Words Can Hurt

"Death and life is in the power of the tongue" -Proverbs 18:21

There it is in Proverbs: Words can kill. Words can also debase, damage, degrade, hurt and abuse. Yet the wounding power of speech is so often forgotten by us Jews, especially in our family lives.

This is certainly true for my husband, trained as a rabbinical scholar, who does not often recognize the painful effects his abusive words (never fists) can have on me.

Last Wednesday, for example.
I set the table for supper. I set plates, forks, knives, napkins and glasses. I set out a bowl of tossed salad, a platter of grilled chicken, baguette on a board and a serrated knife to cut it. I poured seltzer into the drinking glasses. My husband came into the kitchen and looked at the table laden with food. “Where are the salad tongs?” he said.

“I can’t find them. Who needs tongs anyway? Do you want a large spoon or just use your fork?” I admit, I was dismissive.
“How many times have I told you I like to use proper serving utensils?” I saw the vein throb in his neck. “Is that so difficult?”

“But why can’t we ever find anything in this damn kitchen!” With that he started pulling drawers open. He stuck in his hand and came up with an unidentifiable gadget. “What’s this doing here? When’s the last time you looked in this drawer? You never put things back where they belong. You hide things from me, I know.”

Oh no, I thought. Here he goes again. And then I said what it has taken me 10 years to learn to say: “Stop. You can’t blame me for that. It’s your kitchen too.”

Ten years to learn such simple phrases makes me a slow learner indeed. As the child of Holocaust survivors, I have always found silence a reasonable survival tactic when threatened. Don’t call attention to yourself. Play along. Hide in the cupboard until the soldiers have left. I absorbed such messages by osmosis.

On the other hand, it has taken him 10 years to hear me, to close the drawer instead of provoking more argument. My husband grew up in a family that emphasized fighting for one’s passions, whether building the state of Israel or righting an overcharge from the dress department at Marshall Field’s. We know that while Jews in many lands were oppressed economically, forbidden to own land or engage in many trades, a facility with language was as much a survival technique for some as my own parents’ silence was for them. In my husband’s family, words were meant to be wielded as weapons against a hostile world, and when we were first married I thought that my reaction of panic and terror when he yelled at me was just a response to marked differences in our styles of communicating.
“Have you looked inside the dishwasher?” I ask my husband now.

Of course, the salad tongs are in the dishwasher Looking sheepish, he washes and dries them and puts them in the salad bowl. “Sorry,” he says. Then we sit down to supper.

The problem is, I still feel shaken by his outbreak. It takes several long minutes for my stomach to calm down enough for me to eat. He, on the other hand, is fine. To him we’d just had an unremarkable interaction. What he regards as the normal to and fro between consenting adults, I often find painful. We have a routine that goes like this:

He (hands slicing the air for emphasis, voice at high volume): “Jews socialize by arguing. It’s who we are! You know the old joke—with two Jews, you get three opinions.”
Me (hands folded, quietly outraged, slightly arch tone): “How can you say such a thing? That is not how I socialize. That’s not who I am. It’s tiring to argue all the time.”

Mind you, there are those who point out that many Jews— especially Ashkenazi Jews—have verbal proclivities different from those of other people. In I Say This Because I Love You, Deborah Tannen writes of an American woman who says that after 25 years of marriage her Israeli husband still feels something is missing from their relationship because she refuses to fight with him. Cross-cultural experts such as Monica McGoldrick and Joseph Giordano, in their classic text Ethnicity and Family Therapy, counsel other therapists that Jewish couples who appear to be engaged in aggressive, articulate and even hostile verbal exchanges may in fact be following a cultural norm.

And so, in my home, we argue about arguing. What’s more, his tactics include seasoning the cauldron of his anger with sarcasm (I’ll never say another word. Will that make you happy?); yelling (Can’t you do anything right!); mocking (You’re too sensitive); and personal insult (You’re totally incompetent). The rhetoric textbooks call such personal attacks ad hominem arguments. The domestic violence literature calls them verbal abuse.

In some households—like the one my husband grew up in—insults and high-decibel yelling are the routine modes of communication. So you may be surprised to know that the National Coalition Against Domestic Abuse defines verbal abuse—along with its emotional, financial and sexual counterparts— as domestic violence. Shelters for battered women will grant refuge to a woman who wants to leave a relationship that abuses her verbally, not just physically. Although verbal abuse often escalates to physical violence, it doesn’t always. Verbal abuse that does not become physical is widespread. Experts estimate that nearly 40 percent of women will experience verbal abuse in their lifetime.

What about among Jews? Are Jewish husbands more likely to deliver tongue-lashings than push their wives down the stairs? Is it any less awful to be hurt by words than by a fist?

I’ll answer my last question first. Studies (and my own experience) show that women who are abused with words experience exactly the same psychological symptoms as women who are abused with fists; increased depression, decreased self esteem. The answer is no. It is not any less awful to be hurt by words than by a fist. The tongue has power Being verbally assaulted by your husband about misplaced salad tongs does make you feel unworthy and less confident, especially if the assault is only one wound in an ongoing slashing pattern of enraged put-downs, blame, shame, and free-floating anger.

The belief that Jewish husbands are non-violent runs counter to reality. Domestic abuse happens at exactly the same rate in the Jewish community as it does in the rest of the population— I in 4 women. But one difference between Jews and non-Jews is how the abuse is handled and perceived. The myth that Jewish men don’t beat their wives is actually dangerous because it makes it that much more difficult for a Jewish woman to admit abuse is happening to her and that much easier to deny. The pressure to have shalom bayit—peace in the home—can make the woman feel it’s her fault if anger rules her home; I have felt this way myself many times in my decade-long marriage. And if she keeps kosher, it’s more difficult for her to find an appropriate shelter Perhaps because of these particular handicaps, Jewish woman stay five to seven years longer in an abusive relationship, on average, than do non-Jewish women.

Why do I stay? He and I share a history, a home and a child—none of which connections I can bear to break. Things do get better, often for months at a time. I see him trying to restrain his anger. I have not left because of inertia, fear and love. Because I continue to grow in the relationship. Because I believe in seeing things through.

The other question tugs at me. Are Jewish men more likely to deliver tongue-lashings than to push their wives down the stairs? Domestic violence agencies do not yet have data that compare the incidence of verbal abuse in Jewish households. Verbal and physical abuse are lumped under “domestic violence.” But I think it does matter whether the pain comes from the tongue or the fist. For one thing, the problem demands that we Jews take another look at our muchprized verbal excellence, the proverbial lineage of Talmudists, lawyers, writers, professors, and public intellectuals.

I don’t suggest that Jewish verbal abuse is inextricably linked to Jewish verbal excellence. But I think it’s worth taking a look at how the two may derive from the same source. Can an analytic, critical mind turn his attention from a passage of law to domestic minutiae without becoming an overly critical person? When does a sharp wit become hurtful? To what degree can language be a carrier of suppressed violence? Surely we can continue to demonstrate brilliance in language without having this same verbal facility and acuity transmute into verbal violence.

Which brings me back to my husband. One of the qualities that first attracted me to him was his verbal prowess. After our first date I thought, “Finally I’ve found a man I can talk to.” He reads everything and forgets nothing. He’s done time in dialogue groups and therapists’ offices. He speaks five languages. I had grown up in a secular home, and a part of me hungered to connect to my religion, so when I met my husband I wanted to learn from him. Among the many things I’ve learned is that nearly every detail in Jewish life can be disputed as well as dissected. What dishes to use when, the status of pasteurized wine, and even the exact time when day turns to night, ending Shabbat—all these are in dispute. These discriminations I find fascinating as well as exasperating. Unfortunately, deep inside the man whose verbal facility and rabbinical scholarship I so admired, I also found a poisonous rage, one reserved for the people with whom he is most intimate. He would wake me at four A.M. to blame me angrily for what was wrong with his life. Too often his wrath silenced me into shame and left me trembling.

Finally, I learned that if I wanted to live with him on tolerable terms, I had to break my habitual silence and say: “STOP!” I’ve had to restrain my tendency to please and learn by slow degrees to speak up. I’ve stayed with this man because I found that learning to bolster my sense of self was at least as profound as learning about my religious heritage. I’ve stayed because of the peaceful moments that surface and soothe; last summer we hiked a forest trail that smelled of pine and bathed our feet in a mountain stream. The sun warmed our backs then and I put my hand on his shoulder, for balance, and looked him full in the face—and I saw only kindness there. My tender feelings returned. His anger had vanished. We were whole.

Even so, I’ve placed pamphlets about verbal abuse in his hands. The other morning, I found him looking at one such pamphlet. “Okay, okay, I get it,” he said. “But what about the class thing? “
“Nope,” I say. I am standing in the doorway, conscious that I am taller than he as he sits at his desk. “Abuse takes place in every class.”
I see him blanch. “Even.”
“Professional, educated- couples.”
“I’d have to see the numbers,” he says. “Hasn’t anyone done research to control for class? What kind of data is there for these claims?”

“I don’t think the focus is exactly on socio-economics,” I say. “I think the focus is on breaking the myth. Nicole Lesser, director of Kolisha, the domestic violence prevention program in Boston, says an abusive person will use whatever he has—if it’s verbal skill, he’ll use that.”

The conversation is almost over, but I can no longer keep up the disinterested facade we’ve both been maintaining. I cross my arms across my chest. “You don’t think you have a problem, do you?”
He grips his coffee cup. His lip curls. “I might have a problem, okay?”
Any farther and I’ll have pushed too far, I know.

Karen Propp is the co-editor of the anthology Why I’m Still Married: Women Write Their Hearts Out on Love, Loss, and Who Does the Dishes (Hudson Street Press/Penguin, 2005). She has also published two memoirs.

Karen Propp is the co-editor of the anthology Why I’m Still Married: Women Write Their Hearts Out on Love, Loss, and Who Does the Dishes (Hudson Street Press/Penguin, 2005). She has also published two memoirs.