How To Deal With Hostile or Abusive People

1. Get clear about what constitutes hostile or abusive behavior. Examples:

  • Sulking, passive-aggressive behavior, giving the “silent treatment”
  • Constant criticism & blame Sarcasm or verbal barbs, put-downs, name-calling Yelling or berating you. Using things against you, social humiliation
  • Physical intimidation (e.g., getting “in your face”)
  • Property damage (e.g., throwing or breaking things)
  • Direct or implied threats to your safety or security
  • Physical violence, including pushing, yanking, throwing, restraining against one’s will
  • Aggressive or inappropriate sexual behavior

2. Get clear about the fact that you never deserve to be emotionally or otherwise mistreated, no matter what mistake you might have made or how angry the other person might be. If you tend to doubt or blame yourself when others are abusive, this might be a good reason to get counseling so you can figure out why.

3. Be aware of factors that might make you vulnerable to mistreatment, e.g., a history of childhood abuse or severe family dysfunction; a pattern of abusive relationships; being part of a marginalized group based on race, religion, sexual orientation, disability, physical characteristics like weight, etc.

4. Let it “register” that you are being mistreated. We never want to believe that someone we trust and care about would be abusive, especially if there are also positive aspects of the relationship. It can be difficult to acknowledge that you are being mistreated, especially if the abuse is subtle or comes on gradually.

5. Be aware that many abusive people only behave this way with those who are close to them. To everyone else, they might appear to be very charming and wonderful – which can “mess with your sense of reality” or make you blame yourself for the abuse.

6. Mobilize your “self-protective instinct” and realize that it is your responsibility to prevent further abuse or mistreatment. But before you decide how to proceed, make some assessment of whether or not the person can be confronted directly:

  • What happens when this person gets confronted by anyone? Does he/she take any responsibility, or just get defensive and blame others for the problem?
  • When confronted about abusive behavior, does the person seem to “own” the problem, or just deny, justify, rationalize, blame the victim, etc.?
  • Does this person have the potential to get extremely hostile when confronted? Is his or her anger out of control? If so, is there any acknowledgment of this as a problem?
  • Has this person ever physically threatened or harmed you? Does he or she have a history of violence? Legal problems? Any pattern of serious interpersonal conflict?
  • Has the person promised before to change? Has he or she resisted getting professional help, even when serious problems persist?
  • Does this person have any incentive to change, or is he/she getting something out of “scapegoating” or mistreating you?
  • Is the person abusing alcohol or drugs? Does there seem to be an untreated mental illness or pattern of serious compulsive behavior (e.g., gambling, eating disorder)? Such issues might partially account for the person’s abusive behavior, which probably won’t cease unless he/she follows through with getting professional help or joining a well-established self-help program (e.g., a 12-Step program like Debtors Anonymous).

7. As a “rule of thumb,” it is worth trying to be assertive if the other person seems to generally respect your needs & feelings and is willing of taking responsibility for his/her behavior. Also, decide whether you care enough about the relationship to expend the energy to work things out, or do you just want to keep things superficial (e.g., with a co-worker or neighbor) and employ the self-protective strategies detailed below.

8. If you decide to confront, pick a good time and place, and calmly explain to the other person that you are not okay with X or Y behavior. Describe the behavior specifically and without attributing motives. If the person tries to justify it by something you did, point out that there are appropriate ways to express anger or discuss any issue with your behavior. Assert that there is no justification for getting nasty or mistreating you. If the problem persists, re-evaluate things based on (6) above.

If you still feel that it is still worth trying to work with the person, set definitive limits, e.g., “I will not hear any more criticism about my weight” and use natural consequences such as limiting your contact. Then, observe whether the person somehow starts to take responsibility. Decide how long you will keep “trying” if the person persists in mistreating you.

9. Self-protection from abusive people you can’t confront or deal with directly:

  • Is your contact with this person optional, or is it someone you can’t avoid? If it’s the latter, severely limit your interactions so that you are dealing only with things that are absolutely necessary. The rest of the time, remain neutral and detached, but superficially cordial if abuse has not been too flagrant. If the person has been really nasty or inappropriate, regard him/her as a piece of furniture that you must “work your way around.” Consider making some changes (e.g., switch jobs) so that you will no longer have to deal with this person.
  • If you have been seriously mistreated (especially physical abuse or sexual assault/ harassment), consider getting help from the police and/or complaining through designated channels such as a personnel office at work. If the abusive person subsequently tries to engage you re: why you are pursuing this action, or tries to “make nice” with you, remember that you owe him/her nothing and refuse to engage. Be prepared to calmly state, “I’m not willing to discuss this”, or “Please back off.”

10. If the abusive person is a relative, friend or a dating partner, carefully consider whether or not you want to continue the relationship, and to what degree:

  • If you are dating an abusive person who is not willing to take responsibility, things will probably only get worse over time and the relationship will take a serious toll on your self-esteem. It is usually necessary to get out of such a relationship, and best to avoid the charade of “trying to remain friends”. If the person does not respect your decision to break up, get consultation on how to protect yourself, cut off contact entirely, and do not let yourself be pulled into explaining why (because the abusive person already “knows why,” even if he/she denies it).
  • With friends and relatives, you might be able to “get strategic” about how to maintain a limited relationship. Think about the conditions under which the person mistreats you, and those in which she or he seems to know how to behave, for example:
    • have a “policy” that you will only see a friend who abuses alcohol early in the day
    • restrict visits with certain relatives to restaurants if they tend to mistreat you in a more private setting
    • if you have had experiences with someone verbally abusing you or worse (e.g., driving recklessly) when you’re trapped in a car with him or her, make a decision to always take your own car and refuse to budge on this.

When you set these limits, you have no obligation to explain “why” to the other person, as she or he will probably only get defensive and discount your feelings. Tell the person instead of asking what you are comfortable doing. Refuse to argue or debate any of the limits you set. Be prepared with statements like, “I feel clear that this is what would work best for me” or I’m not willing to debate this with you.”

Be prepared for the abusive person to be unhappy with whatever limits you try to set, because now he/she is going to have to find someone else to mistreat. If the person continues to try to pressure or manipulate you, make you feel guilty for protecting yourself, etc., re-evaluate your decision to have contact with him or her. If you cannot get out of a relationship that you know is destructive, see a mental health professional or seek help through a community-based abused persons/domestic violence program.