One of the most destructive tendencies of human interaction in conflict is name-calling.  When we become frustrated or overwhelmed by someone or a situation, a  dark aspect of our human nature emerges and we can explode with derogatory and profane insults aimed at the person with whom we are in dispute.  

Sadly, verbal abuse and incivility is a growing problem in our society that not only threatens our children in schools and on social media but it also degrades our level of social civility and even pollutes the national discourse among our politicians.  When name-calling happens frequently between partners in marriage, however, the emotional consequences can be devastating and the lasting effects ruinous for the relationship.  

Fortunately, there is a process by which individuals and couples can learn to stop name-calling . Here are the basic steps that, with practice, can transform hurtful arguments into intimacy building, constructive discussions:

1.    Have Realistic Expectations  Don’t be surprised or discouraged by disagreements or conflicts. Having conflicts is normal in marriage and not a sign that something is wrong.  Married couples are still individuals and individuals have different goals and preferences.  These differences collide from time to time and, so, the key to a happy marriage is learning how to deal with and resolve disagreements constructively.  Dealing with differences is one of the great challenges of sustaining an intimate relationship.

2.     Learn to Detect and Defuse Angry Outbursts Before they Occur    Since anger is often explosive in nature, in order to stop hostile utterances, one must become aware that an outburst is coming.  Fortunately, there are warning signs.  Isolated muscular tension can alert us when we are first starting to become upset but before we “lose it”.  Partners need to learn to identify both their own and their partners “organ of distress”, i.e. that part in the body which develops this tension , e.g. chest, stomach , jaw, lower back, neck  etc. .  When tension is detected, instead of allowing the emotion to boil over, there is an opportunity to call time-out and physically withdraw to calm things down.   (The time needed varies from minutes to days but it is important that the other partner respect and not pursue the one who is “calling for time”. Likewise, it is necessary that the one who withdraws come back and re-initiate talking.)  Techniques which help to calm an emotional upset include taking a walk, intentional breathing exercises, meditation and journaling.

3.    Understand Why We Name Call    After calming down, it is important to understand why the conversation was so upsetting in the first place and why you felt the hostile urge to name-call.  One of the difficult realities of marriage or an intimate relationship is that I’m not always getting what I want and not getting what I want threatens my innate need for control.   We swear and name-call when we feel powerless and out of control.  This upset, in turn, disrupts our connection with the rational part of our brain and us leaves vulnerable to unreasonable and exaggerated reactions such as swearing and name-calling.  Name-calling provides an illusory sense of power and temporary relief from the anxiety we experience from being out of control. For example, we raise our voice or make a cutting remark because we feel small and powerless or un-heard.  Many times folks get upset and want to “cut their partner down to size” in an attempt to gain back a sense of control.

4. Discover the Original Source of the Upset   The out of control sensation often stems from traumatic events experienced long ago and with other people.  To defuse the emotional upset, it is important to first identify and see the similarity between the immediate upset and the antecedent experience.  In other words, it is important to understand that your initial reaction may be exaggerated  because it is the result of past and present frustrations coming together.   Whatever frustrating thing your partner was doing cannot logically account for the intensity of the anger you feel.  The exaggerated intensity often stems from a past trauma which has been reactivated by a present trigger.  For example, it is common for a partner to shout out in the midst of an argument , “You sound just like my mother.”  (More on how to discover those transferential experiences at another time and in another blog.) Once the wider perspective is gained, the intensity of the experience drops dramatically and a person can rejoin the conversation in a calm and reasonable way.

A sure way to know that you have recovered your connection to the reasonable part of your brain is when you realize that you really love your partner and that s/he is not the enemy.  Regaining a couple and caring consciousness, that is you remember that you are part of a loving team who needs to work together and not adversaries, will allow you to go back and have a productive talk. 

When folks have realistic expectations and greater awareness and understanding of their own emotional reactions, they are able to calm their initial distress and prevent disruptive arguments.  With a broader perspective, name-calling can become a thing of the past and talking with your partner can become a true blessing of your marriage or relationship.

Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC    4 17 2018