Elizabeth Nyblade, Ph.D.
Gateway Centre
1313 E. Maple Street
Bellingham, WA 98225
P: 360.647.8295
Why Trump Won't Give Up the Verbal Abuse
Donald Trump is many things. . . businessman, entertainer and politician. But did you know that he is a verbal abuser?
The Verbal Abuse of Donald Trump

The presumptive Republican Candidate for President is a verbal abuser. Donald Trump has called his political opponents names like “hypocrite,” “weak,” “a pathetic figure,” “liar,” “choker.” And he relishes repeating nasty nicknames for his opponents: “Crooked Hillary,” “Lying Ted,” “Low-energy Jeb.”

I have seen and treated many targets of verbal abuse over my last forty years as a practicing psychologist. With Donald Trump as a candidate, we can all see the cycle of abuse playing out on the national stage.

Part III: How to Take an Adult Timeout
The abuser is in a timeout from you when you can no longer hear, see or pay attention to the abuser. Your goal is to take a timeout as rapidly and as consistently as possible when your partner says something that is verbally or emotionally abusive.
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Part I: Why to Take an Adult Timeout
05/10/2013 Elizabeth Nyblade, Ph.D.

As a psychologist and an author, I often find myself helping people to deal more effectively with the verbal and emotional abuse they encounter. My soon-to-be-published book, Stop the Abuse: How to end the Verbal and Emotional Abuse that Controls You, and this article (and many others on this website) deal with different aspects of coping with verbal and emotional abuse.

We don’t know what percentage of verbal and emotional abusers are male and what percentage are female, but I still have to use a pronoun for verbal abusers and another pronoun for the recipient of the abuse. I have (mostly) settled for using the term “he” for the verbal or emotional abuser and I (mostly) use the term “she” for the recipient of the abuse. Please believe that I don’t see all men as abusers or all women as targets, but I am using those pronouns because the English language has not been kind enough to give us a good pronoun for someone who may be either male or female.

Many targets of verbal abuse and other abusive behaviors in a relationship tell me that they cannot stop their partner from ‘trashing them’ and they say they have tried everything. However, if you understand what the verbal abuser wants (closeness to you) then you are in a position to train the abuser to minimize his negative behaviors. But consider these issues first:

Before You Begin
  1. If your partner is a batterer, do not follow these recommendations. First make yourself safe from the batterer so that you are no longer in physical danger. Read my notes on “Is Your Partner a Batterer or Just a Verbal Abuser?” 
  2. Before you respond differently to verbal or emotional abuse, read my notes on “The Power of Approval in Your Relationships.” Your partner isn’t going to like it if you take a timeout from him, and if losing his/her approval is very difficult for you to face, you need to realize this in advance. It would be more effective for you to deal with your need for approval in the abstract before you try to deal with the disapproval from the abuser at specific times and in specific circumstances.
  3. Before you respond to your partner in one of the ways I suggest, read all the way through the three articles on adult timeouts. Then think about what you mean to do and rehearse it in advance. You want to give yourself the best chance to be effective with the abuser and you also want to remind yourself of the positive aspects of what you’re doing. You want to make permanent changes in your responses, not just try something once. Don’t make it easy to be ineffective one time and then decide that you can’t do anything about your situation.
Rewards, Punishments and Negative Reinforcements

Most people think of giving a child a timeout as a way of punishing a child without giving the child a physical consequence like a spanking, but timeout is not really a punishment.
  • A parent can reward a child for behaving well, for example by giving the child a cookie. That is positive reinforcement.
  • Or a parent can punish a child for behaving badly, for example, by spanking the child. That is a punishment.
  • Or the parent can take a reward away from the child, for example, by not letting the child watch TV when the child has behaved badly. That is a negative reinforcement.

Giving a child a timeout or grounding a child are examples of negative reinforcement. Those kinds of discipline depend on the fact that the company and the approval of the adult is a reward for the child, and that is what you are eliminating if you send the child to his room or to a timeout chair.

I’ve heard many parents say to me that timeouts don’t work with their children, but when I ask for more information, I usually discover that the parent is threatening to give a timeout many times while the child continues to behave badly. Then when the parent sends the child to his room or to a chair, if the child is crying or screaming, the parent is usually lecturing the child about what he has done wrong, or reassuring the child that it will be over soon, or threatening further punishment if the child keeps making noise. In all these cases, the parent isn’t really giving the child a timeout because the parent is still talking to the child and giving the child attention.

This situation can occur because the parent can’t bear to withdraw approval or attention from the child when the child is in his room or in the chair. When you continue to talk to the child, argue with the child or beg and plead with the child, the child is not in timeout. You can’t continue to conduct your relationship with a child just as if the child weren’t in timeout. That’s what doesn’t work when timeouts aren’t working. You have to cut the child off from adult company and adult approval for a timeout to be effective.

Many parents can’t seem to disengage from their children who are behaving badly. They feel like terrible parents when they put the child in a timeout because the child doesn’t like it and the child punishes the parent by crying, screaming and saying hateful things. If the parent is not able to live without the approval of the child, then that is what is not working with using timeout for discipline. A timeout for a child is also a timeout for a parent and some parents can’t tolerate the loss of the child’s approval, even for a five or ten minute timeout.

A timeout for an adult is meant to accomplish the same goals as a timeout for a child. When adults tell a child to take a timeout, the adult is in charge and it is the adult’s company that is being withdrawn from the child. An adult can order a child to take a timeout, and enforce it, at least when the child is physically smaller than the adult, so timeout as a negative reinforcer is really only successful with very young children, especially those in preschool. If appropriately used with preschool children, there should be no need for many, if any, timeouts when the child is older. ‘Grounding’ and other disciplinary methods are more appropriate for older children anyway.

You can’t successfully tell an adult to take a timeout from you because the other adult can just say ‘No, I’m going to stay right here,’ so the timeout is ineffective. You have to be in control of any strategy you use and you can’t be in control of the other adult. You can only be in control of yourself. One adult can’t effectively control another adult (except with approval) but an adult can go on a timeout for herself without permission from the other adult. One adult can deny another adult the pleasures of her own company, attention and approval. If you’re not in the same space as the abuser, you can’t be paying attention to the abuser and you can’t be approving of his or her behavior as far as the other adult knows. Therefore, an adult timeout can be an effective response to verbal or emotional abuse.

What the target of the abuse gains with a timeout:

The target of the abuse gives herself time to regroup, nurture herself, and go on about her business without interference from the perpetrator of the abuse. The target also puts more distance into a negative relationship, hoping that a close-and-negative relationship can become a more-distant-and-more positive relationship. If the target stays to listen and react to the perpetrator’s negative words and deeds, that will make the relationship worse for the target, and also the abuser, although he won’t agree at first that his verbal abuse was damaging the relationship. If the target leaves, she is no longer an audience to the perpetrator’s words and deeds, or a source of rewards to the perpetrator.

What the perpetrator of the abuse gains with a timeout:

The perpetrator should gain a learning experience, although he won’t like it! The perpetrator should gain an understanding of a reality that he is not facing, namely that having the target’s company and interacting with the target is not a right but a privilege. The perpetrator does not have a right to act any way he chooses and still expect that the target will continue to tolerate his bad behavior. If he behaves badly, the target will walk out, either for a short time, or, if the abuse continues, perhaps forever. The perpetrator needs to learn that he can no longer get his way by punishing the target with emotional and verbal abuse because the target will no longer maintain a close and approving relationship with him when he abuses her. If he can choose to behave badly, she can choose to take her approval and her company away from him. She is not obligated to ‘take it.’

Your Goals in Taking an Adult Timeout

The goal of the abuser is to control you by punishing you for doing something he doesn’t like or to control you by punishing you for not doing something he likes. When responding to verbal abuse, you should have three goals in mind:
  1. Retain control of yourself, no matter how badly he behaves.
  2. Stop rewarding him with your company and attention when he verbally abuses you.
  3. Give the perpetrator the insight that you can leave the relationship if he persists in these behaviors.

Let’s look at each of these goals in turn, and give some examples of what these goals mean in action.

(1) Retain control of yourself, no matter how he behaves.

The major reward that an emotional and verbal abuser seeks is control of you. If you give him control of you, you have rewarded his verbal abuse and he’ll abuse you more often. Whatever you do after the abuser has been nasty to you, he should end up thinking that his statements didn’t ‘work’ and that he had better try something different the next time.

Suppose that the two of you have disagreements about your household budget. He wants you to accept an allowance with a limit on your spending power, but he doesn’t want any limits on his own spending power. If he gets nasty to you every time you spend money, but won’t sit down to discuss the overall budget with you and won’t talk about putting limits on his own spending, do not accept his spending limits. Every time he makes a nasty comment about your spending, say something like this to him,

Target: You can say that, but I don’t plan to change unless you do. I’ve offered to discuss the budget with you, but until you’re ready to reach an overall agreement with me, I’m going to spend as I choose.

In other words, tell him that he doesn’t control you and that if he wants to discuss the issue with you, he has to be willing to put his own spending habits on the table.

In the example above, she has told him that she is not in his control. She has shown him that she is not in his control by continuing to spend money despite his abuse. And she has offered him a solution (a possible agreement) that may meet both his needs and hers.

Just saying, ‘No! You can’t treat me that way!’ would be ineffective in this situation, not because he is so committed to abusing her but because he doesn’t know any other way to get his needs met. Probably his family of origin used verbal abuse rather than pleasant discussion to come to agreements when they disagreed. It’s not fair that the target has to know more than he does about how to reach agreements, but if she wants to salvage the relationship, she does need to know more and she needs to demonstrate it. And who said that life was fair?

If she curbs her spending because of his nasty comments, even if the family finances are better off and her spending habits are now better because of the budget, she has rewarded the way he brought this change about, namely, the verbal abuse. Giving someone his way when he is abusive encourages him to continue his verbal abuse.

Remember that it is good parenting to give your children treats sometimes, but it is never good parenting to give your children treats when they are screaming their heads off for the treats in the grocery store. You would just be paying the children to scream the next time they’re in a grocery store. You must think about both the short-term and the long-term consequences of how you respond to your children’s behavior. And you need to think about the short and long-term consequences of your responses to your adult partner as well.

If your partner makes nasty comments about your spending habits and you make nasty comments back about his spending habits, but you curb your spending anyway, all you’ve gained is a relationship that’s nasty overall. Just as with the child in the grocery store, if you scream at the child at the same time that you give the child the treat she wants, the child is still learning to scream for the treat. It worked to scream, so the child will do it more often. And the child will make the screaming more painful for you the next time so you’ll think twice before saying no to her. When you yell back but give in, you are setting up a power struggle. The child is trying to train you not to scream at her as well as train you to give her the treat. So don’t think that being nasty back is going to eliminate the abuse. If your partner gets what he wants, (in this example, if she spends less) he’ll keep being nasty.

So the first, and most important goal for you when your partner gets nasty is to retain control of yourself and your behavior and not reward the abuser by giving in. Remember that if you reward a behavior, for example by giving your partner his way when he gets nasty, your partner is going to continue the verbal abuse because the verbal abuse was a successful strategy. If he thinks that getting nasty causes you to give in, he’ll get nasty more and more often. If you want your partner to treat you well, don’t give him what he wants unless he treats you well.

(2) Stop rewarding him with your company and attention when he verbally abuses you.

You are trying to teach him that he needs to use more appropriate methods to get what he wants from you. Being close to someone is usually a reward. Being positive to someone is usually a reward. If you start getting negative back to the abuser, you risk setting up a power struggle in which each of you tries to be the best at verbal abuse. I think it’s more likely that the abuser is the best at verbal abuse because he has more practice, but it makes the relationship worse, not better, if you become an abuser too.

And anyway, if you are close and negative with the abuser because he is criticizing you constantly and making commands and demands that are abusive, you already know that the abuser doesn’t value positiveness in the relationship as much as you do. He wants to be close to you, even if he is making you miserable. To combat that, since getting negative isn’t a first choice, you need to get more distant. As soon as he starts to verbally abuse you, you should disengage, and maybe disappear. You are trying to make a close and negative relationship into a more distant and more positive relationship.

(3) Give the perpetrator the insight that you can and will leave the relationship if he persists in these behaviors.

It’s not the case that all verbal abusers know consciously that they are being nasty on purpose because it works. Some of them don’t consciously make the connection between their behavior and your feelings about the relationship. I don’t mean that they aren’t aware of your feelings, because most of them are. They don’t make a connection between their negative behavior toward you and your negative feelings about the relationship. Many verbal and emotional abusers have been exposed to long-lasting and stable relationships in which one partner abused the other, and those abusers cannot believe that you would leave them when the abusive relationships that they grew up with didn’t dissolve when one partner abused the other.

I once saw a woman for individual therapy who had been married five times and her fifth marriage was in the process of dissolving. She was terribly hurt and frustrated about this, so she came into therapy with me to try to learn what was going on. As she described her interactions with her latest husband, it was clear that when they disagreed, she became very critical and very nasty, even calling him very ugly names. When I asked her why she did this, she said that her husband deserved to be punished because he was not meeting her needs. I told her that it was likely that the man was leaving her because he didn’t like the way she behaved towards him. She didn’t agree. She said that her mother had treated her father this way throughout their sixty-three year marriage, so she felt confident that behaving this way was appropriate and acceptable when she was angry. She held the man responsible for her anger and she punished him when she was angry and yet she was surprised that he wouldn’t hang around her to get more punishment!

This woman described her father as a womanizer and workaholic who was home very rarely, so she was not describing a man who enjoyed his marriage. He was a man who chose to remain in the marriage while doing exactly as he pleased. She didn’t have a high opinion of men because of her father’s behavior towards women, but it hadn’t occurred to her that her mother’s behavior wasn’t likely to encourage her father to stay home and enjoy her mother’s company.

Notice, however, that in this step you are not aiming to give your partner insight into your feelings about him. You are aiming to give your partner insight into the consequences you will use when your partner behaves badly toward you. Many people, especially women, believe that when they have shared with their partner the fact that they “feel bad” when they are abused, the partner would, or should, stop the abuse, but it doesn’t usually work that way.


An emotional or verbal abuser uses negative and abusive behavior in order to hurt you. His purpose is to make you feel badly, because your bad feelings make the abuse ‘work’. If you were indifferent to his behavior, the abuse wouldn’t work because you wouldn’t try harder to please him to avoid the punishment. So giving him insight into how you feel when you are abused does not cause him to want to stop abusing you.


The abuser punishes you to make you feel badly. He wants to hurt you with the punishment. Your third goal in taking a timeout is to help him make the connection between his abuse and your intention not to be in his control and not to remain in this relationship if he does not stop the abuse. It may be hard for you to believe that your partner thinks that you won’t consider his behavior a reason to leave your relationship with him, but he probably has a history of seeing relationships that were hostile, critical, abusive, and stable. The relationships he is used to may have lasted for long periods of time and he may well be expecting that you will be equally willing to remain in a hostile, critical, abusive relationship. For him to stop abusing you, he must believe that you will leave the relationship unless he changes his behavior.

It sometimes helps to keep a tally of how often the other is doing the behaviors that you consider abusive. Write the tally down on a sheet of paper that you put under a magnet on the refrigerator so you don’t have to depend on your memory when you’re talking about the frequency of the abuse.

When you’re speaking to the abuser about this issue, first name the behaviors you don’t like so he has no doubt how you are defining them, then mention the tally. 

I don’t like to be called names, so I’m starting to keep track of how often you do it. I’ll let you know when you do it so you can keep track too.

That’s the third time you’ve called me stupid or a bitch today. It’s really adding up!

Don’t threaten consequences you won’t go through with. If you aren’t willing to leave him if he calls you ‘bitch’ one more time, don’t threaten it. And don’t start to leave and then change your mind when he apologizes. Your goal is not to have him apologize whenever he calls you a name. Your goal is for him not to call you names. You’re using the tally on the refrigerator to tell yourself, and him, just how frequently he gets abusive.

Goal number one was about withdrawing a particular reward from the abuser, the reward of getting his way. Goal number two was also about taking a reward away from the abuser, the reward of your company and attention. Goal number three is about giving the abuser insight into the connection between his own behavior (which is in his control) and a future consequence of his behavior, namely, the loss of the relationship, (which is in your control). Goals one and two are immediate consequences and the abuser will feel them immediately. Goal number three is about a very big future consequence that the abuser cannot control, because he can’t single-handedly continue the relationship without your consent.

Now continue reading with the next in this series, “When Not to Take an Adult Timeout” in order to learn when it is inappropriate or ineffective to use this strategy.


Related Articles:
  • Defining Verbal (and Emotional) Abuse (04/05/2013)
    Most victims of abuse are more likely to minimize or deny the problems, taking the blame themselves for the abusive behavior. Any behavior that threatens, intimidates, lowers the victim's self-esteem or curtails the victim's freedom is abusive. Dr. Nyblade defines and discusses verbal and emotional abuse
  • Part II: When Not to Take an Adult Timeout (05/11/2013)
  • Part III: How to Take an Adult Timeout (05/12/2013)
    The abuser is in a timeout from you when you can no longer hear, see or pay attention to the abuser. Your goal is to take a timeout as rapidly and as consistently as possible when your partner says something that is verbally or emotionally abusive.
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