Bad Relationships: Change your Role and the Rules of Engagement

Many people engage in abusive behaviors, covert and overt, to get what they want. Whenever you appease, capitulate, ignore or simply stay in an abusive relationship, you reward and reinforce your partner’s abusive behavior.

An abusive personality will continue to rage, withdraw, name-call, degrade, shame, guilt-trip and other more subtle abuse tactics such as dirty looks, smirking and gaslighting as long as there aren’t any consequences for doing so. Even when there are consequences they’ll often continue to engage in destructive, abusive behaviors. It’s their nature; just like it’s a snake’s nature to strike at you with its fangs when you get too close.

Unhappy couples tend to engage in what psychologist John Gottman calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. “They get stuck in negative, destructive patterns, have fewer positive interactions than happy couples and are unable to resolve problems.” These four behaviors are frequently how abusive personalities, particularly narcissists and borderlines, control and communicate with their partners.

When you tell someone that their behavior is hurtful and unacceptable, there are several possible outcomes. She or he can:

  1. Hear what you say, hold themselves accountable, respect your feelings and actively try to change. Translation: I love and respect you. I care about your feelings and will make every effort to change.
  2. Hear what you say, hold themselves accountable, respect your feelings, communicate which of your behaviors are contributing to the situation and you both actively try to change. Translation: I love and respect you. I care about your feelings and will make every effort to change.
  3. Acknowledge their hurtful behavior, but hey, you knew what they were like when you married them so get used to it and stop complaining. Translation: I don’t care about your needs and feelings. I won’t change.
  4. Acknowledge their hurtful behavior and then blame you for it. Translation: I’m not responsible for my actions. It’s your fault. You deserve it. I don’t care about your feelings. I won’t change.
  5. Acknowledge their hurtful behavior, make a lame apology while justifying their actions (blame you), repeat the same hurtful behavior over and over again as if you never talked about it and become angry if you don’t forgive them. Translation: What I want is more important. I don’t care about your feelings. I won’t change.
  6. Deny their hurtful behavior and accuse you of being the abusive one. Translation: I’m above reproach. You’re crazy. My needs and feelings are the only ones that matter. You need to adapt yourself to my silences and rages and pretend like nothing is wrong. I don’t care about your feelings. I won’t change.
  7. Minimize their hurtful behavior and accuse you of being oversensitive and unreasonable. “It’s not that bad. Don’t be such a baby. You’re so thin-skinned.” Translation: I’m not accountable. Your nose broke because it got in the way of my fist, so your nose should apologize to my fist. I don’t care about your feelings. I won’t change.

People persist in both positive and negative behaviors because there’s a payoff; a primary gain or secondary gain. They’re rewarded with pleasure, they avoid punishment or an unpleasant consequence, their beliefs are validated or they get to feel good about themselves. There’s always an emotional, psychological and/or physical stake—feeling good or avoiding feeling bad.

Scenarios 1 and 2 are the only mutually satisfying long-term relationship outcomes. Scenarios 3-7 are either “get out now” or “live a life of resignation” outcomes. This may seem black and white, but if someone won’t acknowledge their bad behavior, blames you for it or acknowledges it and refuses to do anything about it, you’re not in a mutual two-way relationship. You’re in an abusive, one-way relationship.

Staying in the relationship and engaging in the same pattern over and over again, telegraphs that the abuse is okay—even if you actively complain about it to your partner and specifically say “it’s not okay.” If you really weren’t okay with it, you’d communicate with your feet.

If you’re not ready to end the relationship just yet, you need to change the one person you can change: YOU. If you’ve told your partner how hurtful her/his behavior is and she/he refuses to acknowledge it and/or attacks you even more, you need to change how you react and respond to the hurtful and abusive behaviors.

A relationship is a “field.” Field theory was developed by Kurt Lewin, a Gestalt psychologist and founder of Social Psychology, in the 1940’s. “Field theory holds that behavior must be derived from a totality of coexisting facts. These coexisting facts make up a ‘dynamic field,’ which means that the state of any part of the field depends on every other part of it. Behavior depends on the present field rather than on the past or the future” (Wikipedia). In other words, a change in one part of the system creates a reaction or ripple effect throughout the entire the system, just like throwing a pebble into a pool of water.

Changing how you respond to your partner’s hurtful behaviors, will change how your partner responds to you. If you’re dating or married to an abusive personality, they’re unlikely to respond well to any changes you make. Abusive individuals make the rules and break the rules. Thus far it’s been your role to go along with her whims, tirades, and more subtle forms of abuse. Her hurtful and insensitive behaviors are designed to get a reaction from you. She wants to see pain flicker in your eyes. She wants to see you wince and become crestfallen. She wants you to sink down to her level and lash out in return so she can play the victim and portray you as the bad guy—never mind how much she provoked you.

Here are some possible primary and secondary gains for remaining in an abusive relationship:

  • Fear of being alone
  • Fear of losing money and assets
  • Fear of losing access to children and parental rights
  • Fear of being viewed as the “bad guy”
  • Fear of “failure”
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Need for approval
  • Need to be liked or loved
  • Need for acceptance
  • Need for affiliation or feeling like you “belong”
  • Reinforces your beliefs that you’re unlovable
  • Reinforces your beliefs that you have to be perfect to be worthy of love
  • Reinforces your beliefs that you have to work hard to earn love
  • Reinforces your beliefs that the people who love you are supposed to hurt you

These needs, fears and beliefs are what make it possible for your abusive spouse or partner to hurt you and keep hurting you. They prey upon these fears, needs and beliefs even if they’re not consciously aware of it. Many abusers, narcissists, borderlines, sociopaths and bullies are intuitive predators. They intuitively know what buttons to push to get a reaction. In order to change your role and the rules of your relationship, you need to rewire your “buttons.”

Since your abusive spouse or partner is unlikely to change their behavior, real change is up to you. Here are some alternative ways to respond to her abusive behaviors:

  • Practice emotional detachment.
  • Develop a blank, benign facial expression when you’re under attack, baited, ignored or made to feel stupid, wrong or bad.
  • Work on maintaining a non-defensive body posture.
  • Learn to modulate your voice so that it doesn’t betray any anxiety, agitation, fear, hurt or anger.
  • Meet her attacks, put-downs, smirks, eye rolls, hysterics, etc., with unblinking calm and firmly state, “These tactics of yours don’t work anymore. Let me know when you’re ready to respectfully discuss these issues one at a time” and then end the “discussion.”
  • Plan ahead and designate a place you can go if she won’t let the matter drop like your office, den, workshop or a friend’s house.
  • If she follows you and continues to try to get a reaction out of you, look at her as if you’re watching a toddler throw a tantrum and tell her you’re taking a timeout.

When you change your role in the relationship dynamic, your partner will probably begin to escalate her hurtful behaviors. Another tenet of field theory is that all systems fight to maintain homeostasis or the status quo. An abusive partner will use every weapon in her arsenal to keep you under her control. When you refuse to give her the reaction she wants she’ll frantically try pushing all of your buttons at once—kind of like when the TV remote control isn’t working and you push the power button repeatedly so you don’t have to get off the couch.

If you can maintain your cool, she’ll eventually give up and walk away in frustration or pout. She may even become physically aggressive when she realizes her typical verbal aggression isn’t working. Adopting the above behaviors and changing your role in the relationship is for your well-being; not hers.

Behaviors and beliefs are strongly related. When you change the way you behave, your beliefs and attitudes will change, too. You’ll grow out of your old familiar role of target/frustrated spouse/scapegoat-for-everything-wrong-in-her-life-and-every-bad-feeling-she-has and become a person who stands up for and respects himself. This is a significant piece of identity development that may very well cause you to outgrow abusive, one-sided relationships altogether—and that’s a good thing.

When she sees that these are lasting changes and she can’t control you anymore, she’ll accuse you of having changed, engage in projection and tell you that you’re being abusive and controlling and/or may actually end the relationship herself. She may enlist friends, family members and professional therapists or pastors to force you back into your old role in an effort to maintain the status quo.

Alternatively, she may withdraw entirely and become the sullen martyr. Nevertheless, her power over you will be gone because she won’t be able to manipulate you and your emotions like a puppet on a string anymore. Are you ready to change your role, the rules and the balance of power in your relationship?

Shrink4Men Coaching and Consultation Services:

Dr Tara J. Palmatier provides confidential, fee-for-service, consultation/coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Shrink4Men Services page for professional inquiries.


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Photo credit:

Ripple effect by Tom Bunny on flickr.

  1. jessica
    June 2, 2017 at 2:30 pm

    Hi I think I’m going through this, but I am a woman. Would the same apply in my case? I’m going to read up on the emotional detachment piece mentioned…but I don’t want to live my life tormented by someone who doesn’t care about how their behaviors make me feel and/or they just lie until they are caught. It’s the lying that I mostly don’t like because I am unable to trust and feel I am loved by the person that I am honest and loving with. Not sure what to do, but I don’t want to become a basket case when I can hopefully change my behaviors and unfortunately I may have to end the relationship for my own dignity and sanity…I can’t go on too long…#3 resonated with me the most when it pertains to the persons actions – (paraphrasing…the “this is just who I am, oh well”). The response I get is #1 – acknowledgement and I’ll work on it, but then it doesn’t play out that way…or it just fizzles I guess. We’ve only been married almost 10 months.

  2. Mary F.
    June 3, 2016 at 1:15 am

    Do they know what their doing? ,or do they believe they are doing whats appropriate in a relationship? And does pointing it out open their eyes to see their behavior is wrong and posdible attempt to understand and get help? …thank u so much for your grateful.

  3. Jeremy Wright
    October 4, 2015 at 4:27 am

    Beautiful article. Most of the times women find it easy to blame the men, and society normally finds it easy to believe that men are mostly at fault since they are more aggressive.

    But some women can be passive aggressive in the sense that they can continually use verbal abuse to make a man feel that he is at fault for everything. Truth of the day is that women too can be wrong in a relationship, but due to social norms things like matrimonial alimony point fingers at men first – especially in 3rd world countries.

    It’s time for men to realize that they may not be always at fault (unless of course the man himself is abusive, drinks and is violent). Always talk to someone when going through stress in a relationship, it may change the way you see things and help to remove ‘false guilt’ which may be fed into you with repetitive verbal assault (e.g. you can never do things right, you are never successful, you are a loser etc.). Comments like these do nothing more than drop a person’s self-esteem and make him feel bad. They never help a relationship.

  4. September 19, 2015 at 12:46 am

    Dr Tara, I think what you are saying applies not only to abusive marriages but to abusive interactions as a whole. While you can walk out on an abusive marriage its possibly harder to walk out on people who are unavoidable parts of regular healthy and desirable activities such as work or socialising in a club. Its inevitable you meet abusive people while engaged in these activities and some of them would like nothing better than to use their abuse to force you from the field – they win. If you want to stay because you otherwise like your job or the club ect do you have any suggestions to deal with these people in a way thats respectful to yourself and that doesnt descend to their abusive methods yet takes them on squarely?

    • Curls
      September 27, 2015 at 7:56 pm

      Dale – great question. I just ran into this. The president of an organization who seemed perfectly normal and compassionate, turned completely abusive at me. It’s over and it’s back to normal. It explains why I was never completely comfortable that I “knew her enough.” I obviously didn’t.

      I don’t know how you handle these. What I did was stay calm and not react much. She kept it in front of other people. So I made comments that counter her put down points very concretely, so she couldn’t continue that. I also said a general “we’re doing well, we can relax now” as a signal to everyone that I saw her as overreacting, and that I wasn’t in a fight with her (you’d think I was from the way she was commenting). I didn’t bad mouth her. I didn’t get into fights. When I defended myself I did it carefully so it was at the later point that if she came back again –she’d — look aggressive.

      I noticed once it’s over for the time being (into honeymoon cycle) you still want to get even and fight back. I suspect that’s what the abuser uses to set you up. You react while they’re in honeymoon phase and it makes you look bad. I’ve tried to stay calm some more but it’s not easy.

      My hope and the suggestion of those with experience in my life, is that if you aren’t a good or fun target and don’t latch into their behaviors, they go find another target.

      What was hardest for me was seeing other people not stand up to this person. I would have. It’s probably why I was picked as target — I have stood up to her before. I don’t know if I’ll stay part of this organization anymore. If I was really connected to it and getting something from it, I’d stay and just she her as the object that she is. She isn’t worthy of nor capable of a real connection. So from now on, she’s something I maneuver around so that I can connect to the people in the group who are capable and of interest to me. With so few standing up for me, there aren’t many of those.

  5. Jay
    April 27, 2015 at 12:04 pm

    What if your partner is hurting you through long term emotional neglect? What is a healthy response to this behavior? The responses listed above seem to be a response to “actions.” How do you respond to “inaction”? With the parameters too that health and finances do not allow you to leave? And that you’re also quite socially isolated?

  6. Don
    November 8, 2014 at 12:37 am

    My wife got caught up in a romance scam lost a lot of money and it has affected our relationship very badly. I have lost all trust in her she is angry because I brought the police and FBI into it. That did not help in anyway which she throws in my face. She feels empty inside and is trying to fill that void by going on chat rooms. Myself I am seeing professional help in dealing with all of this. On my birthday she called a strange guy at 230 in the morning and spent over an hour talking to him which almost resulted in myself getting in to a fight with him! I asked her why she would do something like this to me knowing it would hurt me? No decent answer just said he thought he knew her my feeling is she is running away from me told me she is tired of me and our four dogs and if she could afford it she would move out! After 23 years of being a loyal honest husband I feel empty inside! I keep asking myself what did I do wrong?

  7. chacosore
    May 11, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    She may even become physically aggressive when she realizes her typical verbal aggression isn’t working.

    Just to share my feelings about this : I totally agree !

    A month after I first heard about BPD, I tried to talk with her about that, she listen to me … and I was thinking it will get better. So I was stronger during the next crisis because I knew why she was acting so weird and I feel empathy for her. Ironically, the physical aggression started at this time, when I stop crying or being too anxious about his verbal abuse … the last time she attacks me with a bottle of wine, and hit my head badly (22 sutures points), she admit 2 days later that it was because she felt that her words didn’t hurt me anymore (it always hurt but I was hiding this).

  8. February 3, 2012 at 10:58 pm

    Dating later in life is full of people who have been hurt or damaged by prior relationships and instead of seeking help tend to inflict the same pattern of abuse their ex supposedly did to them: namely, cheating, emotional and physical withdrawal and withholding, verbal abuse, putdowns, false allegations, constant criticism and outbursts of rage and anger. The number of people who fail to recognise the effects of their behaviour and “games” on potential partners is frightening. Then when the partner reels with shock and pain they are attacked for reacting to what the ex had done to them. I thought people matured with age but many grow meaner, harder and more selfish. Remember it is always better to be alone until strong feelings are resolved than to remain in or enter into a bad relationship. You can only change yourself and your own reaction. Unfortunately many abusers can present as charming during the honeymoon period. Then watch out, their dysfunctional behaviour and unwarranted projections can be terrifying.

  9. Alreadylost
    August 4, 2011 at 1:52 am

    Dr T. You missed one. One more reason some of us stayed. Ignorance and the mistaken belief the ” real abuse ” is physical abuse. Sometimes you just don’t know what is going on. It literally took a slap in the face for me to research spousal abuse which led me here. I just thank the gods I found this place in time.

  10. ConfusedDad
    August 4, 2011 at 1:10 am

    I’ve been married for 17 years and love my wife and kids, but so many of these things ring true for me. Lately I have found that I am at my best when she give me the silent treatment. But I’m also feeling really confused: I feel like I’m the bad person. I’m not sure if she’s doing what she’s doing because I am such a terrible person. I know I’ve done things over the years that have hurt her. Reading up on some of the behaviour of BPD people, I see some of it in myself. I’m not sure if my memory has stopped functioning, or if she is gas-lighting me. Something in me tells me that I may be the bad one. That I may be narcissist.

    But there are a few things that give me hope. I’m OK with not being the centre of attention, and not being top-dog. I accept that I am not perfect and may be single for a while after we get divorced. Yes, this hurts, but somehow not as much as being with her. Also, there are some behaviours mentioned by other posters that are a bit of a red-flag for me and consequently a great hope for my own mental health.

    My wife is only happy when I’m down, depressed or angry. When I’m in a good mood, there is real trouble unless she feels like she is the cause of the good mood. Basically I’m not allowed to be happy or have friends. And the more down I am, the happier she is: in a kind of “in your face” way. I empathise with most of the primary and secondary gains for staying in the relationship, though a couple of years ago she asked for a divorce and I was really happy. Until I left her and she made my life hell: made seeing the kids difficult, bankrupted me and kept the emotional stress so high I almost had a heart attack (seriously). I returned because my two young children were suffering severe emotional trauma. Now my life is quite difficult.

    I guess I am worried that I may be the BPD and that I have caused all this damage to the ones that I love. I know my behaviour has not been great, but talking to her about things that she does that hurt and upset me becomes a session where I spend time listening to her telling me what a nasty piece of works I am. So I started talking to other people and now am being told that I destroyed the trust by talking about her behind her back.

    She does display some inconsistent views on who I am. I told her that she had made herself irrelevant to me as she does nothing for me that I couldn’t have done by a maid or nanny, and the only thing she can offer me, she has withheld: affection and intimacy. She went ballistic, claiming that all I wanted from her was sex. I’m not sure, but in my mind intimacy is love and tenderness: sleeping in the arms of someone you love, not sex. Anyway, she also accused me of sleeping with prostitutes and having multiple sexual relationships. I’m a bit of a traditionalist and waited till I was married before having sex and have been with one other woman when we were separated. However, the inconsistency in her world view is that A: I need her only for sex as that is my view of intimacy and affection, and B: I am the kind of man that sleeps with prostitutes. Well, I pointed out that if I was the kind of man that viewed intimacy as sex and slept with prostitutes then I wouldn’t need it from her. She then said that it was her madness and that I should ignore this.

    Ah well, I know that getting out will be good for me and probably for her too. Maybe we are both messed up. But my kids really suffered when we were separated. :( This sucks. Oh, and she refuses to see a councillor.

    • Alreadylost
      August 4, 2011 at 1:59 am

      Wow. The damage they do. No you are not the main problem here. Read the related articles on this site that list the signs you may be with an abuser. You may not be perfect (none of us are) but you are not the ogre she makes you believe you are. Have you thought about seeking counseling yourself? There is a LOT of great information and insight to be had here.

      • ConfusedDad
        August 16, 2011 at 2:47 pm

        I’ve just read “Abusive Women, Cults, Brainwashing and Deprogramming, Part II” ( and I have had so much clarity from it. The article describes my wife as if it is talking specifically about her. I feel a lot better and have started therapy and am going to be petitioning for divorce in December as it takes quite a lot of cash here in the UK to do it properly so I have to save. Thank God for folks like Dr T!

Comment pages
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