I’ve been involved with an alcoholic for ten years now. I know, I know, I should have learned my lesson, but I’m stubborn. I try to talk to him about it, but he comes right back at me with some criticism about something I did or didn’t do, that makes me feel like a total failure. Pretty soon we’re having a big argument which ends with me feeling miserable and him gone to the pub. A week later we do it all again. I can’t seem to get past this.”

Sounds like he’s bullying you. Verbally, that is. He keeps you off balance with a vigorous recitation of your flaws. The implication is that if you were a better wife/girlfriend, he’d be a better husband/boyfriend. That somehow, in some way, his drinking is your fault.

Well, of course, that’s not true. So why buy into it?

When you respond defensively, he’s got you. The argument that follows is mostly drama. As long as the focus is on your imperfections, the discussion is, for all practical purposes, ended. It’s only a matter of time before he’s gone out drinking again. Probably sitting at the bar thinking, “she made me do this.”

The trick is to change your response. Next time he starts in with the heavy critique, try an old assertiveness technique called fogging. It’ll sound odd but should work.

The first step is to agree about something in his complaint — however small it may be.

Him: “You’re a shrew! What man would want to come home to a woman like you!”

You: “I know I’ve been unhappy. I don’t mean to nag you all the time.”

This immediately throws a bully off balance. You’re not rising to the bait. You simply acknowledged some truth in what he said. That doesn’t detract from your concerns. You’ve conceded nothing. But it has the benefit of stopping the drama mid-scene, before it can degenerate into yet another bitter argument.

He’ll probably continue to provoke you, but if you keep fogging, he’ll eventually get tired and stop. Once it’s clear that bullying no longer produces the desired result, he’ll move on to something else.

There’s a game-like quality to bullying. It may look spontaneous, but it isn’t. It’s just a tactic that some people use to get their way. Once that tactic proves unsuccessful, it’s usually abandoned.