Dealing with Bullies in Marriage -- and Divorce

If you decide to divorce a bully, you'll need a support system for suggestions as well as a place to vent and brainstorm ideas. You'll need professional and emotional resources, a counselor, lawyer, consultants, as well as friends on your side.
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Close-up portrait of angry man. In B/W
Close-up portrait of angry man. In B/W

October marks National Bullying Prevention Month. If you have kids, they're no doubt attending school assemblies to address the bully in the classroom, on the playground, or even lurking anonymously behind a computer screen.

But what happens when the bully lives in your home?

Learning to recognize the red flags and tactics to deal with taunts provide helpful skills to deal with the bullying significant other, spouse, or parent.

Stacy Kaiser, Editor at Large of Live Happy and licensed psychotherapist says bullying is about "trying to gain power and control, to get one up and make the other person feel insignificant or one down." In a functional relationship, the partners support each other, something missing in the bully equation.

How can we recognize potential bullies before we end up heading down the aisle?

Kaiser's Red Flags

Overly critical


Passive Aggressive or Aggressive: Some bullies may verbally attack you, while others are more underhanded, controlling finances and keeping you in the dark or undermining your efforts.

"The targeted spouse may not know until the ring is on. By then, the targeted spouse may believe he or she can make the bully treat him or her differently but that typically does not happen," adds Kaiser. "The bully has to want to change on his or her own."

Are all Bullies Narcissists?

Bullying tactics are pretty much a hallmark of narcissistic behavior but not all bullies are narcissists. The two are not mutually exclusive, Kaiser explains. However, bullies and narcissists both have a need to win and be in control above everything else. Bullies are masters at manipulating their acute awareness of the target's emotions and vulnerabilities, something a true narcissist may not be able to do.

Kaiser says:

Bullying is more about feeling powerful than caring about you or the relationship. It's about feeding the ego. However, bullies aren't necessarily narcissists. Narcissists have no empathy for others and only care about what they want.

In a 2013 article published in The Atlantic, "All Bullies are Narcissists," Joseph Burgo says, "Bullies and narcissists follow similar psychological strategies for building and defending identities. To a certain degree, his self-image depends upon having (those) losers to persecute. I am a winner because you are a loser." Studies suggest bullies may actually possess normal or even above average self-esteem but are motivated to avoid shame - which they do by putting others down.

"The goal of the bully is to win. Most of us would feel horrible if we walked away after making someone else feel bad but not the bully. Bullies feel better when they walk away after making someone feel bad," says Kaiser.

Can You Protect Yourself Against a Bully?

Kaiser says bullies tend to target people who may not feel comfortable setting boundaries. Use direct, concise sentences like "I don't like that," or "That's not okay with me" to set limits. Bulllies (and narcissists) need direct sentences instead of long speeches.

Attempting to set limits doesn't mean you'll change the bully's behavior but even if you don't change the bully, "the goal is to stand up for yourself," adds Kaiser. "It's about self-preservation and self-respect."

What Can You Do to Protect Your Kids from a Bullying Parent?

When your spouse or partner extends his bullying tactics to the kids, you'll need to insulate the kids in any way you can. That may keeping the kids safe through law enforcement or controlled visits. "It's hard to tell a kid to stand up to a parent," says Kaiser. "Try to give the language to say 'I don't want to do that or I don't like it when you yell at me. Bullies tend to escalate so it's a slippery slope."

Can Ignoring the Bully Ever Work?

People often acquiesce because they don't want things to get worse. Kaiser says the act of giving in just reinforces the bully to keep bullying. It becomes a bad cycle.

It's a delicate dance to deal with a person like that. "Ideally, you shouldn't be in a relationship with someone like that. If you are in a relationship with a bully, you'll have to take a stand even if it just makes you feel stronger. You've got to be consistent and follow through, just like you do with parenting.

What About Divorcing a Bully?

If you decide to divorce a bully, you'll need a support system for suggestions as well as a place to vent and brainstorm ideas. You'll need professional and emotional resources, a counselor, lawyer, consultants, as well as friends on your side.

Whether or not you decide to leave the bully, Kaiser suggests you take moments where you can escape and feel free to have fun by yourself, with the kids or with friends.

Dating or marriage with a bully is an extremely stressful road. Should you choose to get to the other side in a healthy way, you (and kids) will be better able to deal with difficult people. Kaiser notes, "You'll never put up with that again because you've seen it and lived it."

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