Sometimes men become exasperated and say things they shouldn’t say. This usually happens during an argument, and it is usually snapped out of the side of a man’s mouth, or sometimes yelled. It is done to stop the woman in her tracks, to make her feel guilty, to dismiss her, and to manipulate her into being the kind of woman the man wants her to be. The word usually comes out as part of a phrase. “Don’t be so hysterical.” The word “hysterical” is the crucial part of the phrase.
Usually when men use this term, they are at the end of their rope. Sometimes, however, they use it in an ongoing basis in order to manage the woman they are with. Also, use of that term puts them in the superior position: they are sane while their mate is insane (hysterical) and therefore wrong.
I can’t begin to count the times I have heard this term used in couples therapy. It is used to control a woman and win the argument. It is a verbal weapon intended to silence a woman, using psychology to gain the upper hand. Sometimes it may seem to do what it is intended to do, bring about a temporary compliance. However, most often use of that term or any kind of name-calling only makes things worse.
Labeling women as hysterics is nothing new. It has gone on since the time of Sigmund Freud in the late 1800s, when all kinds of methods were tried by physicians to treat women who were seen as suffering from hysteria. Freud was one of the first to try something radically different: listen to them. Nowadays the term hysteric has all but disappeared. It was dropped from the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), which is put out by the American Psychiatric Association, some years ago and replaced with “Histrionic Personality Disorder.”
As I mentioned previously, the word has historically and presently been used as a negative label for a woman who gets angry, an attempt to control her, but in fact it usually has the opposite effect. If a man calls a woman “hysterical,” she is likely to become defensive and even more angry.
Any name-calling leads to bad consequences. When a man says, “Don’t be hysterical!” he tends to fuel the fires of antagonism. It is destructive rather than constructive communication. Destructive communication happens when we see the spot in our loved one’s eyes but not the beam in our own. Destructive communication is egocentric. When a man communicates destructively, he only sees his own point of view and not the point of view of the woman. Constructive communication is empathic. The man is able to understand a woman because he is able to put himself in her shoes.
Destructive communication leads to greater discord, while constructive communication fosters understanding, negotiation and resolution. Instead of the man saying, “You’re so hysterical,” which puts the woman on the defensive, he could get better results if he put the onus on himself rather than on his loved one and phrased his feelings in a more subjective manner.
“I’m feeling frustrated,” he might say. “I don’t know whether it’s coming from me or from you. Sometimes I experience you as being unreasonable. Maybe you’re not being unreasonable, but that’s what I experience.” By putting it this way, he is opening the door for thoughtful communication. He is taking responsibility for his feelings and giving the woman something to think about. When the man frames it this way, the woman is more likely to respond in a similar way. Verbal violence leads to verbal violence, while verbal objectivity leads to verbal objectivity.
Of course, it is much more immediately gratifying, in the heat of battle, to hit a low blow (tell the woman she is being hysterical), and it is less risky. Opening up your own feelings, acknowledging that it might be your fault (“Maybe you’re not being unreasonable, but that’s what I’m experiencing”), makes you vulnerable. The woman might turn around and say, “I’m not being unreasonable. You’re the one who is being unreasonable!” But even if that happens, you have planted a seed.
Sometimes one member of a couple is capable of constructive communication and the other isn’t. That is when a professional might be of assistance. A professional can either help you to both communicate more effectively, or, if that’s not possible, help you to understand what the problem is and give you options for dealing with it.
Destructive communication creates distance. Constructive communication brings closeness.