Uncovering the Roots of Abusive Speech
“Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.”—MATTHEW 12:34.
SOME two millenniums ago, Jesus Christ stated the above words. Yes, a person’s words often reflect his deepest feelings and motives. They may be praiseworthy. (Proverbs 16:23) On the other hand, they may be treacherous.—Matthew 15:19.
One woman said regarding her mate: “He seems to get angry out of the blue, and living with him is often like walking through a mine field—you never know what will trigger an outburst.” Richard describes a similar situation with his wife. “Lydia is always primed for a fight,” he says. “She doesn’t just talk; she lashes out in this belligerent way, pointing her finger at me as if I were a child.”
Of course, arguments may erupt even in the best of marriages, and all husbands and wives say things that they later regret. (James 3:2) But abusive speech in marriage is more than that; it involves demeaning and critical speech that is intended to dominate, or control, one’s spouse. Sometimes, harmful speech is disguised in a veneer of mildness. For example, the psalmist David described a man who was soft-spoken, yet inwardly sinister: “Smoother than butter are the words of his mouth, but his heart is disposed to fight. His words are softer than oil, but they are drawn swords.” (Psalm 55:21; Proverbs 26:24, 25) Whether outwardly malicious or camouflaged, harsh speech can devastate a marriage.
How It Begins
What causes a person to use abusive speech? Generally, the use of such speech can be traced back to what one sees and hears. In many lands sarcasm, insults, and put-downs are considered acceptable and even humorous.a Husbands in particular may be influenced by the media, which have often portrayed “real” men as domineering and aggressive.
Similarly, many who use denigrating speech were raised in homes where a parent’s anger, resentment, and scorn were spewed out on a regular basis. Thus, from an early age, they received the message that this type of behavior is normal.
A child raised in such an environment may pick up more than a pattern of speech; he may also assimilate a distorted view of himself and others. For example, if harsh speech is directed at the child, he may grow up feeling worthless, even provoked to being wrathful. But what if the child simply overhears his father verbally battering his mother? Even if the child is very young, he can absorb his father’s contempt for women. A boy may learn from a father’s conduct that a man needs to be in control of women and that the way to get control is to frighten them or hurt them.
An angry parent may raise an angry child, who in turn may grow up to become “a master of rage” who commits “many a transgression.” (Proverbs 29:22, footnote) The legacy of injurious speech can thus be passed on from one generation to the next. With good reason, Paul counseled fathers: “Do not be exasperating your children.” (Colossians 3:21) Significantly, the Greek word translated “exasperating,” according to the Theological Lexicon of the New Testament, can carry the sense of “preparing and stirring up for combat.”
Of course, parental influence does not excuse lashing out at others, verbally or otherwise; but it does help explain how a tendency toward harsh speech can become deeply ingrained. A young man may not physically abuse his wife, but does he abuse her with his words and his moods? Self-examination may reveal to a person that he has absorbed his father’s contempt for women.
Obviously, the above principles can also apply to women. If a mother verbally abuses her husband, a daughter may treat her husband in the same way when she gets married. A Bible proverb says: “It is better to be living in a waste land, than with a bitter-tongued and angry woman.” (Proverbs 21:19, The Bible in Basic English) Nevertheless, a man needs to be particularly cautious in this matter. Why?
The Power of Oppressors
The husband usually has greater power in a marriage than the wife does. He is almost always physically stronger, making any threats of physical harm all the more terrifying.b Additionally, the man often has better job skills, more independent living skills, and greater financial advantages. Because of this, a verbally battered woman is likely to feel trapped and alone. She may agree with the statement of wise King Solomon: “I myself returned that I might see all the acts of oppression that are being done under the sun, and, look! the tears of those being oppressed, but they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power, so that they had no comforter.”—Ecclesiastes 4:1.
A wife may be confused if her husband vacillates between extremes—courteous one moment, critical the next. (Compare James 3:10.) Furthermore, if her husband is an adequate material provider, a wife who is the target of harsh speech may feel guilty for thinking that something is wrong in the marriage. She may even blame herself for her husband’s conduct. “Just like a physically battered wife,” confesses one woman, “I always used to think it had something to do with me.” Says another wife: “I was led to believe if I would just try harder to understand him and ‘be patient’ with him I would find peace.” Sadly, the mistreatment often continues.
It is indeed tragic that many husbands misuse their power by dominating the woman they may have vowed to love and cherish. (Genesis 3:16) But what can be done about such a situation? “I don’t want to leave,” says one wife, “I just want him to stop abusing me.” After nine years of marriage, a husband admits: “I realize that I am in a verbally abusive relationship and that I am the abuser. I definitely want to change, not leave.”
There is help for those whose marriage has been racked by hurtful speech, as the following article will show.
a Evidently, the same was true in the first century. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology notes that “for the Greek it was one of the arts of life to know how to insult others or bear insults against oneself.”
b Verbal aggression can be a stepping-stone to domestic violence. (Compare Exodus 21:18.) Says one counselor for battered women: “Every woman who comes for a protective order against the beatings, stabbings, or chokings that endanger her life has had, in addition, a long and painful history of nonphysical abuse.”
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Tragically, many husbands misuse their power by dominating the woman they may have vowed to love and cherish
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A child is influenced by the way his parents treat each other