Is It Abuse When My Partner Calls Me Names?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

I don’t think my relationship with my boyfriend is that bad, but some of my friends beg to differ. Mainly, they are concerned about some of the language he uses with me. He can be crass at times, for sure, but I don’t think he usually means to make me feel bad. I tend to look at it like he’s just “being a guy” since it’s how I hear guys talking to each other sometimes. Maybe he just looks at me as “one of the guys” and it’s a comfort thing?

For as long as we’ve been together (going on two years now), he has called me “b—-,” “c—,” and “w—-” pretty often. Like, at least one of those at least once a day, and usually way more. Sometimes he says these things when I make him mad, but more often than not it’s like he uses these terms in place of my real name, almost like a playful nickname? I have asked him once or twice why he does it and he says I shouldn’t overthink it and they’re just “terms of endearment.”

Obviously, I’m used to it after all this time, but whenever he does this when my friends are around they gasp or come to my defense. Privately, a couple of friends have told me my boyfriend is being emotionally abusive when he calls me names, and that I should not tolerate it. I made the mistake of telling my boyfriend that my friends considered what he was doing emotional abuse, and he just got defensive and actually did it more, as if to make a point. I don’t see him stopping. I can’t decide if it bothers me (or should bother me) or not. Do you think I am being abused? I don’t want to leave him since I don’t feel all that unhappy in general, but I also hate to think I am in an abusive relationship! —Sticks and Stones

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Dear Sticks and Stones,

The only people who can really evaluate how a relationship is working are the people who are in the relationship.

That said, the behaviors you are describing would naturally raise concerns with those who care about you. The words he is using, especially “c—” and “w—-,” are aggressive words that are generally considered pretty disrespectful. The fact he uses these words when he is angry is a red flag. As far as terms of endearment go, they aren’t very endearing. You are not “one of the guys”—you are his partner. There is a difference.

The true indicator, however, is how he would respond if you did ask him to stop. If you decided you did not want to be called those names, even affectionately or playfully, would he respect your wishes or would he dismiss them? Telling you not to “overthink” things seems pretty dismissive. Your attempt to raise the issue about your friends’ feelings seemed to increase rather than decrease the behavior. That is not a sign of someone who is willing to take in alternative perspectives or be sensitive to the needs and feelings of others. Those are warning signs to pay attention to.

Only you can decide if your relationship is working for you. I would encourage you, however, to think beyond the words and explore how your needs are being met in the relationship and how you feel when you are with this person. Do you feel cared for, loved, and respected?

You do not have to be bothered by words if they don’t bother you. You don’t have to be bothered by words because your friends are bothered. It is important, however, to pay attention to how your boyfriend handles conflict and responds to your feelings. Is he willing to adjust his habits if they are hurtful to you? If not, then your friends have reason to be concerned.

Generally, how we speak to people is a reflection of how we think of them and usually a strong predictor of how we treat them. Using dismissive, disrespectful, or derogatory language tends to distance us from the humanity of the other person and allows us to ignore their feelings and needs. This may not happen intentionally, but it is often a side effect of that kind of practice.

Only you can decide if your relationship is working for you. I would encourage you, however, to think beyond the words and explore how your needs are being met in the relationship and how you feel when you are with this person. Do you feel cared for, loved, and respected? Do you feel your needs are valued and attended to? Do you feel like he is your number one fan and will support you through tough times? Does he help build you up when you are feeling low? Do you feel good about yourself when you are with him?

If the answer to these questions is no, then language is not the biggest issue in your relationship. And if that’s the case, you may want to speak with a qualified therapist who can help you sort through your feelings and your options.

Best of luck,

Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC

Erika Myers
Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC is a licensed psychotherapist and former educator specializing in working with families in transition (often due to separation or divorce) as well as individuals seeking support with relationship issues, parenting, depression, anxiety, grief/loss/bereavement, and managing major life changes. Although her theoretical orientation is eclectic, she most frequently uses a person-centered, strengths-based approach and cognitive behavioral therapy in her practice.
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  • Anna

    Anna

    July 28th, 2017 at 9:05 AM

    He is trying to make you feel that you are lucky to be with him, demeaning you in such a way that eventually you might feel grateful that he would even want to have you. Yes this is abuse and it sickens me that someone would ever behave in that way.

  • Cal

    Cal

    July 31st, 2017 at 12:15 PM

    Well it is bullying when kids on the playground call one another names… don’t you think that you deserve as much respect as children deserve and even more as a committed relationship partner with someone? So yes I would call that abuse. He wouldn’t feel all that great if you did that to him right?

  • Holisic Hypnosis

    Holisic Hypnosis

    August 1st, 2017 at 2:30 PM

    “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me.” is a childhood defiant retort to insulting provocations from my UK childhood. Abuse is a term with the connotation of wrong, bad, therefore to be condemned. But abuse means something that harms. It could be a case of no harm, no foul. I once knew a couple that would refer to each other as “Pig.” That being said, it is hard to see an easy acceptance of the swear words quoted. Most persons would interpret their use as insulting, taunting, disrespectful, mistreatment, demeaning or derogating, to name a few. It could be you were on the receiving end of negative behavior as a child, and have numbed/blocked your reactions. It could be you had a very protected growing up, and don’t know how to react. Finally you could be so saintly and loving that you are above it all! The original author deals correctly in my (not so humble opinion),with how it needs to be examined in the context of the relationship in general. Only you can decide if it is a loving relationship enough to out way what could be termed his uncouth verbalization. Blessings, Brian.

  • Mercy

    Mercy

    August 3rd, 2017 at 1:34 PM

    None of should have to live with being made to feel so hurt and unworthy of love. You are worth so much more than that.

  • Donna

    Donna

    August 5th, 2017 at 7:26 PM

    I dated someone who wasn’t quite so obvious in his demeaning comments. People would say, “I don’t like the way he talks to you.” I had grown numb to the coarse nature of his words. I grew a pretty thick skin when I was with him. After almost 2 decades of his patronizing, superior words and attitudes, I finally left. I had been so completely disassembled it took years before I began to resemble my former self. I’ll never be that happy girl again. That’s become quite clear. As for that thick skin. Well, it keeps anyone from ever getting that close to my heart again. It’s pretty sad. I continue to hope and try to open my heart but every time I get close it clamps back shut.
    You say “after all this time…” I think you are where I was, a couple of years into the relationship, when my friends started commenting. If so, you could probably still leave this relationship with your soul relatively intact. I suggest that you strongly consider doing just that. Your friends know your heart well enough to know that this “should” be hurting you (meaning I think on the inside you are quite tender). I can tell you that the longer you wait, the deeper the damage. Talk to a male therapist about your feelings. A man treating you well might teach you something about your needs and your worth. Ask him to help you find YOU. Once you spend a little time in self exploration you might decide it’s time to go. There is something called paradoxical intervention which is basically prescribing the exact opposite of what you want. (Most people might say, when he says those words, substitute: “beautiful”, “precious” “creative”, things like that everytime he calls you one of those demeaning names. The way this works is the opposite….. When he calls you a “w”: call yourself “worthless”, when he calls you a “b”: call yourself “stupid”, when he calls you a “c”: call yourself “ugly.” See how some new, fresh, abusive terms hit you. See if you can find the feelings using this fresh vocabulary of hateful, berating terms. Don’t do this long term, tearing yourself down even further. That’s not the goal. The goal is to slap the calluses off of your ears and your heart. I agree with Mercy. You deserve better than this nasty, controlling man. I hope that you come to see the “terms of endearment” for what they are. Little knives that whittle away at your precious heart and soul.

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