Sticks and Stones will Break My Bones: Name-calling in Intimate Relationships

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Daniel Jay Sonkin, Ph.D. is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in an independent practice in Sausalito, California. Since 1981, his work has focused ...Read More

Recently a client told me that his wife frequently calls him an idiot. Another person told me that her partner routinely refers to her as a bitch. A sixteen year old described how her boyfriend would often say “f*** you” or “you’re full of s***.” When I asked each person if the name-calling bothered them, some said, “Kind of” others just shrugged their shoulders and said, “I don’t know.” When I asked my teenager client if it bothers her, why doesn’t she say something to her boyfriend? She replied, “he’d just tell me I was full of it or to f*** off.” What all these people had in common was the emotional pain they felt from being verbally devalued, or put down by someone they are close to. At the same time they all felt a sense of hopelessness that they can do anything to change it. With all the important focus on physical and sexual abuse of children and adults, are we losing sight of a more common problem, emotional abuse?

Last year, psychiatrist and psychologist Martin Teicher, of Mclean Hospital at Harvard Medical School, published an exciting article on the effects of childhood peer verbal abuse by peers on the mental health of young people. The results wouldn’t surprise you: the greater the verbal abuse, the more intense the psychiatric symptoms of the victims. Teicher and his colleagues found verbal abuse by peers resulted in depression, anxiety, anger and hostility and dissociation. They found that when this abuse happens during middle school, the effects are particularly strong. What made this study different from other studies on abuse was the researcher’s interest in the effects of verbal abuse on the brain. They took a subset of the their subjects and wanted to see if there was any brain damage or changes that might be caused by the verbal abuse. They took brain scans on these individuals and what they found was very significant. The people exposed to verbal abuse, had damage to a part of the brain that has in other studies found to be damaged as a result of sexual and physical abuse. The subjects for this study were eliminated if they had a history of physical or sexual abuse. Only those who were verbally abused by peers were allowed to participate in the study. The researchers concluded that the effects on the brain they documented were from the verbal abuse they experienced. Maybe the adage, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is not true after all.


If it’s true that childhood verbal abuse by peers can have such a significant effect on the brains and mental health of victims, what about verbal abuse between adults in long-term relationships? There is much research that indicates that verbal abuse in intimate relationships can also lead to depression, anxiety and decreased marital satisfaction. Marco Iacoboni, author of Mirroring People, writes about how our brain is wired to communicate with other brains. The closer and longer the relationship, the stronger the neural connection is between couples. What this means is that over time we contribute to changes in our partner’s brain and they with us. It would follow that if we have positive ways of communicating we’ll strengthen neural pathways that support healthy communication. However the opposite may also be true. If we get caught in negative cycles of communication with a partner, we will be supporting those pathways as well.

One of the most common patterns seen with people who are verbally abusive (and a reason behind the difficulty they have changing their behavior) is their tendency to blame their victim for their behavior. They think, “If you hadn’t done “X”, I wouldn’t have said “Y.” The problem with this type of logic is obvious; because it is always possible to rationalize why poor behavior is an appropriate response, the poor behavior never ends. If it’s not one thing that caused their abuse, it’s something else. The use of abusive language, for most people, is an ingrained habit and reflexive response learned in childhood either by witnessing parents abuse each other or by having direct experience of being abused. Having been trained by these early experiences the brain becomes wired to reflexively respond in a negative way. But with sufficient awareness and lots of practice (repetition) it’s possible to rewire the brain so it reacts differently. The first step is to break the pattern of external blaming and take responsibility for the behavior. Once this is done, habitually abusive people become able to take control over their behavior again, at which point changing the abusive habit becomes a matter of practice and repetition.

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For most people, the urge to spout negative language comes in response to a set of emotions called withdraw emotions. Withdraw emotions are reactions that make us want to pull away from or fight (e.g., the flight or fight response). Withdraw emotions typically arise in response to emotions that feel bad – anger, frustration, fear, sadness and disgust. People usually don’t feel the need to put others down when they are feeling happy and satisfied, they do it to express displeasure about a situation. An important point about withdraw emotions is there is nothing wrong with feeling upset about a situation or event or person. But how a person communicates that upset will make all the difference in the outcome. When these emotions are expressed in positive ways it leads to greater understanding, intimacy, the possibility of change and, most importantly increased trust. Learning how to express withdraw emotions constructively is simple in theory, but hard in practice. That’s because you are working against biology. The good news is that science has shown that are our brains are constantly changing and open to rewiring – it’s called neuro-plasticity. So by practicing new ways of communicating emotions, you are able to change your brain. The best alternative to name calling and swearing is learning to identify and name emotion directly (as anger, fear or frustration, for instance) rather than reflexively reacting to them. Using expressions, such as “I’m feeling angry” or “scared” or “sad” may seem awkward at first, but with practice it becomes a more natural way of talking. It may not feel as emotionally satisfying as using a four-letter word or calling someone an idiot, but it likely leads to more better outcomes; more open communication and the real possibility of change – within the individual, couple and family.

What do you do if your partner seems unwilling to take responsibility for their verbal abuse? Relationship counseling is one option. However, even then a therapist may not be successful at convincing your partner that their use of language in response to negative emotion is problematic. Depending on how extreme the abuse, leaving the relationship may be the only way to give the person a clear message that their behavior is unacceptable. However, you don’t want to make that decision lightly, especially if children are involved. Seeing a counselor can help you think through the options and explore ways to change your situation.

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