The Differences Between Healthy Conflict + Emotional Abuse

He was yelling AT her. Not a skillful show of anger, but a litany of blame and complaints about her. About how she's getting it wrong. Not letting her respond or speak. Forcing her to listen to him yell at her. 

Since it was a public place, I was overhearing this whole thing and it made my skin crawl and my heart hurt. I've been there. And it made me realize I needed to write this piece.

Let me be really clear here about what's abusive versus what's actually healthy conflict.

You do not EVER have to listen to a rant or tirade or lecture from your partner about how bad you are, how the thing you did was terrible, or how you're not doing something right. 

Complaining about you AT you. That's not a healthy conversation, it's abuse. It's a monologue.

Telling you what you did wrong. Making universal claims like "You always..", "You never...", etc.

Eclipsing your love, generosity, or whatever else is beautiful about you and the relationship by focusing only on what you "did wrong" or how you've done them wrong.

Not letting you speak. Accusing you. Verbally (or physically) attacking you.

Yes, conflict is normal. And raised voices and heated dialog are also ok.

But being made to listen to your partner (who you love and who probably loves you) trash you IS NOT LOVE and it isn't ok.

It damages the bond. It hurts hearts. And it isn't how healthy adults deal with conflict.

Healthy partners express that when you did X, I felt X and then they might set a boundary or make a request. They understand that a conversation goes both ways and they try to listen to your side too as long as it's healthily expressed (even if they have to wait until they cool down). They let it be a conversation.

They do not condemn or punish.

They share that they're angry and sure they might get a little messy, but they don't drag you through the mud. They don't need to repeat themselves over and over again about how you did it wrong because they trust you to listen to them the first time and hopefully the relationship itself is built on both people listening to each other.

They don't listen so that they can then poke holes in your story, but they practice real listening. Because they want to understand where the disconnect happened, they want to understand you, and they want to understand how they may have contributed to it too.

They do not make you prove yourself.

And here's the key: Despite their anger, they will make room for you. They will care to listen to what happened for you that contributed to whatever it is that you did that upset them AND they will hold your perspective in just as high a regard as their own.

They will give you the air time to apologize and repair the rift and they will be able to come back into connection in a reasonable time without holding it over your head. They forgive.

Again, you do not EVER have to listen to an (abusive) onslaught about how you messed up or aren't getting it right. That is NOT simply an expression of anger or an example of self-expression, it's abuse.

There are far, far better ways to express yourself and your anger.

Good therapy can teach you all the details and complexities about how. (It's absolutely a teachable skill. I've taught a good many people).

Generally, people who argue this way need help with good boundaries and healthy containment. They may have a difficult time tolerating and then sequencing high levels of charge or energy through their bodies. They often feel like they can't contain themselves and so the words (accusations, wrong-making, or blame) are their attempt to discharge some of what they feel inside. To relieve the pressure, so to speak.

Good boundaries will help.

(Their own and possibly yours too).

If you're on the receiving end of it, you certainly can't do it for them. You can't help the other person learn boundaries or containment or help them sequence the charge through their bodies in an appropriate way. This is what therapy is for.

What you can do is hold yourself in a protective and kind way with your own healthy boundaries. This isn't always easy, but it's simpler than it sounds.

Simple and healthy boundaries can sound a little like these examples:

"I'm not willing to listen to blame or accusations, but I'm here when you're ready for a two-way conversation. Goodbye."

"If you want to share the impact of my actions on you, I'll listen, but if you're going to yell at me I'll leave and we'll have to talk later."

Or, the very, very simplest: "Stop."

Walking away, hanging up, or simply holding up a hand and saying, "No" or "Stop" can also be an expression of healthy boundaries.

Do be prepared for their anger to intensify in response to your boundaries. This sometimes happens because boundaries are often perceived as a rejection or abandonment of sorts. And that's part of how you protect yourself---they do need to know that if they don't treat you well, you will leave. Under no circumstances is it ok to be abusive. Just as this is true for any relationship. The way we keep people we love in our lives is through loving reciprocity.

Setting these boundaries might take time. And finesse. And negotiation. Hopefully, they'll get the help they need to learn a new way of working with their anger and communicating well. But whether they do or not, your boundaries are crucial.

Now, if you have trouble setting boundaries for fear that you'll lose them or for another reason, then, yep, probably a good time to do some therapy to help teach your system how to build the new skill. You'll find how goooood and empowering it feels to be able to trust that you've got your own back if someone else is being abusive toward you.

Because, one last time, you do not EVER have to be a captive audience for their rant, tirade, or lecture. It's not good for you.

But healthy boundaries are.

Hopefully, this was helpful for you. If so, I'd bet others in your circles would love to see it. Often this sort of thing happens behind closed doors, so you never know who might need to hear it---there are easy share buttons below for convenience.

All my love,