Is It OK for Your Partner to Call You Names?

In the early years of my wife and my marriage, our arguments would get explosive and often end in name-calling. We don’t do that now, but back then we used to wonder is it OK for your partner to call you names?

Here’s what we learned and why and how we stopped:

It’s never OK to call your spouse or partner names. In fact, name-calling, like belittling or swearing at them is a form of verbal abuse. Over time, it’s one of the most destructive behavior patterns that, left unchecked, will almost certainly lead to a breakup.

But there’s a lot more to know about communication in a relationship and how it can turn into verbal abuse. So let’s keep going.

In this article, we’re taking an in-depth look at yelling, belittling and swearing at our spouse or partner. We’ll explore just how damaging that can be to a relationship too.

Specifically, though, we’re answering the question of is it OK for your partner to call you names?

The answer is definitely no, so let’s explore why.

You CAN save your marriage — even when it’s turned ugly.

I feel your pain and I know firsthand what it’s like being in a troubled marriage, as my wife and I almost divorced in 2013.

It can be devastating to both of you also. And that’s on top of the financial burden, the stigma, the emotional drain, and the feeling of all those wasted years.

And yet, my wife and I are happily married, years later, with a 3rd child born in 2017.

How did we do it?

The turning point in a marriage is when a couple hits rock bottom, as my wife and I did.

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Is it OK to call your spouse names?

No is the short answer.

This should be obvious, but my wife and I used to do it to each other, so I know it happens. Luckily for my wife and me, we haven’t done this in over a decade. But it was part of the first couple years of our marriage as we learned to navigate our life together.

Whether it’s name-calling (the b-word, a-word, c-word, etc) or belittling (“you can’t do anything right” or “you’re worthless”) or just good old-fashion cursing (“F-you!”), these are TERRIBLE things to say to any human being. But that’s especially true when it’s our spouse or partner.

Our partner is supposed to be the one we can count on. Our rock or our port in the storm.

If instead, we come home from work and walk into the storm, that’s a terrible place to put your marriage or relationship. It’s also a terrible place to put your kids if you have any.

Name-calling, in fact, is one of the 4 worst things you can do to a spouse or partner according to renowned marriage experts Dr. John Gottman and Julie Gottman.

The Gottmans refer to them as the 4 horsemen and find they lead to divorce or breakup upwards of 90% of the time if not corrected. The 4 behaviors are:

  • Criticism
  • Contempt
  • Stonewalling
  • Defensiveness

I go much deeper into those 4, how they show up, and how to correct them in a recent article. Whether you are the giver or the receiver of any of those, my post can help you navigate through that.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

How damaging is name-calling in a relationship?

In short, it’s incredibly damaging.

We are literally devaluing our partner right in front of them. We’re telling them that they don’t matter, and making them feel insignificant and inferior.

I personally wouldn’t want to make anyone feel that way. But I especially wouldn’t want to make my wife feel that way. And yet, a decade or more ago, I used to do just that. And she did it to me too.

But beyond just making the other person feel bad, it builds resentment. When that happens, as it did with my wife and me, it makes the person receiving it want to retaliate.

After a while, like conflicts in the Middle East, who started it, who treated the other worse, or who’s turn it is to apologize becomes unclear and forgotten. Then it’s just eternal war between the partners.

But ultimately, this form of spousal bullying can lead the receiving partner to anxiety and depression according to a recent study by Martin Teicher, MD, Ph.D. published by Harvard.

For anyone to experience depression is a tragedy. But when it’s caused by the person who is supposed to love us the most, that’s a devasting destruction of trust that can take years to rebuild, if it gets rebuilt at all.

How does name-calling affect someone?

Name-calling makes us question ourselves and our feelings of self-worth.

Sure after a while, the love we once felt for our spouse or partner diminishes as does the value of their words. But initially, they can be devasting. Our self-esteem plummets and then we’re even more vulnerable.

Once that happens, it can lead the way for other types of abuse.

Think back to when you were in grade school, middle school, or high school. That kid who went around calling people names was what? That’s right. They were a bully.

In short, our words matter.

I don’t even like name-calling as a joke. Because I believe that words subliminally affect our subconscious and in turn, can cause us to believe it; even if it was said in jest.

But in the big picture, think of your heart as a big water pitcher. 

Initially, it’s filled with love when you first meet your partner and fall in love. As life goes on, mistakes happen, and especially when destructive behaviors start, slowly that love starts to get poured out the pitcher. In its place, other emotions begin to fill it.

Emotions like: anger, rage, loathing, apathy, and eventually hate.

The pitcher is finite; meaning it can only hold so much. Once the love is gone and it’s filled solely with those other emotions, it’s often too late to save the relationship.

So the trick is to catch this behavior early enough and turn it around while there is still some love there.

The good news is that most troubled relationships can be rekindled and brought back to life. In a recent article, I walk you through the exact steps my wife and I took in 2013 to get our marriage back on track.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

My husband calls me names and swears at me – is that bad?

The short answer is yes. That’s bad.

In fact, it’s a terrible way to behave towards anyone; especially our wife. Ultimately, while it’s most likely a behavior he learned, it’s being driven by 2 things:

  • Insecurity
  • A need to control (which in turn is actually driven by insecurity)

The person who name calls, belittles, or yells and screams at their spouse is insecure. They are afraid. Now, of course, if you’ve done something worthy of making them feel insecure, like cheating, it’s understandable.

That doesn’t excuse that behavior, but at least we know why they are doing it.

To get your husband to move past this behavior, we have to get to the root of it. If it’s new behavior, what’s changed? Does he have a new job, is a child on the way and he’s feeling stressed out? 

But if he’s always been that way, it’s time to stop allowing it. Allowing is enabling, and the longer you allow it, the harder it will be to stop.

We’ll get into some specific action steps below, but the most important thing is to not just give it back to him. As Gandi once said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”.

So we don’t get him to stop by behaving the same way towards him.

Which type of abuse includes name-calling and belittling?

Ultimately what we’re talking about here is clearly verbal abuse.

There’s no indicator that verbal abuse leads to physical abuse. But that doesn’t mean it’s not devastating to the partner receiving it, but even to the partner giving it.

After all, none of us were born wanting to harm anyone

Doing harm, verbally or otherwise, is a learned behavior. Often the verbal abuser was themselves a victim of verbal abuse growing up. That may be all they knew as a child. And even if, as an adult, they recognize it’s bad to behave that way, it’s still familiar.

And many of us tend to repeat familiar behavior patterns even if we know they are bad for us. As an example, children of smokers are upwards of 21% more likely to smoke themselves compared to children of non-smokers, according to a recent study.

Being drawn to familiar behavior patterns is technically called Repetition Compulsion.

In a recent article, I explore more about what that is, why we do it, and, more importantly, how to break free of those patterns to get your life back. 

Just click that link to read it on my site.

How do I stop name-calling in a relationship?

In my marriage, I’ve been both the name-caller and the one being called names.

As I’ve mentioned above though, my wife and I are lucky in that we haven’t behaved like that in over a decade. It took seeing a therapist when we lived in Dallas for us to realize just how destructive we were being.

The first step in NOT behaving like this is to understand the root of why you behave this way and what your triggers are.

For me, I don’t like to feel emasculated. So if my wife tried to tell me how to fix a broken light switch, I would react strongly as if she had somehow insulted my manhood.

Then I had to also learn to understand that wasn’t my wife’s intent. She was just trying to help me.

Then, when you’re NOT arguing with your spouse, talk to them about it honestly and openly. Express to them how you like to be spoken to and how they like to be spoken to.

Chances are you each have different love languages and have different communication needs.

Understanding those differences and trying to honor those is key. Then, it’s simply a matter of practicing, apologizing when you mess up, and going back to the practice.

The core of what the therapist did with us is to walk us through the principals in Dr. John Gottman’s book the 7 Principals for Making Marriage Work. In fact, we still have the copy she gave us.

In a recent review, I walk through that book and focus on some of the many aspects it brought to our healing and how I think it could help others too. It’s so cheap on Amazon, that there’s no reason everyone shouldn’t own a copy.

Just click that link to read the review on my site. It has a link to Amazon for the book as well.

How do I get my partner to stop name-calling?

Chances are most of the people reading this article are on the receiving end of the name-calling. So this is the section I’ve designed to be the most helpful.

First and foremost we need it to stop, so we have to be crystal clear.

But, that being said, if we respond the wrong way, it will be met with defensiveness which can just escalate things.

I like to communicate with a tool I learned from my very first boss at Whole Foods (thank you, Caitlin).

I say:

  • When you (yell and call me names)
  • I feel (disrespected, humiliated and like you hate me)
  • Because (it’s incredibly hurtful to hear those words from the person I love the most)

Think about it.  There are many ways to say the same thing. But if, instead, you said something like:

“You a-hole. You don’t care about me at all! You’re just a jerk who likes to make himself feel better by making me feel worse”.

That conveys the same basic message, but it won’t be received the same way and will just make things worse.

Next, you have to own your own behavior and role in the disagreement.

Make no mistake. It takes 2 to make a marriage, and it takes 2 to destroy it. And keeping score, who started destructive behavior first isn’t helpful.

So here are the steps to turn things around:

1. Clearly communicate what is and isn’t acceptable with your spouse or partner

To be sure, turning your marriage around and rebuilding it will take time and effort from both of you.

That being said, it’s important to be very clear with your partner that being yelled at, name-called, belittled or anything else like that is NOT acceptable.

Don’t be accusatory, don’t criticize them, and don’t dish it back.

But, at a time when you aren’t in the middle of an argument, explain to them how it makes you feel and that it’s not OK to talk to you like that and that you aren’t willing to participate in conversations that go down that path.

Then, if future conversations do, politely but quickly excuse yourself from the conversation. Only resume the conversation when they have stopped.

2. Forgive your partner for what’s happened in the past

Forgiveness is a huge part of marriage.

We have to ask for forgiveness and give it freely, frequently, and without expectation.  That means really releasing the anger and frustration many of us hold onto from past damage.

And it means not bringing up old stuff later as ammo.

It doesn’t mean you forget the past. But it does mean you aren’t allowing past incidents to amplify the present conditions and make things seem worse than they really are.

Fix Your Marriage

3. Stop placing expectations on your partner

Tony Robbins has a saying I love that goes “trade your expectations for appreciation and your whole world changes in an instant”.

What he means by that is that many of us go through life with expectations of what we want from others. This is especially true of our spouses.  We often place a ton of expectations on our partners like:

  • We want them to eat healthier
  • Quit smoking
  • Work harder or differently
  • Communicate better

Expectations can easily turn into nagging. When that happens our partners are really unlikely to do what we want them to do. Then, we get bitter about the fact that they aren’t doing what we think they should be doing.

I’m not saying don’t set goals together.

I’m also not saying to let your spouse smoke in the house if you’re a non-smoker. But how many people go into a relationship because they were drawn to that person only to later expect them to change into someone else?

Instead, assuming you picked someone to start with that you are truly compatible with, learn to just appreciate them for who and what they are.

Talk about your feelings and goals, but don’t place expectations on them to be someone who they aren’t.

4. Make sure you communicate the way you want to be communicated with

When our partner is yelling, name-calling, or hurling insults or profanity, it’s easy to just give it right back to them.

Then they escalate. Then you escalate.

After a while, we end up with a mess where no one even knows who started it or what you were trying to resolve. And your only goal is to hurt the other person the way they hurt you.

While I know it’s tempting to do that, it’s actually the worst thing you can do.

So even if your partner doesn’t, I want you to take the high road. Only communicate the way you want to be communicated to. Avoid name-calling, and if you need to take a break from the conversation, that’s OK. Just be clear about it and when you’re willing to resume it.

That way you don’t fall into giving the silent treatment, which is also a form of abuse.

In a recent article, I explore the silent treatment in great detail; why it happens, how it really is just as devastating as other abuse, and how to stop it.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

5. Practice really listening to your partner instead of just waiting your turn to talk

Most of us go through life just waiting for our turn to talk.

We get focused thinking of our response instead of really hearing what they are telling us. Even if we don’t like or disagree with their opinion, it is a reflection of how they feel.

Learning how to put yourself in your partner’s shoes and really hear and feel what they’re saying is known as empathetic listening. In a recent article, I go deep into what it is, why it’s the best way to listen, and how to implement it quickly and easily.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

6. Fake it till you make it

People hate this phrase, but it really is what’s needed in many facets of life.

We aren’t born knowing how to do anything. We had to learn it. And learning takes time and practice, and, most importantly, it feels unnatural at first; or fake. 

But the more we do it, the more natural it feels.

So when you’re trying to steer your marriage in a new direction, it WILL feel awkward at first. Just keep doing it. It will gradually start to feel more and more natural. Eventually, it will feel exactly the way it’s supposed to feel.

Did I cover all you wanted to know about whether it’s OK for your spouse or partner to call you names?

In this article, we took a deep dive into something many couples face and deal with; name-calling from their spouse (or to their spouse).

No one likes being called names, belittled or sworn at, especially from the person who is supposed to love us unconditionally and more than anyone else.

But the truth is even the best partner or spouse can find themselves engaging in that behavior under the right circumstances.

So today we answered all the top questions and talked about some solutions for both people. Ultimately, we answered the question is it OK for your partner to call you names with a resounding no. That’s never OK.

Do you get name called or name-call your partner?

You CAN save your marriage — even when it’s turned ugly.

You CAN get your spouse or partner to stop the name-calling and treat you with respect. All couples argue. The key is to know the difference between disagreeing with an opinion and criticizing the person.

You can bring back that spark you felt for one another when both of you said, “I love you” for the first time. And you can learn to let go of the anger, frustration, disappointment, and contempt you may be feeling towards your partner now.

Isn’t the opportunity to save your marriage and skip all the heartache and money worth just a few minutes of your time?

If you feel like your marriage is worth saving, then do yourself a favor and check out all the info and free video at Marriage Fitness program.

Your marriage is worth it!

Jeff Campbell

Jeff Campbell is a husband, father, martial artist, budget-master, Disney-addict, musician, and recovering foodie having spent over 2 decades as a leader for Whole Foods Market. Click to learn more about me

2 thoughts on “Is It OK for Your Partner to Call You Names?

  1. Definitely wrong. Nothing destroys a relationship more than that. Better stay away from each other than tow that line.

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