My ex-wife was good at pushing my buttons, and I was good at pushing hers. When we disagreed, she would often turn it into personal attacks on my character. Hearing things like “you’re so narrow-minded,” or “you’re a control freak” from my wife made me sound – and feel – like a horrible person.

“That’s not true!” I would think. Before I knew it I would be insulting her back, hurling similar personal attacks or worse, resorting to physical violence. We all know where that can get us: a breakdown of trust, a damaged relationship, and even legal trouble.

Personal attacks are inherently hard to handle. I know this from my own experience, and I hear it all the time from people who attend our online groups.

What are personal attacks?

What’s the one thing your partner says that really gets you going? Here are some tough examples. Maybe you’ve heard something similar:

“You’re such a loser. Your paycheck doesn’t even cover all of our bills. It’s pathetic.”

“What an idiotic thing to say! You’re stupider than I thought. Crazy and stupid is not a pretty combination.”

“You’re a narcissist. You only think of yourself. Our friends think that you’re a real tool.”

Personal attacks tend to take one thing and twist it, or blow it out of proportion, to seem like that’s all there is to us. Often they are based on a half-truth or a distortion of what we said or did. They paint us as all bad, reminding us of our worst traits or biggest mistakes, rather than balancing the bad with the good parts.

Why do personal attacks hurt so much?

What is it about personal attacks that trigger such strong and often damaging reactions? A big clue is in the name. The speaker is attacking who we are as a person. This can really challenge how we see and feel about ourselves on a subconscious level – especially when it’s coming from someone we love.

Our partners and spouses are supposed to like and love us, and we want them to show it in their words and actions. Because of this, we give them a lot of power to define who we are and how we see ourselves. In other words, whether or not we feel good about ourselves can depend a lot on what our partner is saying about us.

Whether or not we feel good about ourselves can depend a lot on what our partner is saying about us.

When our loved one says something that attacks our character, we think it reflects poorly on us. It must mean that we are bad people. On the one hand we don’t agree or want that to be true. But on the other hand, we worry that our partner, who likely knows us better than anyone else, might be right. These competing ideas are a form of cognitive dissonance.

This is where the strong reactions kick in – whether it’s getting physical or using verbal abuse in return. We go into defense mode, trying to make our partner stop saying those things or change their mind about us. In others words, we’re trying to control them, which crosses the line into damaging and hurtful behavior.

How to survive personal attacks without resorting to bad behavior

Instead of giving our partners the power to reflect on who we are we can define it ourselves. This way, we get to control whether or not our buttons get pushed. It doesn’t matter what reflection, correct or not, comes from our partner. We can maintain our sense of peace, regardless of what’s happening around us.

Just one opinion

Changing how we think about what the other person is saying helps a lot. My counselor gave me an example from when his daughter came home one day with bright purple hair. He told her that it looked tacky and people would judge her.

“Whatever Dad,” she said.

To take a page from this sassy 18-year-old’s book, sometimes we just need to remind ourselves that everyone has the right to state their opinion. It doesn’t mean they’re correct – you get to choose whether or not you agree with them. Even the most hurtful attack loses its power when we realize this.

Everyone has the right to state their opinion. You get to choose whether or not you agree with them.

Lies, damn lies, and character assassinations

Say my wife tells me “you always have to be right and win the argument.” Now, this isn’t true – I learned a long time ago that winning the argument often means losing trust and respect in the process. But if I take the attitude of “that’s a lie, I have to make her stop!” things will likely get ugly and I’ll end up proving her point.

Thinking, “I don’t think that’s true, and I’m sorry she sees me that way” generates a much less powerful reaction. I will stay calm, and she may later admit that it was an unfair thing to say that came from something she was upset about.

When personal attacks hit some truth

It gets a little harder when there is some truth to a personal attack. How do we respond if our partner hits on something that we do want to improve about ourselves? Decide for yourself which parts are true and which parts are not. Consider the true parts as useful feedback and give yourself some grace, even when your partner doesn’t. Let the false parts become just noise.

Before I get a ton of comments about how our partners shouldn’t be saying false or hurtful things, let me say that I agree. However, that’s their issue, not yours. Being able to remain calm, not get defensive, and not escalate the conflict maximizes our leverage when we politely but firmly ask them to stop. They’ll either change their approach or they won’t, in which case we can remove ourselves from the situation.

All of this boils down to how we see ourselves. Do we rely on our partner to make us feel good and worthy all the time, and get hurt when they don’t do that? Or do we have a strong and positive sense of self that comes from inside? This can be hard, especially if we grew up hearing messages that damaged our self-worth or encouraged us to base it on other peoples’ opinions. But it’s not arrogance to believe we are good, worthy people – it’s emotional maturity.

It’s not arrogance to believe we are good, worthy people – it’s emotional maturity.

Faith note

If you’re struggling to cope with some of the things your partner says about you, consider what God says. He created you as his beloved child: a unique, good, and worthy human being. My hope is that you will believe and accept this truth. At the end of this life, His opinion of you is the only one that really matters.