You’re driving down the street.
Listening to music, drifting with your thoughts.
It’s a leafy residential area with cars parked on either side. There’s not much room to drive.
You spot a car coming towards you in the other lane. You keep an eye on it as it approaches. Plenty of room, you think.
You see the man inside raise his hand. That’s nice—he’s waving. You wave back.
Just then, your cars pass each other, and you hear him shouting through his open window.
“SLOW DOWN!!!” he roars.
What’s your instant reaction?
- You immediately check your speedometer to make sure you’re driving the right speed. (You are.)
- You feel confused and hurt.
- You feel a sudden shock of shame, like you’ve been caught doing something wrong.
- You shout something back at him, but his car is long gone.
Hold onto your answer.
For now, I want you to imagine that you keep on driving. There’s somewhere you have to be.
Ten minutes pass. The radio is still playing. You’re still navigating through light traffic. How are you feeling right now?
- Completely over the incident. Whatever.
- Upset and agitated. Your peace of mind is gone.
- Guilty. You’re a good driver. Is it possible you were doing something wrong and didn’t realize you were doing it?
- Angry. How dare he shout at you?
Scenarios like these happen all the time. They happen on the road. They happen at work. They happen in the grocery store.
You’re toodling along, minding your own business, when someone shouts at you.
Their anger blindsides you. Your defenses weren’t up.
In that moment, how you react says a lot about your early childhood…
How you learned to cope with anger directed towards you…
And the degree to which you’ll be vulnerable to verbal abuse in your relationships.
A Blast from the Past
Now, it’s a big jump from some random man shouting at you on the street to your OWN partner shouting at you.
But the instinct is the same.
You’re being verbally attacked. You don’t have time to think it through. You just react.
If you’re like many women, you immediately presume he might have every right to shout at you. After all, you COULD have been doing something wrong without realizing it.
The fact that he shouted at you at ALL fills you with guilt and shame. Only bad people get shouted at. Therefore, even if you don’t think you did anything wrong, you still feel bad.
(Are you just being too sensitive? Find out.)
We learn these responses in childhood.
Kids go through a long period of feeling like their parents get angry at them over everything.
THEY don’t realize they were doing anything wrong. They were just pulling the legs off a spider or pouring red juice onto the carpet or using a pen to draw their name in the soft wood of the coffee table.
These kids are fully engrossed in whatever they’re doing when their parents or caregivers show up on the scene and REACT.
“Oh, no, Jenny, what have you DONE?!”
That blast of upset and anger comes out of nowhere. It flattens the child. She didn’t understand the consequences of her actions.
Good children quickly learn to accept responsibility, say sorry, and show remorse for their “bad” actions.
These good kids grow up into good adults who recognize that sometimes they make mistakes. They take ownership of those mistakes. They want to do things right. They want to follow the rules.
Never realizing how vulnerable it makes them…
How We Deceive Ourselves
When you’re a good-hearted person, you believe those around you have good hearts, too.
Even if their behavior is bad, you’re sure their intentions were good.
Which is why you feel so confused when someone directs a blast of unprovoked anger towards YOU. You weren’t doing anything wrong!
The other person must have made an honest mistake. Maybe the other driver really did think you were speeding. He was just trying to keep the roads safe.
You want to believe that he’s a good person. You’re BOTH good people. It was all just a misunderstanding.
Consider how that attitude might play out in a relationship.
Your partner yells at you. You feel hurt and confused. Reasoning with him just makes him madder. You go quiet, hoping your silence will help it be over quickly. He continues raging at you until his rage is spent, then he leaves the house.
You curl up on the sofa and finally allow yourself to cry. How could he DO that to you? He loves you! Doesn’t he realize you’d never do anything to hurt him?
He’s been under a lot of stress at work lately. He’s just tired. He’d never do anything like that if he weren’t so stressed and exhausted. Maybe he just needed to vent. He’ll come back feeling so much better. He’ll probably even thank you for being such a good listener.
When he comes home, you’re making his favorite meal. You greet him with a kiss. He warily asks, “Aren’t you mad at me?”
“No,” you say lovingly. “It’s tough for you. I understand.” And you give him a hug.
He’s learned a very important lesson.
He’s learned that you will allow him to yell at you.
You’ll even “reward” him for it by being extra nice and accommodating afterwards.
Do you think he’ll do it again?
Stop the Cycle
There’s a simple way to stop the cycle.
When someone shouts at you, or directs a blast of unprovoked anger towards you…
You say this to yourself:
That was verbal abuse.”
Use those exact words. They’re strong, but they’re accurate. (Find out more about verbal abuse.)
What that person just did wasn’t okay.
You didn’t MAKE them do it.
This is not about you. You didn’t invite their rage. You weren’t responsible for provoking them. You didn’t deserve this.
This is about THEM.
They have learned that it’s okay to verbally attack someone else.
Verbally attacking others has worked well for them in the past.
But it’s time for them to learn a new lesson.
Verbal abuse doesn’t work on you.
You don’t get mad. You don’t even get embarrassed.
You just say, calmly and clearly, “Stop it.”
If they don’t stop, you remove yourself from the situation. You don’t personally involve yourself in their emotional incontinence for one moment.
For good people who’ve been trained to hear everyone out, that can be hard.
Lundy Bancroft, author of the powerful book Why Does He Do That?, suggests you tell yourself:
It doesn’t matter if what he is saying is true or not, because either way it’s no excuse for how he’s behaving.”
(Is it worth trying to save your relationship? Find out.)
And know you’re not alone.
Google has a bunch of suggestions for questions you might want to ask its search engine.
- “Why do I cry when someone yells at me?”
- “How not to cry when someone yells at you.”
- “How to deal with yelling husband.”
- “How to deal with someone who screams at you.”
These search terms wouldn’t be so popular unless a lot of people were looking for them.
So how should you react, when someone does a “drive-by shouting” at you?
Say to yourself, “That was verbal abuse.”
Then turn up the radio and sing along.
Is your relationship toxic? Watch for these 5 warning signs.
If you need extra support, these articles might help.
- Why I’m Attracted to Narcissists
- What’s the #1 Dating Red Flag?
- Stop Being an Emotional Punching Bag
- How to Deal with Toxic People – Interview with Dr. Rhoberta Shaler
- Healing from a Bad Relationship – Interview with Susan Ball
 Daily Wisdom for Why Does He Do That? (New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 2015), 1.