The following is a paper I wrote in November 2011 for my Relational Communications class on Verbally Abusive Relationships - using the example from my own life.
“Never be bullied into silence. Never allow yourself to be made a victim. Accept no one’s definition of your life; define yourself.”- Harvey Fierstein
When I recovered from my eating disorder in 2010, what I was really doing was walking away from an abusive relationship that had haunted me for over four years; to an outsider this may not make sense, but for those who have gone through an eating disorder it is one of the most accurate ways of describing it. See, with an eating disorder comes an inner-demon, a voice inside one’s head, that is constantly whispering ridicule, lies, and invalidations, and we refer to this voice as ‘ED’. I knew that once I had recovered, ED’s voice would disappear, what I didn’t predict, however, was that when I walked away from ED I was going to walk straight into another abusive relationship, only this time my abuser would be more than just a voice – He would be living and breathing – a physical version of the inner voice that had kept me captive and terrified for years.
We met at a bar. He was four years my senior and was the exact opposite of the guys I’d always gone for in the past – He had light hair, light eyes, and, most importantly, was highly intelligent. An introverted Cognitive like me, He sat quietly as the Affectives carried out conversation amongst each other. I recognized Him from a class we’d taken together, and I remembered how his intelligence had fascinated me – I couldn’t explain why, but I was drawn to him. So I took a leap, extended my hand towards him, and made first contact. Little did I know the spiralling tunnel He was about to pull me through. I willingly put on my blindfold and the dance began…
What is ‘Abuse’ Anyways?
According to Dr. Susan Forward and Joan Torres, authors of Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them, “Abuse is…any behavior that is designed to control and subjugate another human being through the use of fear, humiliation, and verbal or physical assault” (Forward & Torres, 1987, p. 43). Verbal Abuse, according to Patricia Evans, author of The Verbally Abusive Relationship, is “more or less a constant invalidation of the partner’s reality” (Evans, p. 46).
An example of invalidation (and humiliation) would be when He and I were discussing His previous breakup – I was attempting to encourage Him, trying desperately to find the right words to bring some clarity to the situation, and His response came with a sting of bitterness and the undertone of mockery: “Thanks, self-help book”. He knew that one of the biggest parts of my life is helping those struggling with eating disorders through writing that could fit in the category of ‘self-help’ – only His way of saying it – dripping with negative connotation – in one brief sentence invalidated my values and made me feel humiliated for offering what He viewed as a juvenile attempt at encouragement.
If He let me think I had actually helped Him, that would give the impression that I possessed greater or equal power to Him; however, shooting down my attempts at influencing His feelings in that moment sent out the message that He is in control and nothing I say has value. That is verbal abuse.
Characteristics of the Abuser – Meet the Guy
Patricia Evans says, “Some abusers may be extremely overpowering and demanding, and some may be at the opposite extreme – reclusive, only occasionally demanding, but very manipulative” (Evans, p. 39). He was the latter. Somewhat of a hermit, He didn’t have much care for humans as a whole and kept to himself a lot and only rarely would He ‘blow up’ at me – however, His manipulative techniques were flawless. I believe his intelligence (which I now see as more frightening than fascinating) played a major role in this. His method of attack was gradual and calculated; He chipped away at my strength and self-esteem through “unrelenting criticism and fault-finding” (Forward & Torres, p. 46). Forward describes this form of abuse as being “particularly insidious because it is often disguised as a way of teaching the woman how to be a better person” (Forward & Torres, p. 46). And that is what kept me around – these little attacks (or ‘constructive criticisms’ as I saw them at the time) were always said ‘in my best interest’ and rather than retaliate, I loved him for it – and I admired his honesty.
From the start I’m sure He knew the power He had over me, and He used this to His advantage. He was living in what Evans refers to as “Reality I” or “Power Over”. “Power over shows up as control and dominance….Someone who believes in the Power Over expects to get what he or she wants through the use of Power Over another” (Evans, p. 27), and that is just what He did. In Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, they refer to these types of people as “controllers,” in my case, I was dealing with what they refer to as the “Manipulative Controller,” which is one who uses persuasion to remove others’ boundaries and “indirectly manipulate[s] circumstances to get [his/her] way” (Cloud & Townsend, 1992, p. 57).
“Controllers,” or those living in Reality I, have what Evans refers to as the “fear of being smothered” (or overpowered); “[he] is either overpowering or believing he is being overpowered, because in this reality there is no mutuality” (Evans, p. 32). This theory would explain the following conversation that took place over text message when He cancelled plans on me last minute:
Him: Hey, I decided I’m going to hang out with the guys tonight instead.
Me: I just hate it when you cancel plans last minute like that.
Him: What the hell? You have no right to control how I spend my time.
Me: I’m not trying to control your time, it’s just that I didn’t make any other plans because we had plans and now you are cancelling.
Him: F*ck you I’m not going to let you guilt me like that. It’s not my fault if you don’t have other plans.
Me: I’m not trying to guilt you – the reason I don’t have other plans is because we planned to hang out.
Him: You can’t be needy like this – that’s the easiest way to push me away. You can’t get bummed if plans change – that’s attachment.
Me: I don’t mind if you want to hang out with your friends, I just don’t appreciate it when you cancel plans we’ve already made – I don’t like it when any of my friends do that. I’m sorry if you feel I am controlling your time, that wasn’t my intention.
Him: Fine. I’m not taking that crap again, though.
Looking back on this conversation now, I see where His aggression rose from – it was more than just Him feeling I was being too ‘needy’– He thought I was attempting to gain power over Him. At the time, however, I was beside myself, wondering why I had allowed myself to lose my temper and respond to Him with “whatever” rather than be OK with the fact that He is just a person who values freedom. I felt this way because I assumed He was living in my reality, Reality II.
The View from Where I Stand – Reality II
Reality II (also known as “Personal Power”) is defined by Evans as revolving around “mutuality and co-creation” (Evans, p. 27). Evans defines mutuality as “a way of being with another person which promotes the growth and well-being of one’s self and the other person” (Evans, p. 27). In Reality II, couples acknowledge that they each make mistakes and they work together to resolve their issues and differences (Evans, pp. 33-36). This is where I thought I stood with Him. I thought that our relationship was built upon mutual respect, care, and support and I certainly did not see the possibility of Him attempting to gain Power Over. Any disagreements we had I took as result of differing values, which neither of us could hold against each other. And when He would negate my opinions or invalidate the things that were most important to me (which He did often), I simply took it as us lacking common interests or as Him misunderstanding my position (Evans, p. 32), and, in many cases, I even considered His reasoning superior to mine and would then alter my own views – slowly losing pieces of myself as I twisted to fit into his mould.
This was a game I could never win…
“How can I decide what’s right
When you’re clouding up my mind?
I can’t win your losing fight all the time.
How can I ever own what’s mine
When you’re always taking sides?” – Paramore “Decode”
Each time the Abuser tells the Other that he/she is “being dramatic” or “misunderstanding” the Abuser is defining the Other’s reality, and the more the Other believes the Abuser, the more confusion the Other will experience, and, according to Evans, “This is the essence of crazymaking”, which is a form of psychological abuse (Evans, p. 55). Crazymaking involves covert and indirect verbal abuse (Evans, p. 23).
Sending mixed messages is a great example of crazymaking because it leaves the Other feeling off-guard, unsure of how the Abuser is really feeling and wondering whether he/she has down something wrong. One night I offered to pick up dinner from the store. He asked for a Caesar salad kit. I bought the one that came in a plastic container. When I got to His house I handed Him the salad and asked if it was the right one. He then asked me if the store hadn’t had the bag salad. I apologized and said that I thought He wanted this type. He assured me that it was OK, and yet He wouldn’t let it go. He knew me well enough to know that I get very upset if I do something ‘wrong’, but despite this, He spent the entire meal explaining what the bag looks like, how it is cheaper, and asking me if I was sure I hadn’t seen the bag at the store – all the while still assuring me that it was OK. His attitude didn’t seem upset, and yet His refusal to let it go made me think otherwise. So I continued to apologize whenever He commented on the difference between the two types of salads – all the while going through cartwheels in my brain wondering if He thought I was a failure at picking out salads – which His non-verbal cues dictated, or if it really was ‘OK’ as He said.
To this day I am still unsure whether He was mad or not, but one thing I do know is that He wanted to make sure I knew that I had made a mistake – chipping away at my armour piece by piece.
It is this very up and down, back and forth behaviour that drives crazymaking, and often these ‘hot and cold’ behaviours are dragged out over time – offering periods of warmth and companionship followed by hostility and aggression. What kept me around for so long was this very pattern – we would enjoy long strolls through Wal-Mart and nights spent playing Super Nintendo and watching sitcoms, and then there would be days of little or no communication, conversations filled with undercuts at my self-esteem, and random outbursts of aggression when He felt challenged. But the ‘highs’ – the video games and Bubble Tea – kept me around despite the lows – in essence, I was addicted.
As Forward explain, “The relationship provides a ‘high’ that nothing else matches – and in order to get those highs she will tolerate a great deal of abusive treatment” (Forward & Torres, p. 87). I remember being on the phone with my mom after one of the ‘lows’ and telling her, “When it’s bad, it’s terrible, but when it’s good, it’s great.” Even I knew those were loaded words, but I didn’t want to leave, and so I began to justify His actions. Forward refers to this justification as ‘collusion’; she says, “What makes [collusion] so destructive to her is that she actually has begun to help him to abuse her. She suspends her own good judgment, joins him in his persecution of her, and finds explanations to justify his behavior” (Forward & Torres, p. 95). Another part of collusion involves the Abuser convincing the Other that everything is the Other’s fault – and once she believes him, as Forward explains, “she has stepped into a dangerous twilight zone of distorted perceptions. Accepting his version of reality means she must give up hers. It’s Alice in Wonderland time” (Forward & Torres, p. 94). And the Other is most certainly not allowed “to say ‘ouch’” – as Forward points out – if he/she does, then the Abusers response is that of aggression and/or invalidation of the Other’s feelings (Forward & Torres, pp. 52-53).
I remember one of the first times I finally said ‘ouch’ – explaining how His hot and cold behavior towards me was upsetting and that His tendency to be everywhere all at once – calling, texting, hanging out – and then disappearing without a word for days or even weeks made me feel expendable, like He could take me or leave me, and how that hurt. His response: “The way my actions make you feel is your fault, and not mine.”
“He will choose you, disarm you with his words, and control you with his presence. He will delight you with his wit. He will smile and deceive you, and he will scare you with his eyes.” – Dr. Robert Hare
According to Dr. Dorothy McCoy, author of The Manipulative Man, a Psychopath tends towards the following: little remorse/guilt, promiscuity, short-term relationships, blaming others, refusal to take responsibility, deceptive behavior, sense of self-importance…the list goes on (McCoy, 2006, p. 189). All of these apply directly to Him – including the tendency for Psychopaths to be somewhat genius (McCoy, p. 190), but the two that are most fitting are refusal to take responsibility for actions and lack of empathy. McCoy says, “Because their emotions are shallow, Psychopaths cannot understand emotions in others.” (McCoy, p. 191). Both lack of empathy and refusal to admit wrong are shown in the conversation mentioned above where He could not relate to my feelings of hurt and blamed me for them rather than admitting His wrong. A Psychopath, I suppose, is not without his sense of pride.
“Self-love lies as the ground of love; but the paradoxical passion of self-love when at its highest pitch wills precisely its own downfall.” – Søren Kierkegaard
According to McCoy, it is not uncommon for those who have psychopathic tendencies, to portray characteristics of narcissists as well (McCoy, p. 189). So what makes up a narcissist? It’s more than just pride. McCoy says, “The Narcissist embraces his false self. He must continually scheme and recreate himself to keep reality at bay. His fragile ego cannot accept less than perfection. Therefore, he reacts with rage to any suggestion, no matter how trivial, that he may be flawed” (McCoy, p. 173). A narcissist also requires a lot of validation from the Other, and once he/she no longer offers this validation, the narcissist moves on to someone else (McCoy, p. 173), which explains why He came and went as He pleased, and fell in and out of relation with me according to what suited His needs.
So Why ‘Us’?
What makes a girl fall into a relationship with a psychopathic narcissist? Well, perhaps it’s not so much that I fell into it, but that I was chosen. See, He is what Cloud and Townsend refer to as a “Controller and Nonresponsive”, and this type “gravitate[s] toward someone with blurry boundaries, who will naturally take on too many responsibilities in the relationship and who won’t complain about it” (Cloud & Townsend, p. 61) – enter Me, the Interpersonal (or, as Cloud and Townsend call it, “the Compliant Avoidant”). According to Cloud and Townsend, “Many compliant people realize too late that they’re in a dangerous or abusive relationship” (Cloud & Townsend, p. 53). Luckily for me it wasn’t too late, and I did get out of it, but it took compassionate witnesses telling me that this was not OK and I deserved better – and it took me realizing that despite the confusion in my mind I knew that I had to get out – even if all I wanted to do was stay.
Most people would think that since I’ve managed to walk away and “break free” everything is going to be OK, but I’m beginning to realize that is not the case. In the same way that with my eating disorder my eating disorder behaviours were not the problem, they were the symptom, in this relationship, me choosing to stay with Him was not the problem, it was the symptom, and just as it wasn’t about the food, it wasn’t about the guy either…
It’s Not About the Guy
It is far easier in recovery from an abusive relationship to focus on blaming the abuser rather than focus on areas in our own lives that we need to work on. In her book When Food is Love, Geneen Roth discusses this very issue; she says, “The problem with blame is that it focuses our attention on the person with whom we are dealing instead of on ourselves. The more we focus on what the other person is doing, has done, can do, to make us feel better, the less powerful we feel….But healing and growing whole eventually require focusing on ourselves and assuming responsibility for change” (Roth, When Food is Love, 1991, p. 149).
As Dr. John Townsend says in Beyond Boundaries, “When we fail to learn and heal from our past relational patterns, our past remains our present” (Townsend, 2011, p. 87). In order for me to ensure I don’t repeat this pattern, I need to work on the inner issues that made me stay in this relationship, and I need to find value in myself so that in the future I gravitate towards healthy, uplifting relationships, rather than abusive ones. But as I began this process of reflecting on what had happened – all the things He had done and said – my focus blurred and I became filled with anger.
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
As I began processing the intricate details of this relationship, I became filled with anger and bitterness – I found myself turning into a monster. What does Nietzsche mean when he warns to not become a monster? Through this process I’ve discovered that the essence of a monster is lack of forgiveness – forgiveness of self, forgiveness of others, and forgiveness of God. Therefore, in order for me to move past this relationship without becoming a monster myself I must start by forgiving my abuser.
Forgiveness, however, does not require reconciliation. “Forgiveness is seen more as internal and intrapersonal, while reconciliation is interpersonal” (Rovers, 2005, p. 178). Reconciliation requires the abuser to acknowledge his fault (Rovers, p. 178), but forgiveness does not. In cases of abuse, it is important to realize that one can forgive without reconciling – you do not need the abuser’s consent in order to forgive him/her. Also, reconciliation does not mean you have to go back to the abuser – two people can find peace between each other without remaining in each other’s lives – it is important for one to guard his/her heart and not return to the abuser because it’s “the right thing to do”; one should only revisit the relationship if and when the abuser has shown drastic signs of self-awareness and change.
Forgiving Him is not the final step, though; in order for me to fully heal I must also forgive myself. This is something that is often left out of recovery; the thing inside of me that kept me from valuing myself enough to not stay in an abusive relationship was the fact that I still hadn’t forgiven myself for what I’d done through my eating disorder. In order for me to move forward in my relationships with others and with myself, I have to forgive myself – and this is something that is long overdue.
As Geneen Roth says, “When you forgive yourself, you express an intention to work with the darkness within you…. [You express] a willingness to learn from your fragility and your fallibility instead of pretending they are not there” (Roth, Breaking Free from Emotional Eating, 2004, p. 173) – and that is the only way I can fully heal from this abusive relationship and ensure that I will not become a monster in the process.
Maybe Don Henley was right when he said that at the heart of the matter lies forgiveness (Henley, 1990).
Cloud, H., & Townsend, J. (1992). Boundaries. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
Evans, P. (2010). The Verbally Abusive Relationship. Avon: Adams Media.
Forward, S. P., & Torres, J. (1987). Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them. New York: Bantum Books.
Campbell, M., Henley, D., & Souther, J. (Composers). (1990). The Heart of the Matter. [D. Henley, Performer] On The End of the Innocence. M. Campbell, D. Henley, & D. Kortchmar.
McCoy, D. (2006). The Manipulative Man. Avon: Adams Media.
Roth, G. (1991). When Food is Love. New York: Penguin Group.
Roth, G. (2004). Breaking Free from Emotional Eating. New York: Penguin Group.
Rovers, M. (2005). Healing the Wounds in Couple Relationships. Toronto: Novalis Publishing Inc. .
Townsend, J. (2011). Beyond Boundaries. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.
*Paper Title in reference to “The Sweetest Thing” by U2, 1998.