Case Study

Case Study

Storm Damage: Angry Words Can Sink a Relationship

By Ellen Wachtel

March/April 2019

There was a time when “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me” was a common mantra. Now we know better: words can indeed cause deep psychic wounds. And when uttered by people we love and have presumed love us back, they pierce even more deeply.

I used to believe that if a couple was getting along and behaving in a loving way to one another, hurtful and even cruel words would naturally fade into the background. But I’ve frequently seen couples in which hurt spouses may forgive their partner for the harsh words spoken in anger, but nonetheless remain haunted by some biting comment that continues to sting long after the argument is over.

This is especially true of character attacks, which can simmer beneath the surface despite truly heartfelt apologies, and bubble up at unexpected times. Hurt spouses may wonder whether their partner really does, deep down, believe what was said. And if so, does that person really love them? And for spouses who’ve already offered a heartfelt apology—one that acknowledges the hurt, expresses remorse, and accepts responsibility—having to explain yet again that they didn’t really mean what was said can seem like a lifelong task.

Over the years, I’ve learned that by approaching this kind of stuckness from multiple therapeutic perspectives—family history, individual issues around guilt and self-blame, cognitive challenging of a dominant narrative, and the normalizing of negative feelings—couples can…

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