Who’s the bully in your relationship? (trick question… ;-)
By Corinne Farago
I woke up this morning feeling emotionally battered by the bullying behavior in our first national Presidential debate this week.
I thought about how many people who currently live, or have lived under the same roof with an adult bully. I wondered how many of them were left triggered by the bullying behavior that is all too painfully familiar.
Bullying can happen in every form of relationship from, the bedroom to the boardroom. I see subtle, and not so subtle forms of bullying in many of the couples I work with. So, let’s look at 9 ways to recognize a bully in your intimate relationship.
If you were able to ask someone in the midst of a bullying incident to be transparently honest about what is driving their bullying, they would probably identify fear as their underlying emotion, insecurity as their underlying feeling, and control as their underlying motive. They’re using bullying to fend off feelings of inferiority, and disrespect.
Many adult bullies come from childhood homes where these very fears reflected their reality, and where they too were dominated by emotional bullying. Those who have their sense of control taken from them, will commonly seek to control others, often with the same tactics they witnessed in the adults around them.
It’s easy to judge the extreme bullying we were all witness to last night on the Debate stage. Collectively we are the victims of domestic bullying. We’ve been living with a bully under our national roof for the past 4 years. We’ve been gas lighted, lied to, and worn down. It’s easy to feel victimized.
What’s harder to acknowledge though, is our own inner bully. The part of us that jumps into action when we’re backed into a corner and feel trapped. We’re all capable of resorting to bullying tactics, should our partner challenge our beliefs and perspectives.
Most of us would never call ourselves bullies. We’d rather see ourselves as passionate, intense, direct, strong-willed, or generally superior in our perspective of what’s right or wrong. We may even admit that we’re too much for some people, but “that’s just who we are.”
But the fact is, we’re all capable of reverting back to the playground when we’re triggered into fight or flight.
When anger is flooding your brain, even the most self-aware person can turn to bullying tactics. You’re literally not in your right mind. You’re in your amygdala brain, which is pumping adrenaline into your bloodstream. It’s focused on survival, or in the case of an argument, it’s focused on being proven right.
Let’s look at the behavior of an emotional bully in an intimate relationship. I think you’ll see that we all have an inner bully that can hijack a conversation and turn it into emotional manipulation, in order to get something we want.
1 – Getting angry and raising your voice takes the focus off the disagreement and places it on the management of your emotional state. Your partner will want to settle you down. They’ll either join you in the ramp-up that leads to painful words and hurt feelings, or they’ll appease you and stifle themselves to keep the peace.
2 – Blaming and pointing the finger back at your partner may have worked as a child but, it’s a sadly transparent attempt to avoid taking responsibility or hearing a difficult truth. Our inner bully has very little capacity for honest self-reflection and vulnerability. Criticism is equal to a personal attack and the defense of a bully is to quickly divert the same criticism back to their partner. “I didn’t lie, you’re the liar!”
3 – Punishing by emotionally pulling away, implementing the silent treatment, withholding affection, sulking, moping, are all common strategies to punish our partner. This is the kind of bullying tactics that a more passive/aggressive person can resort to in order get their way.
If our partner knows that there’s a price to pay for disagreeing with you, they’ll likely choose to let you have your way, and once again suppress their truth in exchange for an apparently peaceful home.
4 – Threatening to leave the relationship is a common bullying strategy that get’s tossed into the ring of a disagreement. It takes the conflict from a difference of opinion and amps it up to a potentially life destroying prospect.
5 – Gaslighting is a term adopted by the psychiatric community that describes when a partner slowly tries to confuse and manipulate perceptions. We can say one thing and do another. We can turn our partner’s questions back on them, causing them to doubt themselves. We deny something in the face of proof. We’re all susceptible to gaslighting and we’re all fully capable of resorting to gaslighting in a relationship. Remember, your inner bully is well-versed in getting what they want.
6 – Name-calling takes a disagreement to a personal level. This is where lines are crossed and painful words cut deep. Once you revert to name-calling, the damage is sometimes impossible to undo. The bond is broken and the trust is lost. Your partner may find their way back to being civil and even loving, but in their heart, the names you called them will resonate and resurface, sometime for years.
7 – Out-arguing your partner is the bully’s way of pushing their opponents into the ropes and pummeling them with jabs to the ribs. You wear them out with the amount of words coming out of your mouth. Even when they’ve conceded you make sure to drive it home until they either go silent, beg you to stop, or leave the room.
8 – Interrupting your partner when they’re trying to make their point is another way a bully can wear someone down. When we don’t’ have the capacity to listen to an opposing view without talking over our partner, we’re shutting them down and bullying them into silence. This is a common form of bullying in relationships, and often both partners will adopt this strategy in an attempt to be heard when conflicts start to escalate.
9 – Physical intimidation is more than waving your fist at your partner. It’s how you physically position yourself next to them. It’s leaning in too close. It’s looming over them. It’s throwing a plate or slamming a door. It’s driving erratically, or blocking an exit. These are all acts of violence, and they’re the tactics of a bully to coerce and intimidate.
Allowing your inner bully to represent you in an argument with your partner is short-sighted thinking.
It’s looking for a short-term gain of being proven right over the long-term strategy of listening, and communicating in order to maintain connection.
Your inner bully views your partner as the enemy to be conquered and controlled in a moment of conflict, rather than your team-mate who shares life with you. Step back into being a team player, sharing the same goals of connection and reconciliation.
I woke up this morning feeling emotionally battered by the bullying behavior in our first national Presidential debate this week. I thought about how many people who currently live, or have lived under the same roof with an adult bully. I wondered how many of them were left triggered by the bullying behavior that is all too painfully familiar.
If sex is not on your mind these days, don’t beat yourself up about it. Our bodies are not designed to think about sex when our brains are communicating that we may be in danger. We can’t convince our bodies that we’re safe, when in fact we’re not. When stress is dictating our lack of sexual desire, we need to find ways to regulate our stress. We may not be able to avoid stress, but we can learn to manage it.
You may not identify with having sexual shame. You may be quite liberal when it comes to the sex you see on screen and in advertising. You may support honest and truthful sex education, and have a tolerant, accepting attitude toward less conventional sexual expressions. The shame I’m talking about is found less in spoken opinions and more in unspoken feelings and beliefs. Not wanting to talk about sex in our relationships is how we carry forth our ancestor’s sexual doctrine, and I see it in many of my clients.
Teri and John (we’ll call them) came to see me a few months ago. They described their 15 year relationship as compatible and loving, except when it came to sex and intimacy, neither of which they were able to figure out how to change for the better. They reached a point where they could see three roads ahead of them...