behavior because anything less would require them to make difficult choices and changes.
In a twisted way, rationalizing the abuser’s behavior also gives victims a sense of control over past and future events. For example:
“I knew I shouldn’t have taken the credit card. I won’t do that again.”
“It happens so rarely, it’s really not a big deal.”
“She’s just been really stressed lately. I know what I need to do to keep her calm.”
Justifying and minimizing bad behavior only enables the abuser, exacerbates the situation, and allows it to continue. When minimizing becomes a habit, justification and rationalization become easier over time and create a false sense of hope. The truth is that one incident of abusive behavior is too many! Abusive relationships usually do not improve without intervention, and often escalate.
So, what happened with the couple in my office?
Despite complaining about how she would habitually leave in the middle of their arguments, he got up and walked out of the session when she began to explain her perspective. She confessed in his absence that he was both physically abusive and hadn’t been honest with me about having thrown hard objects at her or “dragging her up the stairs by her hair.”
She was confused about whether she wanted to continue the marriage but thought his walking out of the session was going to be the last straw. I’ve since tried to reach her by phone and e-mail but she hasn’t gotten back to me so I have no idea what happened after she left and I fear that she allowed herself to be sucked back into the vortex once more.
If you feel helpless, confused, or caught in a cycle of arguments in your marriage, please seek support! Every marriage experiences conflict, but it’s how you handle it that counts.
If after reading this article – you have realized that you are in an abusive relationship (or others have even hinted that you may in an abusive relationship), please seek help NOW. For more information or to talk to someone at any time of day, please contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-799-7233 (or text 741741).
We’re also here to help, and pride ourselves on our client testimonials, non-judgmental approach, and success with bringing all kinds of couples back from the brink.