A few days ago I sat next to a couple I’ve spoken to before. The gentleman has always been very friendly to me and peppers our conversations with anecdotes and jokes. On this occasion I was working to a deadline, so couldn’t chat. But as I listened to him berating his wife, I saw an entirely different side of his personality.
For almost forty minutes, he ran her down. Criticised her appearance, complained about the coffee she ordered (and brought to him), repeatedly insisted that she was stupid and useless. When she went to get some groceries, he greeted her return with a volley of anger and abuse. Nervous and bowed, she fluttered like a tiny bird, trying to appease him. But to no avail.
When a waitress came to their table however, his manner was transformed. He ignored his wife, but rolled out a series of jokes and complimented her repeatedly. She laughed and he laughed and the wife laughed. As the waitress walked away, he turned to see if I was watching (I wasn’t), then resumed as before. ‘You’re so embarrassing’, he said to her. ‘Why can’t you ever say anything funny?’ She fingered her napkin and shrunk back into the seat.
And as I pushed away my coffee, I felt a little bit sick.
Of course bullying is not limited to men. It’s perpetrated by both genders and in all sorts of contexts. In the news today, the soprano Katherine Jenkins has hit back at an online stalker she says has been harassing her for a year. She has accused him of setting up a fake Twitter account in her name and of taunting her about her dead father. And as she rightly asserts, bullying, whether online or in ‘real’ life is unacceptable.
Yet this sort of bullying is something I’ve seen many times – and it’s a form that we seem to accept. Marriage can be a force for real redemption. Conversely, it can also shelter a particular brand of abuse. A woman, worn down by words. A man who talks big. Who blusters and blows and hides behind bombast. Who channels his fear into anger and then pours it out. Perhaps it starts small. But as the years accrue, so do the disappointments. The person you marry becomes a target for all that’s ever gone wrong. The little losses and the big.
When Glen and I were engaged, a minister friend gave us this advice. Pointing to Glen he said to me, ‘Respect him.’ Then he turned to Glen and fixed him with a steely glare. ‘Never, never put her down’.
Women are just as fallen as men and we sin against them and each other. But there’s a particular kind of violence that a man does to a woman with his words. It might not leave visible scars, but it tears her apart. It’s not big, it’s not clever and it’s not funny. It’s the big talk of a small person.