Written by Kristin Brumm
If someone asked you to describe physical abuse, chances are you could quickly rattle off a number of violent behaviors. But what if someone asked you to describe what psychological abuse looks like? Would you be able to do it? More importantly, if you or someone you love is in a psychologically abusive relationship, would you even know it?
I was, and it took me years to recognize it. In fact, it wasn’t until I got out that I could look back on the situation with any clarity. All I knew was that after every argument, I felt awful. I never felt heard or understood or validated. There was never a sense of resolution or restored intimacy. After a while, I simply stopped trying to work out our differences. It seemed futile. Instead, I became silent.
Psychological abuse, often referred to as crazymaking, is a method of exerting power and control over another person through verbal posturing, innuendo and manipulation. It’s a form of verbal jujitsu that violates every principle of logical and respectful communication.
Look through the list below and see if you can recognize any of these conversational control tactics.
- Distortion – An abusive person will distort what you say and alter the facts in an effort to further his own agenda. The topic under discussion will be exaggerated or altered to suit his purpose. If you express concern that he rarely helps with household chores, he will accuse you of calling him lazy.
- Block and divert – Have you ever, in the course of an argument, backed this person into a logical corner? In other words, you have presented facts to discount her false accusations, or pointed out the fallacy of her statements? If you’re dealing with an abusive individual, she will respond by changing the subject. Instead of admitting culpability (ever), she will swiftly move onto another topic. If you express a grievance, she will turn the conversation around to her grievance.
- Black and white thinking – Another tactic is to pose only two solutions to an issue, neither of which is generally desirable. For instance, if your partner mows the lawn and razes through your flower bed, and you get upset, he may respond with something along the lines of, “Look, you asked me to mow the lawn. If you don’t like the way I do it, then you can do it yourself!” The options are either (a) he does it his way without taking into account your feelings or requests, or (b) he doesn’t do it at all. Obviously, there is a wide swath of grey area between those two options, but you won’t hear any of it from this man.
- Denial – You talk to your partner on the phone and ask him when he’ll be home. He says 5:30. You respond, “Great, I’ll plan on dinner at 6:00”. You cook dinner and he doesn’t arrive home until 7:00. Dinner is cold, the kids are crying and your stomach is growling. When he walks through the door you angrily ask where he’s been and remind him of his promise to be home by 6:00. He looks at you confused. He never said that. You must be making things up again.
- Forgetting – A close cousin of denial. You and your partner agree on a budget. Neither of you will make any significant purchases without discussing it with the other. Two months later he buys a new cell phone. You ask why he did not talk with you about it beforehand, as you had both agreed. He looks at you blankly. What are you talking about? He remembers no such conversation.
- Passive aggression – This is a form of manipulation that is oblique and roundabout. She will never tell you to your face exactly what she wants or why she’s upset. Instead, it will come out at odd times in cryptic references that will leave you feeling stung and undercut. Examples of passive-aggression include sulking, chronic lateness, a mis-match between words and behavior (i.e., telling you she is “fine” when she is clearly upset), self pity, deliberate helplessness (doing a task poorly to get out of having to do it) and withholding of intimacy, money or information.
- Playing the victim – One thing you will learn quickly about the abusive personality is that he believes nothing is ever his fault. He is a master of projection and blame shifting. It's not him, it's you. Always. Whatever he did, however heinous, he was justified. You on the other hand are critical, angry, illogical and abusive. That's right, you are abusing him. Perhaps he should take out a protection order against you?
- Lying – This one is pretty straightforward. People who employ crazy-making tactics don’t feel a particular allegiance to the truth.
- Intimidation – Interactions with an abusive partner can feel intimidating. There is often a subtle threatening undertone to his language. Sometimes this intimidation is communicated through a raised voice or a variety of physical postures: standing up while you’re sitting, towering over you, blocking a doorway, getting too close. You’ll find yourself wanting to end the interaction so you can feel safe again, both emotionally and physically.
- Final Authority – The abuser will use words and tone to convey his superiority. He speaks with certainty and states most of his opinions as absolute fact. If you try to share your opinion, it will be contradicted or brushed off with scoffing, eye-rolling or other dismissive gestures and words.
These behaviors exist on a continuum. Everyone, at some point, will probably employ some of these tactics. Have you ever said something passive-aggressive? I have. However, someone who is abusive will use them consistently and relentlessly.
Arguing with someone who is psychologically abusive feels like trying to navigate your way out of a house of mirrors. It can leave you feeling helpless, guilty, depressed and anxious. You may think you’re losing your mind. The scars from psychological abuse may not show, but they take a lot longer to heal than a bruise or a broken bone.
If you are in a relationship where these tactics are used against you, please consider talking with someone about what you are experiencing – preferably someone who is knowledgeable about abuse, such as a domestic violence counselor.
You deserve to be an equal player in any relationship. You deserve to be heard, acknowledged and loved, and to be treated with respect and compassion. That will never happen as long as you live with someone who is psychologically abusive.
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