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My friend’s husband is a verbal bully. How can I help her?

The question

A very dear friend of mine consistently invites me over for dinner. I have a very hard time attending those dinner parties, because her husband continuously insults her in front of her guests to the point that there is silence at the table and everyone simply wants to dig their head into the spaghetti. I would love to speak up, but I have done so delicately in the past and she's made it clear that it's not my place. Recently, she confided in me that she has spoken numerous times to her husband about his behaviour during the gatherings, but to no avail. He keeps repeating the same scenario even though he says he is sorry the next day and promises he will not do it again. He also blames the alcohol, which is a definite fib because he has done it on countless occasions completely sober. So what kind of advice should I give my friend?

The answer

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I don't think she needs your advice. I think she needs you and anyone else who has the stones to take a stand against her verbal-bully husband.

I should say first of all: We all know the feeling of clamming up in the presence of shocking rudeness.

Recently my wife Pam was riding her bike and a woman rolled up in an SUV, rolled down her window and said: "Why aren't you wearing a helmet? Did you forget it or are you just stupid?"

Why, right? I categorically do not understand why people have to be like that. Pam just stared at the woman, unable to think of anything to say, and the woman drove off.

Pam came home steaming: "Grrr, I just clammed up, Dave! I wish I had had some zinger to just … get her back! Grrr!"

Luckily, she's married to a writer, so after a little head-scratching, several drafts and a quick nap, I devised what I think is a handy-dandy all-purpose zinger for these types of negative encounters in the public sphere. Ready? Just cock one eyebrow drolly and say: "Been a while?"

(Implying, see, the person is tightly wound because of the infrequency of his/her sexual encounters. Might take a while to sink in. Might not hit them until after they've driven off. Perfect!)

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You're welcome. Though generally I believe God ties our tongues in these situations for a reason – to prevent further escalation of confrontation. These days, after a little spirited verbal jousting, people come out of their SUVs brandishing tire irons, golf clubs, handguns.

But here's the thing: You have the right not to be subjected to these types of displays. Focus on that. So, yes, I think you should speak up. Not on her behalf. On your own.

I do this with other people's kids now. I've mentioned this before, but it all began at a cottage when a kid was being relentlessly rude to his mother, and she was just sort of tolerating it, but finally I realized it was cutting into my enjoyment of the sun, my Caesar and my thriller. So I leaned forward and said: "Listen, kid, when I'm in earshot could you speak more respectfully to your mother? Because it kind of bothers me."

I knew I was crossing a line – but she actually said she appreciated it. And he talked nicely to her, at least around me, after that.

I think you should do something similar with this verbal-bully hubby. Next time he insults his wife, don't stare at your spaghetti. Look him in the eyes and say, in an even, matter-of-fact tone: "I don't think you should say things like that to her. Because it makes me uncomfortable."

Simple. To the point. How can he blame her if you do that? She didn't put you up to it. And you're speaking for you, not her.

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You might just find you're the "brave voice" that will convince others to chime in and agree.

And bullies tend to shrivel up in the face of that kind of thing. Now, he may say, "Hey, I was just joking." Bullies always hide behind that. But you know when it's true and when it's not: You can feel it in your gut. So can everyone else. Stand your ground.

You may find your dinner invites dry up after that. So be it. She may be mad at you, also. But it's the right thing to do, and you're doing her a favour, a mitzvah – whether she appreciates it, at first, or not.

What am I supposed to do now?

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