Am I being teased or abused?
What is the criteria for determining if a relationship is abusive? My husband has never struck me in anger or injured me, but he is constantly poking, tickling, flicking me, etc. When I tell him to stop, he usually says, "Why should I?" and continues a little bit more. It's like a kid tormenting a little sister. He gets right in my face and sometimes pokes me in the chest while he's telling me something. There's never any anger until I get mad at him for doing it, and then he tells me he's just playing. The other night when I told him to stop poking me, he said, "I'll do whatever I want." That really bothered me. When he does get angry, he usually just ignores me, but occasionally he'll throw something (but not at me). What do you think? How can I make him understand that his "playing" is upsetting? Is this type of behavior a precursor of actual violence?
Your feelings about your husband’s behavior are valid. It sounds like he thinks his poking, tickling, or flicking are playful and harmless, but behaviors that make you feel angry or tormented cross a boundary. Abusive relationships are often characterized by patterns of controlling behaviors that may involve physical, psychological, emotional, or other types of abuse and violence. Regardless of what you’ve experienced, you may consider expressing the emotions his actions evoke and setting boundaries that protect you from harm. A mental health professional who specializes in relationship dynamics may be able to help with this process (more on this later). In any case, you deserve a partner who treats you with respect.
Some of the individual risk factors linked to engaging in intimate partner violence (IPV) include depression, heavy substance use, deficiencies in behavioral or impulse control, and history of childhood abuse. Some community factors include poverty and high unemployment rates, and some societal factors can include gender inequality, belief in traditional gender roles, societal norms that support aggression, and income inequality or gender pay gap. There are several types of IPV, such as physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological. Examples of IPV might be constant insults, controlling what you do, or gaslighting. To learn more, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) fast fact sheet about IPV.
If you’re interested in talking to your husband about this again, it might be helpful to think through your concerns so that you feel prepared to communicate your feelings and set boundaries. It may also be helpful to troubleshoot some of the reasons he isn’t receptive to your requests so that you can be prepared to navigate his reactions. Maybe he feels neglected in some way and this is his “funny” but unsuccessful way to get attention. Or maybe this kind of teasing is common in his family and friend groups, and he’s assumed that you’re okay with it. Although there’s no excuse for mistreatment, talking with your husband may help you both understand why he continues to act in this way.
You mentioned that you’ve made several attempts to try and communicate with him. It may be worth reflecting on that process to identify what worked, and what didn’t. The focus of this type of conversation is to tell him what you notice about his behavior and how it makes you feel. Consider starting a conversation with him when you’re both relaxed rather than in an environment where emotions and tensions are already high. You may also choose to write a letter sharing the impact of his actions in order to allow you both time to digest the information before having a conversation. This could help reduce any defensiveness. You can also discuss ways to share with your husband that he has crossed the line so that he can develop an understanding of what you consider playful. And remember that learning to communicate is a skill in itself—check out the Communicating and Relating fact sheet for more tips and strategies.
Prior to the conversation, consider reflecting on what you’d like to relay to your husband. If you did write a letter, consider jotting down the takeaways as a conversation guide to reinforce your feelings and set your boundaries. As mentioned earlier, a mental health professional can support you through this process. You could seek mental health guidance for you as an individual or for both of you as a couple. To encourage his participation in the process, you may want to share your feelings about the relationship (the good and the bad) and what you’re hoping for as the outcome. For example, if your goal is continuing marriage without his inappropriate behavior, it can be helpful for him to know that early on in the conversation. The central idea is that connecting with external support resources is about helping you both move forward in a healthier manner.
At any rate, if you’re still feeling uncomfortable with your husband’s behavior and want to seek other resources, there are many places to look. For example, the National Domestic Violence Hotline can provide information and assistance. The Crisis Text Line can give advice or support on a range of topics like anxiety, emotional abuse, and mental health issues. In addition to speaking to a mental health professional you may also consider talking with a trusted friend or family member about your feelings, even if you aren’t sure of how to proceed at the moment.
Playful teasing can be a normal part of many relationships and may be one way to show affection and build intimacy. However, if your husband's taunting is unwanted or has gone too far, it’s possible that he’s causing hurt and not harmony. Through frank conversations or outside help, hopefully he'll realize that his actions are damaging to your feelings and your marriage. All the best as you find a solution that works for both of you!
Originally published Oct 25, 1996
Can’t find information on the site about your health concern or issue?