Couple in a disagreement in an article by Lisa Rabinowitz on name calling in a relationship.

What To Do When Name Calling Goes Too Far In A Relationship?

When name calling in a relationship escalates, it can leave deep emotional scars and create a toxic environment for both partners. This type of verbal abuse is often a sign of underlying frustrations or unresolved conflicts that have not been effectively addressed. Addressing this behavior head-on is crucial to maintaining a healthy, respectful relationship.

Healing from this kind of wound requires both partners to engage in open, honest communication. It also requires a commitment to changing the dynamics that allow such a toxic relationship to flourish. This commitment can’t happen from just one person, both people must be committed to really shift away from this kind of behavior.

Understanding the impact of hurtful words and taking active steps to eliminate them from your communication can help couples rebuild trust and strengthen their bond. This is the work that steers the relationship towards a more loving and supportive path. With time and effort, the hurts caused by name calling can be healed.

If this has happened to you or in your relationship, as toxic as it may feel, you’re not doomed. Commitment, communication and effort are the three steps to healing this kind of relationship challenge. Couples therapy is a great step as well. But before sharing that, let’s explore what goes on in a relationship when couples call each other names.

What Exactly Is Name Calling In A Relationship?

Calling each other names in a relationship refers to the use of derogatory or insulting language to demean or belittle one’s partner. This can range from seemingly harmless nicknames that carry a negative connotation to outright malicious insults. Such behavior is often an expression of contempt, which psychologist Dr. John Gottman identifies as one of the key predictors of a relationship’s failure. 

Name calling can also be a symptom of deeper issues within the relationship, such as frustration, resentment, or a desire to control or dominate the other person. When used persistently, it not only damages the emotional bond between partners but it also erodes self-esteem and trust, making it a critical issue to address for the health and longevity of the relationship.

Is Name Calling Another Way Of Expressing Contempt Towards Your Spouse?

Yes, name calling is indeed a form of expressing contempt towards a spouse and is one of the most harmful behaviors in a relationship. It goes beyond mere criticism by attacking a partner’s character and worth. This signals disrespect and an undervaluing of the other person’s dignity. According to Dr. John Gottman, contempt is the single most significant predictor of divorce and can manifest through sarcasm, cynicism, name calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor.

When partners engage in name calling, they convey disgust rather than respect, which undermines the foundation of trust and emotional safety that healthy relationships require. Consequently, it’s vital to recognize name calling for what it is—a destructive expression of contempt—and take steps to eliminate it from interpersonal interactions to preserve the integrity and happiness of the relationship.

Is Name Calling Verbal Abuse?

Yes, name calling is considered a form of verbal abuse. It involves using language to demean, degrade, or otherwise emotionally hurt one’s partner. This type of behavior is harmful because it aims to assert control or power in a relationship, diminish the other person’s self-esteem, and can lead to significant emotional and psychological distress.

Verbal abuse, including name calling, is often about establishing a pattern of control, where the abuser uses words as weapons to intimidate or manipulate their partner. Unlike normal disagreements or insults that might occur in the heat of the moment, verbal abuse is characterized by a consistent pattern that can escalate over time, further entrenching the damage to the relationship. Recognizing name calling as verbal abuse is crucial for addressing these behaviors effectively and seeking help if necessary.

What If Your Pet-Names or Nicknames Feel Like Name Calling?

When pet names or nicknames, which are often intended to be terms of endearment, start to feel like name calling, it can signal a subtle shift in the dynamics of a relationship. This situation typically arises when these names are used sarcastically or have negative connotations that undermine the affection they are supposed to convey. 

If you find that a nickname given by your partner feels condescending rather than affectionate, it’s important to address this issue directly and openly. Healthy communication is key here. Express to your partner how the nickname makes you feel and discuss why it has taken on a negative tone. It could be that your partner is unaware of the impact their words are having, or it could indicate deeper issues in the relationship that need to be addressed.

To resolve this, both partners should agree to use names that are mutually respectful and affectionate. Establishing this boundary helps ensure that both parties feel valued and respected, rather than hurt or belittled. Revisiting the meanings and intentions behind the nicknames can also restore their original affectionate purpose, strengthening the emotional connection within the relationship.

Working With Your Couples Therapist

This is also a great issue to work on in couples therapy because your therapist can act as an unbiased observer of the use of a particular pet name or nickname. The therapist’s observations and insights can often help couples see other ways of communicating and conveying the sentiment intended with the nickname. 

And if the nickname is being used in a negative way, your couples therapist can also help you explore what is underneath the tone, words or language being used. Then, together, you can work on addressing the larger, underlying problem so you resolve what’s truly troubling you or your partner.

Is It Ever OK To Joke Around Or Make Snide Remarks To Your Partner?

Joking around and making light-hearted remarks can be a healthy and enjoyable part of a relationship, as long as both partners find the humor mutual and non-offensive. It’s important that such interactions are based on mutual understanding and respect, and that they contribute positively to the relationship’s dynamic.

However, when jokes or remarks become snide, sarcastic, unkind or hurtful, they can quickly cross the line into disrespect. The key to determining whether it’s okay to joke or make remarks lies in the communication and boundaries set by both partners. It’s essential to:

1. Understand Each Other’s Boundaries

Both partners should have a clear understanding of what is considered funny and what is off-limits. These boundaries can differ significantly among individuals, and what is humorous to one might be hurtful to another.

2. Watch the Reaction

Always be attentive to how your partner reacts to jokes or remarks. If they seem hurt, uncomfortable, or offended, it’s a sign to pull back. Consistent negative reactions to supposed jokes indicate that they are not being received in the spirit intended.

3. Avoid Sensitive Topics

Jokes about personal vulnerabilities, insecurities, or past traumas are generally off-limits as they can cause significant distress.

4. Ensure Reciprocity

Humor should be reciprocal and not one-sided. If only one person is laughing, then it’s likely at the expense of the other, which is harmful to the relationship.

5. Communicate Openly

If a partner feels hurt by a joke or a remark, it’s crucial to express this openly. Likewise, if someone realizes they have crossed a line, a genuine apology and a discussion about boundaries can help prevent future occurrences.

What Should You Do If You’re In A Habit Of Calling Each Other Mean Names?

If you and your partner have fallen into the habit of calling each other names and being mean, it’s important to address this behavior promptly to prevent further damage to your relationship. Here are some steps you can take to break this harmful pattern and foster a healthier, more respectful communication style:

  • Acknowledge the Issue

The first step is for both partners to recognize and acknowledge that name calling is harmful and not conducive to a healthy relationship. Understanding that such behavior can lead to emotional pain and erosion of trust is crucial for motivating change.

  • Communicate Openly

Have an honest conversation about how name calling makes each of you feel. Discuss the specific instances and words that are hurtful. This conversation should be conducted in a calm and non-confrontational manner, focusing on expressing feelings rather than blaming.

  • Set Clear Boundaries

Together, agree on clear boundaries regarding language and communication. Decide explicitly what kinds of words or tones are off-limits, and commit to calling each other out respectfully if those lines are crossed.

  • Develop Alternative Responses

Often, name calling is a reaction to frustration or anger. Work together to develop healthier ways to express these feelings. This might involve using “I” statements to communicate how you feel without blaming the other person (e.g., “I feel upset when I’m called names because it makes me feel disrespected.”).

  • Implement a “Pause” Strategy

When emotions run high, take a pre-agreed break from the discussion until both partners have cooled down. This prevents the escalation of conflict and helps avoid the impulse to lash out with hurtful names.

  • Seek Professional Help

If name calling persists despite your efforts, it may be helpful to seek assistance from a couples therapist. Therapy can provide a safe space to explore underlying issues that contribute to this behavior and offer strategies for improving communication.

  • Practice Positive Reinforcement

Make it a point to acknowledge and appreciate moments when respectful communication is used, especially during disagreements. Positive reinforcement can encourage good behavior and help both partners feel valued for their efforts to change.

Breaking the habit of name calling is a critical step toward building a more loving and supportive relationship. By working together to improve how you communicate, especially during conflicts, you can enhance the overall health and happiness of your partnership.

How Can Couples Counseling Help?

Couples counseling can be a highly effective tool for addressing and resolving the issue of name calling in a relationship. A professional therapist provides a neutral, supportive environment where both partners can safely explore the underlying issues that lead to disrespectful behavior.

Through guided discussions, couples can gain insights into each other’s feelings and perspectives, which may not be fully understood during heated moments at home. Counseling also offers strategies for improving communication skills, such as learning how to express frustrations and needs without resorting to hurtful language.

Furthermore, a therapist can help couples develop conflict resolution techniques that prevent disagreements from escalating into verbal abuse. This support and education foster a deeper understanding between partners, helping to rebuild trust and respect. Overall, couples counseling can provide the necessary tools and guidance to break the cycle of name calling, paving the way for a healthier, more respectful relationship.

Healing Hurt Feelings & Improving Your Communication

Healing hurt feelings and improving communication are essential steps toward nurturing a healthier and more fulfilling relationship. Recognizing and addressing the impact of harmful words are key to moving forward. By committing to open, honest, and empathetic dialogue, couples can begin to understand each other’s perspectives better and work together to establish a more positive interaction pattern.

To truly transform your relationship dynamics, it’s crucial to actively practice the communication skills you develop, whether independently or with the guidance of a therapist. Regularly check in with each other about your communication progress and any lingering feelings that might need attention. Remember, healing and improvement are ongoing processes that require patience, commitment, and mutual support.

Willing to Enhance Your Communication and Strengthen Your Relationship With Some Help?

If you are finding it challenging to navigate communication barriers on your own, consider seeking professional assistance. Couples therapy and couples therapy retreats offer valuable insights and practical tools that can enhance how you communicate and help heal emotional wounds.

Taking action now can prevent minor misunderstandings from escalating into larger conflicts, fostering a more loving and respectful relationship. Don’t hesitate to seek help and start building a stronger foundation together.


Lisa Rabinowitz

Lisa Rabinowitz, LCPC is a certified Gottman therapist working with couples in the US and internationally. Lisa has worked for many years with couples who have both diagnosed and undiagnosed ADHD. Her certifications and experience uniquely qualify her to support couples with relationship challenges that often feel insurmountable. Please reach out for a free 20-minute consultation with Lisa today.

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