October is Domestic Violence Awareness month, and as such the internet and print media are filled with helpful information about domestic violence — what it is, the signs someone may be an abuser, and how to get help. But there is another type of abuse that’s not talked about quite so much, and that’s emotional abuse, also called mental or psychological abuse…a type of inner violence all its own.
Emotional abuse is a type of psychological violence. The bruises, sprains, broken bones, cuts, and burns that are often plain to see on a victim of physical violence are all over the victims of emotional abuse, only on the inside. Bodies may not be harmed in any way, but the violence done to the psyche can be brutal indeed, leaving lifelong scars.
Thankfully, emotional abuse is now recognized as another type of violence. The kind that’s unseen. On the National Domestic Violence Hotline website, there is a section devoted to emotional abuse as well as the physical, and other types of abuse as well.
So, what makes emotional abuse — well, abuse? And how would someone know if they’re being emotionally abused vs simply being yelled at (but not in an abusive way) or otherwise being the object of someone’s non-abusive anger, or maybe even being lovingly teased? After all, yelling isn’t always abusive, nor is teasing (although there are the pantywaist types out there who believe that to have a sense of humor is to be a bully of the worst kind).
Here’s a scenario: a man returns home to find that his wife has, on impulse, gone out and purchased a new car, sticking them with four long years of payments. He confronts her. He is pretty much in shock and understandably angry. “Why didn’t you talk to me first?” he yells, completely distraught. “How in the world are we going to make those payments? What were you thinking, anyway?”
Here’s another scenario: He confronts her. He doesn’t lay a hand on her, but yells, “You stupid cow! What kind of a moron does something like that? Oh wait, that’s right, a moron like you! A stupid, worthless idiot who goes through her life with her head up her ***! Stupid b****! You’d better get your ugly fat *** back down to that dealership right now, and take that pile of **** with you! You’re a pathetic, worthless excuse for a wife.”
Or this (while the two are reminiscing about funny things): “Remember the time we went camping with Reggie and Veronica, that first night when you thought there was a bear in our tent, but it turned out to be their chihuahua?” (starts laughing) “You were jumping up and down and screaming ‘Bear! Bear! Ohmygod, BEAAAR! And the whole campground came running, and…” ending the story with, “That was awesome! One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen!” as he throws his arm around her and fondly hugs her to him.
Versus this, after recounting the part about her thinking there was a bear in their tent: (laughing in a contemptuous, mocking way) “What a dumb***! That was about the stupidest thing you’d done since I’d met you. I guess it’s funny now, but back then it was embarrassing as hell. I was sure Reggie and Veronica were never going to want to go camping with us again. They must have thought you were a real piece of work.” (rolls eyes, shrugs resignedly) “Oh well. That’s my wife.”
A huge difference, no?
Meet the Abusers
Who are these mean people, anyway? Anybody. Just as physical domestic abuse happens across the spectrum to include all ages, socioeconomic, ethnic, and religious groups, as well as both sexes, so it is with mental abusers and their victims. But because mental abuse isn’t so (literally) in-your-face as physical abuse is, oftentimes the abusers don’t even realize they’re being abusive, and the victims don’t know they’re being abused. And the abusers aren’t always “mean people” either. They may be really nice people for the most part…but they’re always people with lots of emotional baggage themselves, whether they realize it or not.
Often this baggage comes in the form of personality disorders. Now don’t get all freaked out — “personality disorders” doesn’t always mean the people who have them are psycho serial killers! Serial killers have personality disorders, to be sure, but then so do lots of perfectly nice, “normal” folks. In order to better understand why or how someone who seems to be “such a nice guy” (or gal) could be a mental abuser, we’ll take a look at a few of these PD’s.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Often (but not always) gregarious and charming, those with NPD can be the life of the party. This is due to their chronic attention-seeking behavior, as they have a great need to be noticed and admired. However, these same charming, funny, “life of the party” people can be a lot less fun at home and/or at work, for those who must live and work with them. That’s because they have a sense of entitlement and may expect to be unquestioningly granted special favors, becoming perpetually unhappy and unsatisfied in their relationships if this special treatment is opposed. They generally have a lack of empathy for others, although sometimes they’ll do their best to pretend to have empathy.
They can come across as extremely capable, confident people, but peek underneath the veneer and you’ll see someone who in reality is vulnerable and insecure, often carrying around feelings of shame and humiliation like a raggedy, smelly old backpack.
Here are some of the symptoms of NPD:
- Take advantage of others in order to get what they want
- The desire to be recognized as superior, even without proof
- Monopolize conversations, talking mostly about themselves
- Look down on and/or belittle people they think are inferior
- Constant one-upmanship: “Oh, you thought that was tough? That’s nothing. Let me tell you what happened to me when…” (said now and then, it’s just lively conversation. But when it’s constant…)
- Brag about and/or exaggerate their talents and successes
- Unable or unwilling to recognize the feelings and needs of others
- Hypersensitive to anything they might consider criticism
- Significant interpersonal problems
- Significant trouble adapting to change and dealing with stress
- Acting arrogant, shallow, pretentious and/or boastful
For a more in-depth look at the narcissist and what to do if you are keeping company with one, read the excellent three-part series here by Stephanie Sarkis.
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Passive-Aggressive Personality Disorder
You ask your husband how he likes your new ‘do. “It’s great,” he replies, smiling. And then adds, “…if you were wanting to use it as a floor mop.” You are hurt and tell him so. “Oh geez,” he sighs, rolling his eyes. “You should know by now that I joke around a lot. You’re always so sensitive!”
Ah, one of the classic patterns: compliment, insult (disguised as a “joke”), then the 180 turn-around and shifting the blame to the one who’s been hurt, in an attempt to make her look like an idiotic crybaby. Or the insults may be more subtle. He may give you a genuine compliment on your pot roast and then say that it was almost as good as his mom’s.
Sometimes they are just blatantly critical and then try to convince you that they’re only telling you “for your own good.” This is also a narcissist’s tactic — in fact, the PA’s and narcissists share some of the same strategies and moves in their exasperating chess game.
You may already know that this is passive-aggressive behavior. But there are many other behaviors that make up a passive-aggressive personality disorder. Passive-aggressives are often codependent, with low self-esteem. And angry. But they’ll never admit it, and may not even realize it. Many were raised in homes with a zero-tolerance for showing any anger — even when appropriate.
So little Bobby and Suzie learned to shut their mouths and mask their anger by shoving it deep down, pretending it didn’t exist, and pasting on a smile. Others came from homes where one parent was extremely domineering and the other was meek as a baby hamster. Still others were brought up in homes where there was substance abuse, or other types of dysfunctional homes where as children, they were powerless to change things. As adults, they continue to feel powerless and yearn for control.
Although deeply angry and bitter, they are often very afraid of confrontation, and so will hide their hostility behind smiles and back-handed compliments, sarcasm, and other behaviors. Even while being co-dependent and feeling powerless, they want control. Yet, they fear being assertive or letting any anger show. So they smile and nod and may pretend to amiably go along with what you want. Or they grumble a bit and still go along with you, but either way, inside they’re seething and one way or another, you will pay later.
In my research, I discovered a fascinating example of a passive-aggressive husband “asserting control” (in his mind) and paying his wife back because she “made” him do what he didn’t want to do.
In the example given, a couple are wondering how to spend their Saturday afternoon together. The wife says she’d love to go to the mall. Her husband readily agrees and off they go. They get along fine and seemingly have a great time together; no arguments or anything of the sort, just companionable conversation and a nice lunch before heading home. All in all, a really nice afternoon.
That night after going to bed, the wife is feeling, shall we say, a bit frisky, and tries to engage hubby in a bit of fun. But he’s having none of it. He says he’s tired and just not in the mood, blah blah blah, goodnight, and rolls over away from her. She’s stunned. What the — what just happened here? she wonders, hurt and confused. We had such a great day together. Why would he be like this now? I wonder if it’s something I’ve done. It must be…but what?
She proceeds to review the day in her mind, mentally ticking off each thing that she said or did, and comes up empty. Try as she might, she can’t think of a single thing she did that would have angered him. Is it something I don’t remember, or am I just crazy? she wonders. As you can see, there’s also an element of mind games at work.
Here’s what she did that was so offensive: she had the audacity to suggest they go to the mall. He did not want to go to the mall, but didn’t have the backbone to come out and say it. So he agreed and pretended to have a nice time. Mr. Nice Guy. But inside, Mr. Nice Guy was seething with anger and resentment. Later, he took his hostility out on his wife and had his revenge by withholding sex, which had the added bonus of him taking back the control he felt he’d lost when she “made” him go to the mall.
But wait! It’s women who play these kinds of sex-as-a-weapon games, right? Not always. Both men and women are passive-aggressive, and passive-aggressive men, as well as women, can and do use sex as a weapon. And many other things. Here are some of them:
- The Silent Treatment or the Cold Shoulder
The example above is a type of Cold Shoulder, but the Cold Shoulder can also be in conversation — conversations that are superficial and curt on the part of the PA. But then there’s also the dreaded Silent Treatment.
If a non-PA person in a healthy relationship was angry and didn’t wish to talk, it would probably be due to a desire to calm down, analyze and process the anger, and avoid saying things he or she might regret later. And in this case, the angry person would be able to come out and say something like, “I’m ticked off, and don’t want to try to discuss things when I’m angry. I need some time to chill out and think calmly — then I’ll discuss it with you.” Not so with the passive-aggressive. In his or her mind, you’ve committed an offense and now must be punished with the Silent Treatment.
- The Blame Game
This is where the other person holds you responsible for their happiness — or, God forbid, their unhappiness. If they are happy, it’s because at the moment, you’re doing everything they want and not making any “unfair demands” on them. If they’re not happy, it’s because you are making unfair demands. Or verbally attacking them because you politely asked if they would please wipe their muddy feet next time before coming into the house. Or something. It’s always something. And their failures are somehow your fault.
- Play the Victim/Martyr
Dovetails with the Blame Game. Passive-aggressives may have imagined or exaggerated personal issues (which are almost always someone else’s fault, by the way), and will use manipulation to play upon your conscience or sense of duty. Once you feel guilty or obligated, they can usually get what they want, all the while making themselves look like the poor, beleaguered martyr and you look like the bad guy. Another classic example is while arguing. Not all PA’s will avoid a fight at any cost — at least, not when it comes to a significant other.
They know exactly which buttons to push to set you off and may push your buttons again and again during a discussion, which, if you react, turns the discussion to an argument. If they keep pushing (“You’re always so over-sensitive,” “You always overreact,” “Why are you so bad-tempered?” “C’mon, why don’t you yell a little louder? That way the neighbors can hear how psycho you are,” are popular ones) and you keep reacting the way they want, the argument blows up into a full-scale screaming war. They purposely bait you into getting angrier and angrier until you freak out.
After the bait comes the switch. As soon as you’ve reached the pinnacle of freakout they suddenly, inexplicably, become calm, quiet, and begin speaking in a calm, oh-so-reasonable voice. It’s like flipping a switch. In the blink of an eye, they’ve gone from yelling and goading you for all their worth, to being the hurt, confused, innocent victim, with no idea why you’ve just exploded like a 4th of July fireworks show.
In an exceedingly calm, innocent voice, with eyes like saucers, they’ll say things like, “Wow. Why are you freaking out and yelling at me? I don’t understand.” Your jaw hits the floor in shock and awe. What?! “Well, you were just yelling at me!” you may sputter, completely blindsided by this sudden turn of events, maybe adding, “Okay, I shouldn’t have yelled at you, but you shouldn’t have yelled at me, either!”
“What are you talking about?” they quietly and innocently reply as they try they their hardest to appear genuinely mystified by your “bizarre” behavior. “I’m not yelling at all. I’m perfectly calm and rational. You’re the one who’s acting like a psycho,” knowing perfectly well that calling you a psycho or some other name that questions your sanity may set you off again, giving them even more ammunition to use against you. “I don’t understand why you act this way” and, “I try so hard to (fill in the blank), and yet, this is how you treat me,” are popular refrains as the violin wails sadly in the background.
And once things have calmed down, you may hear this one: “Even after all these years, I don’t understand you. I’ll never understand you…but I love you with all my heart and soul. I love you more than life itself.”
Cue the applause sign. A masterful display of performance art, isn’t it? Even if the PA started the fight and purposely threw gasoline on the flames, somehow in the end, you’re the evil abuser and they’re the longsuffering, innocent victim (not that allowing yourself to be goaded into an all-out war is perfectly okay. The key here is not to react the way they want you to). The constant head games can cause you to seriously question your own sanity.
They may sabotage your efforts or plans, or even the plans you make together (or thought you did). As Dr. Scott Wetzler, author of Living With the Passive-Aggressive Man points out, if he agreed to go with you to your family’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, but you know he didn’t want to, make sure you have your own transportation. He might go somewhere earlier in the day and fail to come home in time and you may have to drive yourself.
Or the two of you might have planned your dream vacation, but either his heart really wasn’t in it (and of course he didn’t admit it), or somewhere along the way, he changed his mind for whatever reason. But since he can’t stand confrontation, he doesn’t tell you. He simply sabotages the plans by whatever means possible: spending the money you’ve laboriously saved to pay for it, suddenly not being able to get the time off work, or even pretending to be sick. Whatever it takes.
They may say yes to a request, but mean no. So they put it off. They may do this only at work or with others, or they may be happy to do things for others and have a great work ethic, and use their procrastination and stalling techniques only at home with you. This can cause you much hurt and angst, as you wonder why in the world you’re the one taking a backseat to everyone else.
You begin to wonder if it’s you — was it something you said, something you did wrong? Eventually, you might even begin to wonder if perhaps you’re just a horrible person who doesn’t deserve anything special or even any help with anything. The ensuing mind games may even make you start to question your own sanity.
When you ask if something’s been done, they “forgot.” This is often coupled with the Blame Game. “You didn’t remind me.” “You should have reminded me.” “You didn’t get me the stuff I need to do it” (you didn’t know you were supposed to be getting “stuff”). “Remind me next week and I’ll do it then.”
When next week rolls around and you do so, you are immediately accused of being a nag. And because you’re such an annoying nag, things don’t get done, a la “Don’t you know by now that when you nag me, it makes me not want to do anything at all?” If your answer is that you were merely doing what was asked of you by giving a reminder, they may deny ever having requested that you remind them, a manipulative technique called “gaslighting”. On that note, let’s take a look at gaslighting.
What Is Gaslighting?
Gaslighting takes its name from a 1938 British play called Gaslight, where over time, an evil man works to convince his wife that she is crazy, by dimming the gaslights in their house. When she notices that the lights have dimmed, he tells her she is imagining things, and that they are as bright as ever. The play was made into an American film in 1944 starring Ingrid Bergman as the supposedly crazy wife, Paula, and Charles Boyer as her abusive husband, Gregory.
Passive-aggressives aren’t the only ones who practice gaslighting. It’s also a favorite tactic of narcissists and others with personality disorders. With some, it is purposeful and premeditated, as with the cold-blooded Gregory, while others mean no harm — they’re just trying to have things their own way.
A husband may tell his wife that on Saturday he’ll take her to that cute little town in the neighboring county that has all those cool old antique and vintage stores, and the two of them will spend a few hours poking around, followed by a nice lunch before coming home. But when Saturday comes, he has other plans. When she reminds him of his promise, he denies ever having said anything of the sort.
A wife might tell her husband that she’ll go with him to that movie he’s been wanting to see, but then be too busy to go. When reminded that she said she’d go, she might claim that she never actually promised, but that she said she “might” be available…but alas, as it turns out, she’s not. So sorry. When he protests that she specifically said she would, she denies it and implies that his memory is slipping.
At best, gaslighting and the other manipulative tactics the narcissists and passive-aggressives use leave those affected by them confused, hurt, and angry. At worst, the results may be disastrous.
We’re All Guilty — to Some Extent
It’s true. We’ve all done things like these on occasion, myself included. When my husband has forgotten to fill the ice-cube trays, I’ve “forgotten” to fill them in retaliation. There have been times when I refused to cook dinner because I was mad at him.
And I laugh as I remember the story told to me by the children of a hilarious little old lady, who emtied the salt and pepper shakers onto the table in a restaurant because, while the lady had stepped away from the table, the server came and took away her plate before she was finished. So, she poured the salt and pepper out into neat little piles and further sabatoged the table (I don’t recall what else she did), while muttering, “She thinks she can just come and take away my plate? I’ll show her.”
And then there are my grandmothers, who, in separate fits of exasperation, turned in their driver’s licenses and refused to drive again — ever — because my grandpas were both horrible backseat drivers.
We’ve all had times where we’ve acted the narcissist, thinking only of Me, Myself, and I; acted boastfully, and been hypersensitive about any perceived criticism. These things are sure things, because we’re imperfect human beings. Not that being imperfect makes it okay to act childishly, even if everyone looks back on these things and laughs. But, at least annoying things like this, done only on occasion, aren’t dangerous or abusive, any more than someone being a tad crabby from pain or lack of sleep is dangerous or abusive.
But when narcissistic or passive-aggressive behaviors are a pattern, especially a pattern that interferes with and damages relationships, then it’s likely you’re dealing with a bona fide personality disorder. And if said behaviors are left unchallenged and unchecked, these relationships inevitably become abusive; some even dangerously so.
This doesn’t mean that if you realize you’re in a relationship with a narcissist or passive-aggressive that you should immediately confront the person! Accusations and ultimatums such as, “I know you’re a narcissist/passive-aggressive and you’d better knock it off or I’ll _________________!” don’t work. There are much better, more effective and peaceful ways to help the situation, which we’ll deal with in the next post, as well as take a quick look at another personality disorder and what you can do if you find yourself in any of these relationships.
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In the meantime, if you or someone you love is in an abusive relationship — even an emotionally abusive one — call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or the TTY line at 1-800-787-3224. There is also a chat feature available on their website. If you suspect you may be the victim of emotional abuse but aren’t sure, you can ask. Or you can go to their site and scroll down past the section titled, “Warning Signs of Domestic Abuse” (although it might be helpful to read it!), where you’ll find tabs labeled with five different types of domestic abuse, including emotional abuse.