Most partners who end up in the whirlwind of verbal and emotional abuse don’t remember how they’ve arrived there. You aren’t supposed to fear the person you married or are in love with. We grow up believing in someone who will understand and support us with respect. When that turns, we’re left questioning ourselves.
Therapists and psychologists describe a cycle of abuse, using terms like “the incident,” “honeymoon,” “tension building” but each relationship has its own pattern.
Abusers seek those they can control or empower. Once the door is open, they typically use tools like isolation, intimidation, denial, criticism, and blame with breaks for either reconciliation or uncomfortable silence.
We can think of abuse as we would joining a cult. At first, the cult leaders court potential members by ensuring them how loved they are. “Nobody cares for you like I do.” Once trust is gained, the cult isolates the member from family or friends. Without a voice of reason or outside support, the member becomes dependent on the cult. Typically, cults break down their members using similar strategies as an abuser does to gain even more control till the member fears leaving and loses a sense of self.
Those of us who have been involved in abusive relationships often share we knew something wasn’t right from the start, sometimes following a whirlwind romance. There may have been signs of possessiveness and jealousy, criticism about our choices, from career to what we wore to our friends.
We thought if we made everything perfect, the cycle would stop but nothing is ever good enough. We share our feelings and fears, only to have them used against us as a battering ram during an incident. Nothing is off limits.
Abusers are crafty. They know how to balance the behavior and hide their behavior from others. They use a technique commonly referred to as gaslighting to convince their targets that what happened was in the partner’s imagination or “You’re being too sensitive.” Abusers are often narcissists, placing all blame on the other and denying their actions or words. “You started it. You have control over your feelings. If that makes you angry or upset, that’s your problem.”
Eventually, the abused partner lives in constant fear. The “calmer” times when the abuser is either showering the partner with gifts and affection or just ignoring the partner with icy silence are anxiety provoking as we wait for the next explosion, which we know is going to happen.
So, what can we do to stop this insidious cycle of abuse?
The first step is recognizing the abuse for what it is. Putting a name on something and realizing you’re not alone is powerful. Read as much as you can on the subject. Authors like Patricia Evans (http://www.verbalabuse.com/) and Lundy Bancroft (http://www.lundybancroft.com/) present excellent information on verbal and emotional abuse. Understanding what you’re experiencing is empowering and the first step to change.
Secondly, surround yourself with supportive people or at least one good friend with whom you can confide. Domestic violence counseling, both individual and group, can help you understand what has happened and also to strategize to make a change in your responses or develop an exit strategy should you decide to leave.
Thirdly, rebuild your confidence. Learn to love yourself again and treat yourself well. This will probably enrage the abuser because he will fear he’ll lose you but this isn’t about placating the abuser. This is about taking care of yourself.
Fourthly, change your response, not to appease the abuser but to protect yourself.
Patricia Evans says, “Generally, verbal abuse defines people, telling them what they are, what they think, their motives. The best way to deal with a verbally abusive relationship, whether you are the target or the perpetrator, is to find out everything you can about verbally abusive relationships and their dynamics. Usually one person is blaming, accusing, even name calling, and the other is defending and explaining.”
In his book, “Why Does He Do That?” Lundy Bancroft provides insight into angry, controlling men and advice for improving, surviving, or leaving an abusive relationship. Ending an abusive relationship does require a healing and forgiving yourself.
If you are parenting with your abuser, you need to come up with a new way of relating to the abuser. There will still be times when a comment brings up old feelings of flight or flight and an overbearing need to defend yourself. Take a deep breath and remember that though the abuser’s comments may bring pain, the issue is his to own. You’re strong and can walk away.