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How Can I Know if My Spouse Is a Bully?

How Can I Know if My Spouse Is a Bully?

I watched in disbelief as Pat, the forty-year old wife of Jeff, her forty-five year old husband, froze amidst the hail of verbal challenges by her pontificating husband. To make matters worse, he seemed oblivious to his behavior, even under our watchful eye during their Marriage Intensive. 

Pat looked down as Jeff stared at her, his eyes bulging from his intensity. He continued his incessant criticism, seemingly unaware that he had lost any connection to his wife he may have previously had. Frozen in fear, she no longer talked back, slumping further in his chair. She simply sat stiffly and listened to his tirade—or at least appeared to be listening.  I wondered about when I should interject my critical impressions. 

“Have you always talked to her like that?” I asked Jeff. 

“What do you mean?” he asked, surprised by my question. “I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m asking reasonable questions and making reasonable comments.” 

“But,” I objected, “you talk to her in a parental voice. You stare at her and she cowers in your presence. You talk down to her, as if she were a child. You don’t seem to notice that she has stopped listening to you. She appears frozen in fear.” 

Jeff’s behavior is not unusual and certainly is not limited to marriage relationships. Bullies thrive anywhere there are people who will be bullied, whether in marriage, dating, the workplace, in friendships and families. Bullies have stolen power since grade school playgrounds, junior high hallways and high school parking lots. 

“How are you feeling?” I asked, turning to Pat. I had watched her turn from a vibrant, apparently happy mate to an intimidated, silent and threatened spouse. I have seen it before in many other marriages, and have experienced it myself in various relationships during my lifetime. 

Relationships are built upon mutual respect, and anything less is something less than a true, vibrant, healthy relationship. When one person corners another, insisting to be heard, it is unlikely that they will truly be heard. It is impossible for them to be respected. 

Let’s consider the traits of a bully: 

  • Thrive on Power:  No bully can exist without someone over whom they have power. Bullies must have someone in their life who tolerates their abusive behavior and bullies thrive on this power and influence. While this is a disturbed relationship, these relationships are common. Where there is a bully, there is also someone being victimized. Tragically, someone is usually cowering in their presence.
  • Egotism. Bullies think of themselves more highly than they ought, (Romans 12:3) and are seemingly unaware of their distorted perception. They often don’t realize how highly distorted their perceptions are. They see themselves as being “right” and are often self-righteous and entitled in their attitude.
  • Aggression: Bullies have trouble managing their aggression, defined here are using their power to harm another person. Bullies are disrespectful and, owing to their sense of entitlement, talk or act in hurtful ways. The “talk down” to others, use sarcasm to make their point, and usually will settle for nothing less than total domination.
  • Lack of Empathy or Remorse: Sadly, bullies often have a profound lack of empathy for others, and hence don’t realize the damage they are doing to others. They walk away from the scene believing they did what needed to be done, said what needed to be said. Their victims sense this egotistical attitude and know they won’t receive a heartfelt apology or change of behavior. 

Given the frequency with which bullies use their power inappropriately in the workplace, in friendships and of course, in dating and marriage, let’s look at what can be done to confront and stop the bully in their tracks.

First, anticipate the aggression of bullies. While bullies often overwhelm us with their power, they rarely surprise us. We all know who the bullies are in our lives. Everyone in the family knows who the bully is. We know those that think they are better than the rest of us, fearless in the touting of their power. Because we know of their antics, we can anticipate how they will behave and can become unfrozen, determining how we will choose to respond to their next outburst. This knowledge can help balance the power continuum.

Second, keep thinking. Bullies count on us freezing emotionally. They gain their power by overwhelming us emotionally, which they do largely by us freezing in our tracks. But, we can stay alert, remain aware, plan ahead and determine our response. Keep thinking. Notice what is happening. Notice the disrespect the bully uses to get what they want. 

Third, set limits on the bully. If they insist that you listen to them, make it clear that you will only do so if they approach you with respect. If they push their agenda, take a stand against them. Be brave enough to simply disagree. If they attempt to force you to go along with their wishes, take time to decide for youself what you will do. 

Fourth, celebrate small victories. You may be in a longstanding relationship with a bully, or may be forced to stay in relationship due to your circumstances. Set small goals and celebrate small victories. Simply voicing a contrary opinion may be a wonderful starting place. 

Finally, watch the bully shrink as you grow in self-confidence. Bullies thrive on being large and in charge, but they shrink as you grow in self-confidence—perhaps not at first, but in time. This also doesn’t mean that you must overpower them, but that you simply cease allowing them to have the power they have previously enjoyed. Subsequently, in standing up to them they discover they are no longer able to manipulate others. 

Bullies have been part of our social and familial fabric since the beginning of time. Jesus stood up against those that forced their will on others, and so can we. Gather support around you as you choose to act with dignity and self-respect. Put the shame back on the person deserving of it—the bully. 

Is there bullying in your marriage? If you would like to learn ways to respond more effectively, please go to our website, Please send responses to me at and also read more about The Marriage Recovery Center on our website. You’ll find videos and podcasts on sexual addiction, emotionally destructive marriages, codependency and affair-proofing your marriage.   

Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Deagreez

Dr. David Hawkins, MBA, MSW, MA, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who has helped bring healing to thousands of marriages and individuals since he began his work in 1976. Dr. Hawkins is passionate about working with couples in crisis and offering them ways of healing their wounds and finding their way back to being passionately in love with each other.

Over the past ten years, Dr. Hawkins has become a leader in the field of treatment for narcissism and emotional abuse within relationships. He has developed several programs for treatment of men dealing with these issues and the women who love them. Dr. Hawkins is also a speaker & trainer for the American Association of Christian Counselors and writes for,, and He is a weekly guest on Moody Radio and Faith Radio and is a best-selling author of over thirty books.