When One Partner Bullies the Other

Woman covering ears while man looms in backgroundWhen we think of a bully we might be reminded of a big kid from school who used his or her size to intimidate others. Maybe we have an image from some television show or movie of a hulking being pushing others around. As a couples counselor I can tell you bullies come in all shapes and sizes. They can be demur women and they can be medium sized men. They can be kind in their presentation and underneath they can be steaming with anger and come out harsh.  Whatever their shape, they all have at least one thing in common… they are abusive to their mate.

So what kind of abuse are we talking about? We all know about physical abuse. I’m talking about emotional abuse, the kind that messes with a person’s head, and the kind that leaves the mate wondering if they are loved or hated. Often it’s subtle and hard to point out. Even so, it’s felt by the person who receives it and it feels terrible, oppressive.

When I witness this behavior in a session the first indication I get is usually a tightening in my stomach. I often experience the feeling of what is happening between the couple. The one who does the bullying is either explaining something to me or to the mate and it comes across with heaviness and a frustration so thick it sucks the air out of the room. It can sound like belittling, berating or contempt. It’s not about the words although they can be harsh too. It’s more often indicated by the tone.

I’ve listened to couples where one partner is so resentful to the mate it makes my skin crawl. When I inquire about the presentation, it’s not uncommon for the person to look at me as if I have two heads. What am I talking about, they wonder?  Of course they love their mate, they profess. Yet each time I hear them speak to their partner it’s loaded with venom.

The person receiving the hit is often frustrated and exasperated. When I experience a couple with this dynamic it’s very hard for me to feel neutral. This I know is not the best form of therapy, as I could become biased. I pick up on the recipient’s grief and despair and I just want their pain to stop. I have to remind myself that the person who is upset, the one who does the bullying, is most likely mad for a reason.

I try to see if I can find a soft side in the aggressor. I look to see if the mad one has any sympathy or compassion for the partner. If I can find some compassion or empathy, then I feel I can help the couple. If I feel a stonewalling from the aggressor, I know he or she may not be ready to look at him or herself. They are not able to do the processing or observing necessary to begin understanding the affect of their behavior on the other in order to begin healing the rift in the marriage or relationship.

If a person exhibiting anger toward a partner cannot see what they are doing and how it impacts the mate, in my opinion the couple is in danger of breaking. Often times the examination process alone is too threatening or difficult though, and as a result the couple will leave counseling before we can begin to repair.

There are many reasons why people resort to abusive behavior. The most common may be because the angry person does not feel heard, understood and valued. These are feelings everyone wants to experience in a relationship. When partners feel understood and valued by their mates they usually feel good in the relationship. When this does not occur people feel sad and sometimes they get angry. It’s the anger that turns people against their mate and that’s often when the bullying can begin.

Angry people want their mate to be different. They want them to change so they can feel better. This is a young person’s idea of how to fix a relationship, not a mature view with two people listening and understanding the other as well as themselves.

I feel bad when I can not help a couple with this kind of distress. It is my hope that they will find their way. And then I remind myself of the many couples that enter into counseling ready to understand how their behavior impacts their partner. We walk through the difficulties together gaining new insight and understanding. This process leads to feeling better in the relationship or marriage. This work leads to a couple’s health, and that’s where happy couples thrive.

© Copyright 2011 by Linda Nusbaum, MA, MFT, therapist in Long Beach, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Aria


    July 7th, 2011 at 11:53 PM

    I’ve seen such a relationship in real life. I think if you do not respect your partner and go to the extent of bullying your partner then you do not respect the relationship and thereby it means you have problems within yourself!

  • Sabrina


    July 8th, 2011 at 4:22 AM

    How do people stay with someone that treats them this bad? I mean there are a lot of fish in the sea, way too many to settle for someone treating you like you are nothing. I have been there, done that, and vowed to never make that mistake again!

  • Karen Glass

    Karen Glass

    July 8th, 2011 at 9:36 AM

    I feel that emotional abuse is far more destructive than physical abuse. Bruises heal with time, and you can use a bruise as evidence of wrongdoing. Emotional abuse is impossible to prove, and if you’re a sensitive person anyway, people will probably be dismissive of it if you tell them about it.

  • D.R.


    July 8th, 2011 at 10:26 AM

    @Karen Glass: SO true. And his friend will stick up for him saying either he’s always a bit of a jackass or calling you a liar. The worst kinds of human beings are the Jekyll and Hydes who have a different side when alone with a person they want to take advantage of.

  • jerry holden

    jerry holden

    July 8th, 2011 at 11:31 AM

    It takes a very sadistic person to attack a person emotionally. When they mock and verbally abuse them to breaking point, and then the victim retaliates physically, what then? By now the partner is on the phone to the police, and your only defense is “I was called a nasty name”. Game, set and match to the abuser once again.



    July 8th, 2011 at 5:54 PM

    Bullying your partner to have tour way? Perfect way to ruin a relationship! You cannot FORCE or COERCE your partner to listen to you. If your demand becomes a request and is reasonable then there is no reason your partner wouldn’t act on it anyway, unless they have problems themselves,that is.

  • Madison


    July 9th, 2011 at 5:16 AM

    I have been bullied in my life and vowed to never take that from anyone ever again. So what did I do? I turned around and married myself a bully. I know you think that you can always see this behavior and that if you have been through it before then you won’t take it again. But things do not always work that way. I think that in some ways being bullied as a child, even though I promised that I would stand up to it if it happened again, really did set me up to being bullied later in life. I think that there is this part of me that feels like I deserve what I get, and if this is all I am getting them it must be all I am worth. Oh don’t worry, I am in serious therapy now because bullying in the marriage turned to lots of physical abuse and I finally came to my senses, but it took a long time for me to realize that I am so much better than how I was letting myself be treated.

  • Linda Nusbaum

    Linda Nusbaum

    July 9th, 2011 at 8:53 AM

    Hello Madison,

    Thank you for your candid words about your life. I admire your courage to do the work to find out how to take better care of yourself. You are worth it.


  • Lucy Brooks

    Lucy Brooks

    July 9th, 2011 at 4:21 PM

    My little sister was exactly like this. She was an angel when my parents were around. When they were not, she would smash things and hurt herself then tried to blame it on me! She’d always be whispering at me about how she was the favorite and that she was smarter than I’d ever be.

    I have two aunties on either side of my family who were the same when they were young apparently, always trying to get their older sibling into trouble and causing dramas. It’s all attention seeking I guess. She couldn’t sit down quietly for an hour either.

  • Eve Kaye

    Eve Kaye

    July 9th, 2011 at 4:46 PM

    Manipulative behavior and lying needs to be stamped out at an early age or else they continue it as adults. Without proper discipline, they don’t do a thing right later on.

    Parents must teach their children it’s unacceptable to berate and belittle another person. It shows a lack of articulateness if the only way you can defend your side of the argument is to resort to that.

  • G.A.


    July 9th, 2011 at 7:47 PM

    @jerry holden – And what’s a victim to do before it gets to that? It’s easy to say why don’t they just leave. The reality is often that they are trapped, having no place to flee to and no money to support themselves if they do or even fund their flight enough to buy a bus ticket.

    Shelters turn people away every single day because they are full to overflowing and if you have kids, it’s even more complicated.

  • Traci Small

    Traci Small

    July 14th, 2011 at 12:33 AM

    @Sabrina: Are you married? Move out right now, pack your bags, bring your jacket and nothing else. Right now.

    Can you do that? No you can’t-you likely have nowhere to go, you have kids there, or you have bills to pay or no cash of your own. It’s far easier said than done.

  • Reese Stephens

    Reese Stephens

    July 14th, 2011 at 1:49 AM

    @Samantha- I myself have a BIG problem with being told what to do. If you try to force, coerce, or guilt me into anything, the relationship is over faster than you can tell me that you didn’t mean it that way. That is the ultimate violation of trust in my book.

    No person should attempt to dominate another for their own gratification. Slavery was abolished a long time ago.

  • K.M.


    July 25th, 2011 at 8:15 AM

    Bullies, and those bullied, should remember:
    Everything we think, say and do says everything about us and little about you.

    Bullies are not just in the workplace and schools. Many adult children bully family members, a parent, partner or spouse. Emotional / verbal bullying is common tactic used by the adult bully. Although this bully may seem to have high-self esteem and carry himself with confidence, they are extremely insecure, self centered, lack understanding and compassion. The bullying may involve sending cruel instant or email messages or even posting insults about a person on a website often spreading false or misleading gossip. The bully often use intimidation, threats, blame and withholding implying the person bullied is the problem. They are not interested in working things out and they are not interested in compromise due to their own unresolved issues and short comings. They need therapy.

  • Cecelia


    July 27th, 2011 at 6:15 AM

    Verbal abusers are bullies. The children in these families end up suffering. They do not tell the verbal abusing parent how they really feel but rather what the parent wants to hear for fear of similar reprisal. They become emotional wrecks as a result of witnessing these attacks whether they be from dad or mom.

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