The Washington Post

Carolyn Hax: Emotional harm could be a prelude to physical harm


Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

Thank you for taking my question last week [about disagreements with my boyfriend]. I was surprised when you included the domestic violence link because he had never been violent. [Again, the “Domestic Violence: The Facts” brochure:]

He still hasn’t been, but that weekend he yelled at me pretty bad, and systematically insulted my entire character. When we talked normally he said he was purposely trying to hurt my feelings.

He admitted he should have communicated better, but never apologized for yelling, though I apologized for “setting him off” multiple times. I broke up with him.

(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)

Different Perspectives again

Every person who becomes violent was, preceding that point, not violent.

Plus, domestic violence education is applicable to situations of verbal/emotional abuse, because they’re just different points on the same continuum. When someone thinks it’s okay to cause you deliberate harm in one way, how much of a leap is it to another kind of deliberate harm?

As for why I made abuse connections when you hadn’t even mentioned yelling, it was this: “He feels that if we go somewhere together we SHOULD spend every second together.” That’s classic control, which is a predictor of relationship violence. It’s in the warning-signs section of the pamphlet.

Even though you broke up (phew), I think you still would benefit from reading more on the topic. “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker is eye-opening, and a quick and absorbing read. Take care.

Dear Carolyn:

My husband and I are at an impasse in our relationship. We cannot see each other’s points of view and are just existing in a miserable state. I’ve begged for marriage counseling for a year, which just yesterday he reluctantly agreed to.

However, he has basically stated that when marriage counseling fails (not if), “I give up.” We have kids and we love each other, we just can’t seem to live together right now. Am I wasting my time saving a relationship that he sees as doomed?

Marriage on the Cliff

He agreed to marriage counseling, so go. Even if it fails, counseling won’t have been a waste because it’s a basic step before giving up altogether. That may seem silly, but it can be important to be able to tell yourself you “tried everything.”

And, if you choose well, your therapist can help you through whatever the next step happens to be.

One suggestion before you start: Go into counseling looking for new ways to understand what’s happening, new ways to frame your marriage, new ways to speak to your husband, vs. a new way to save the marriage or get your husband to see your side. Set only the goals that are within your control.

Re: Marriages “failing”:

I hate that term. I read the other day about someone’s marriage failing after 35 years and three kids. Um, no. It ended. Lots of good came out of it, and then things changed, and it ended.

“Failed” makes it sound as if the fact of being married is the accomplishment. It is also terribly judgmental.

Okay, said my piece.


Quite well, thanks. We were talking about the possibility that counseling would fail, but the argument still applies.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Get her column delivered to your inbox each morning at



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Videos curated for you.
Play Videos
Be a man and cry
Program turns prisoners into poets
Unconventional warfare with a side of ale
Play Videos
The signature dish of Charleston, S.C.
For good coffee, sniff, slurp and spit
The most interesting woman you've never heard of
Play Videos
How to prevent 'e-barrassment'
The art of tortilla-making
A man committed to journalism, caught in the crossfire
Play Videos
Tips for (relatively) stress-free dining out with kids
How to get organized for back to school
How the new credit card chip makes purchases more secure

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.