Things Are Not Always As They Seem
Emotional abusers have this uncanny way of turning a conversation or situation into something that it’s not so as to manipulate the other person and make them question their own reality, truth, and sanity. This is called gas-lighting. I can think of countless times when my abuser and I would be talking about something, and I would walk away from the conversation feeling confused and guilty. It didn’t matter if it was a debate on what color the sky is or me telling him I didn’t like when he interrupted me. One way or another, he was right and I was wrong, and whatever my idea was it was worthless and unfounded and I should be ashamed for thinking anything differently from what he was thinking. Sound familiar?
How quickly does a conversation or comment escalate into something that throws you under the bus? One of the ways abusers keep their victims under their thumb is to keep them confused and mentally deshovled. This tactic eventually wears down the victim’s strength and mental pathways to sorting out reality vs. distortion. It blurs the lines between the victim’s truth and the truth they want the victim to believe. Eventually, after enough wear and tear, the victim’s mind is unable to distinguish between the two and they will eventually give up trying to separate them and go along with and accept what the abuser says as truth. The abuser’s confidence in what they are saying is so convincing that the victim begins to question their own reality, confidence, and intelligence. The victim’s self dialogue may go something like this:
“What? He’s nuts! Everybody knows the sky is blue! How can he say it’s purple? ……. But I guess if I look at it right, I can see some purple – I mean.. What if blue really is purple? ……… How could you be so petty – why are you even arguing over the color of the sky? You’re so selfish! You always have to turn everything into an argument. If he says it’s purple then clearly it’s purple – why can’t you see things his way? ……… Look again – don’t you see that purple? Of course you do. Now you better let him know you see it and mean it or he’ll make you feel even worse!”
From thence, an apology and admission follow suite.
What makes us give in so easily? Well to answer that question, we’ve got to think way back to the beginning of the relationship. Chances are, this started so small and miniscule that the victim didn’t even notice it happening. Quite often abusers will start early on with very small scale things to distort and get their victim to agree with them. It is probably packaged in a way that makes the victim use some sort of reasoning to convince them that their observation or opinion isn’t the best. This happens often and becomes a sort of conditioning so that eventually when they take it up a notch, the victim doesn’t question them because he/she is so used to letting the abuser think for them.
For example, when a spouse goes to the abuser to confront them about their behavior and treatment, it could start out with something like “Hey, baby – when I’m talking on the phone, could you not interrupt me and tell me what to say?” and they may reply with “I’m sorry I just want to make sure you’re saying it right.” — Seems harmless right? Well over time the behavior continues and the victim comes back to them later “Hey, I really don’t appreciate it when you interrupt me. It distracts me and I can’t think of what I want to say.” The abuser this time may lash out with “You never listen to me! Why are you picking me apart like I’m some jerk? I’m just trying to help you because I love you and you make everything seem like all I want to do is hurt you! Don’t you care about my feelings! What about me?!” The interruptions that the abuser has been planting has begun to wear the victim down and create an inability to think for themselves – and the blaming upon confronting them creates an insecurity about ever wanting to feel independent because it only brings trouble.
Or my personal favorite – when the abuser comes to the victim and says “Hey, how come you never smile anymore? Why are you sad? Is it something I’ve done? You never just come love on me or smile at me… what’s wrong?” and so the abused spouse may feel like this is an opportunity to open up – so she does – “Well to be honest, I feel like I don’t have a say in my own life anymore. You control everything I do and say, I can’t talk to my friends or family, and my feelings have been really hurt lately by some of the things you’ve said. ” This response sparks a fire in the abuser who responds “See there you go again! Turning everything around on me! Why do you always accuse me of being the problem?! You’re the one that’s making everyone miserable cause you’re so sad all the time! I don’t control you! You can go anywhere and do anything you want! I don’t care who you talk to! You’re always making me out to look like the bad guy!” This leaves the abused spouse feeling afraid to ever open her mouth and afraid to ever be honest. She also knows that if she does try to live freely like he says she can, she will meet fire and brimstone when she attempts. She starts to question how it all started and whether she’s right or wrong. She feels shame and guilt and is further oppressed even more.
Have you ever heard the saying “a little leavening leavens the whole loaf?” In essence, this is what’s happening. It starts small until it grows out of control.
Stop the Crazy-Making
Abusers appear very sure of themselves on the outside, but they are very insecure on the inside. They seem confident and strong, but inside they need that control to feel powerful and worth something. Abusers are lacking the ability to empathize with their victim, so they are using their victims as tools to make themselves feel better. When an abuser feels challenged by their victim, it triggers them to dig in a little deeper to climb back on top. Arguing with an abuser is pointless because you cannot reason with them. Their mental health isn’t stable enough to have a mature difference of opinion and healthy debate.
As a survivor, I’m here to tell you that fighting does not work. It will only perpetuate and exacerbate the abuse. We have to shut it down, block, or divert it. Responding with neutrality and a broken record stops the abuser from being able to take it anywhere. Their goal is to make the victim internalize whatever they are saying in an effort to control them. Boundaries are essential to turning a person’s status from victim to survivor. We have walls around our house and fences in our yard to protect something valuable to us. This is the same concept in using social boundaries to protect our identity. Boundaries include telling the abuser to stop the abuse, but not arguing with them. For example, “Stop telling me that my opinion or belief isn’t valid.” If the abuser says something like “It really pisses me off when disagree with me!” Using a phrase like “I’m sorry you feel that way” instead of trying to argue your validity stops the abuser from being able to say anything else. They need their victim’s involvement in order to control them. When they don’t get a bite on their bait, they have nothing to work with. That’s not to say they won’t keep trying, but it protects the now-survivor from getting hooked into the cycle. When the abuser continues to press the issue, the survivor can continue to repeat the same thing just like a broken record. This is similar to the abuser knocking or banging on a locked door. Do not open the door. If the abuser continues, the survivor needs to walk away from the conflict. Engagement is what they seek, so disengaging is where it’s at.
Some abusers will get the picture and change. If this happens, it’s important to remain open and firm about any further abusive behaviors and hold them accountable for their actions in the future if the relationship is going to grow. Other abusers will not change no matter how much you block them. This is not a healthy relationship and if it occurs repeatedly, the victim/survivor may need to walk away from the relationship entirely. We try to stay away from toxic chemicals and avoid putting them in our bodies – toxic relationships are just as dangerous to our health and need to be cut off and avoided.
If you or someone you know is involved in an abusive relationship and need help, please seek assistance because ending this type of relationship can be very difficult, and, at times, dangerous. If you are in an abusive relationship and your attempts to stop the abuse anger your abuser to the point of violence and you feel unsafe, call 911 immediately and find a safe place to go. Do not try to confront them yourself.