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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Belittling Behavior in Relationships

Several years ago, I was at a dinner party with friends and I met a couple who were friends of the hostess.  The husband was talking about his position as a senior partner in a law firm and telling us about the impressive cases that he had worked on.  We listened politely and then I asked his wife about her work.  As she began telling us about her interior design business, her husband chuckled and said, "Oh yeah, Mary has her 'little business' that she runs from home.  It keeps her busy and out of trouble." Mary looked mortified and she cut short her conversation, and soon afterwards she made an excuse to leave the party early.


Belittling Behavior in Relationships

I'm almost sure that Mary's husband didn't see that what he said was belittling and humiliating for Mary.   His comment was probably motivated by an unconscious need to put her down in order to boost himself up.  But, in reality, although none of us said anything to him about his comment, we commented to each other afterwards about this type of covert belittling that, unfortunately, goes on all too often in relationships.

A Pattern of Belittling Behavior
As a psychotherapist in NYC who works with individuals and couples, I hear about covert belittling from clients often.  Often, the person who is doing the belittling behavior has a pattern of doing this with his or her partner.

When confronted about it, s/he often denies that s/he meant any harm.  It can take a while before the person who engages in this type of belittling can see that it's offensive and hurtful to the other person.  This is assuming, of course, that the partner who is being belittled is able to speak up about it.  Unfortunately, too often, the partner who is being belittled has endured these put downs for a long time, and it can take a toll on his or her self esteem.

At another social event that I attended, I heard a wife making negative comments about her husband's inability to fix things around the house.  She made her comments in a teasing tone, and when her husband got embarrassed and asked her to stop, she said, "Oh, don't be so sensitive.  I was only teasing."  Apparently, she was either unable or unwilling to see that her comments were hostile and showed contempt for her husband.  Instead, she accused him of being overly sensitive, which only humiliated him even more.

Underlying Issues in Relationships that Cause Belittling Behavior
There is no one-size-fits-all answer as to why couples do this to one another.  In my experience, it's often due to underlying issues in the relationship that the couple is not dealing with.

Belittling Behavior in Relationships

When I see a couple where one or both of them engage in belittling, I help each of them to see the dynamic and work towards changing it.  Most of the time, if the person who engages in this type of belittling has some degree of empathy, s/he will come around and recognize that these comments are hostile and abusive.

At that point, we can explore a more tactful and respectful way of communicating.  We can also get to any underlying issues that might be causing these types of comments.  Usually, the person who engages is covert belittling recognizes that s/he is really angry about something else about the partner.  Or, s/he is feeling insecure about him or herself.

Belittling Behavior Disguised as "Teasing"
Belittling behavior, whether it's disguised as "teasing" or innocent remarks, has the potential to destroy a relationship.

If you or your partner recognize this pattern in your relationship, you and your partner could benefit from seeing an experienced couples counselor to help you both to learn to communicate in a healthier way.

I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist who works with individuals and couples.  I have helped many couples to improve the way they communicate so they could have a happier relationship.

I specialize in working with clinical hypnosis, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, and dynamic talk therapy.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me: josephineolivia@aol.com.