Six subtle forms of abuse and what to do about them

The first step toward escaping an abusive relationship is to recognize that you’re in one.  The second is to realize that you deserve and can have better.  To that end, here are some characteristics, drawing on my own experience, that should help alert you to the possibility that you are being emotionally and verbally abused.

1) “Negging”

“Negging” has emerged as one among many despicable PUA techniques.  The aggressor, generally male, gives a left-handed compliment such as “You look pretty good for your size,” or “You’d be cute if you wore more makeup.”  But this technique isn’t limited to PUAs.  Abusive partners often continue to “neg” their victims throughout the relationship, as a means of keeping his or her confidence and self-esteem too low to consider deserving a better relationship.  An example is when my ex-husband told me, “Admit it, you’re not that great.  You know people don’t find you attractive, but you never do anything to make yourself attractive.  Like those beige granny bras you wear.”  Nor does this necessarily have to apply to physical qualities.  It could also take the form of “That’s an okay degree, but it’s not from as good a school as mine” or “You’d be more attractive if you weren’t such a nerd.”  As with many things abusers do, these comments are designed to 1) increase their control over every aspect of your life, including how you look; and 2) to make you feel so self-deprecating and unworthy that you will meekly accept this control.  A supportive partner encourages healthy body image and high self-esteem.  An abusive one consistently tears you down.

2) Guilt-tripping you when you assert yourself

When you calmly and reasonably ask for something you need or criticize your partner’s behavior, do they listen and take to heart what you say, even if they disagree?  Or do they immediately become angry and accuse you of being “controlling,” “manipulative” or “selfish?”  Or perhaps they react with instant self-pity– “You’re so unfair!  I can never do anything right!  I don’t know why you even stay with me!”– implicitly demanding that you switch from self-advocacy to playing mother hen and soothing their fragile ego.  Often, you feel like you have to apologize for being unhappy.  Now, there have been times when I’ve felt ashamed and even cried about problems my partner had with me, but I have always tried nonetheless to take responsibility for my actions, apologize, and express an intent to do better.  It’s reasonable to feel sad when you’ve inadvertently made someone you love unhappy.  It’s NOT reasonable to connivingly turn the tables so that all the focus is on what you feel and not at all on your partner’s concerns.

3) Establishing a complex set of rules that you can never quite live up to

“Don’t slurp your tea like that.”  “Don’t use so much toothpaste.”  “Don’t talk to that friend of yours.” “Call me at this time every day, no matter what.” “Don’t say ‘needs washed,’ you sound stupid.”  “Don’t drink Pepsi with your cheese and crackers, experts say that’s disgusting.”  And on and on.  An abuser wants an infinite amount of control over your life, so for every hoop you jump through trying to make them happy, ten more will instantly appear, and your performance will still, always, be considered insufficient.  There will be rules you are supposed to know about without them ever being spoken.  There will be rules about things that are no one’s business but your own.  So many rules that your existence will feel like a pit of quicksand in which the more you struggle to stay afloat, the stronger will be the force pulling you down and crushing you.  Your abuser may offer elaborate explanations for these rules, excusing their ridiculous nature with tails of trauma from childhood, bad memories of other relationships, and hypersensitivity.  There is nothing wrong with speaking up about something your partner does that seriously bugs you and asking them to change it, but you need to recognize boundaries of personal freedom and not set out hurdles according to your every whim just to trip up your victim and keep them in line.

4) Withdrawing affection and “privileges” to control you

I was once locked out of my own house for having a PAP smear done without my husband in attendance.  Another time, he wouldn’t visit me until I fell in line with his political philosophy.  Another partner refused to kiss me or hold my hand unless I cried and begged for forgiveness for all the mistakes I had, of course, made, in his estimation– often having to guess at what those mistakes were, because “If you have to ask, then I don’t want to tell you.”  These behaviors are simply unacceptable.  They are manipulative and cruel.  They are, again, designed to provide leverage for the abuser to control every aspect of your life.  If they can’t get what they want by demanding and guilt-tripping, they’ll take it by force.

5) Spreading horror stories about you to other people

This is bad enough when your partner decides to cuss you out to their own friends and family, telling only their side of the story, perhaps embellished with out-and-out lies, in order to shame you with public scorn.  It’s worse when they start doing the same with your family and friends, talking to them behind your back, sharing your confidential information and making you sound like the worst person in the world.  The purpose of this behavior is to isolate you, and to further lower your self-esteem by making it seem as though the whole world shares your abuser’s low opinion of you, so that you will believe you have no one to turn to and should be thankful your abuser stays with you at all.  Isolation and low self-esteem are meant to make you desperate enough to cling to your abuser through thick and thin– mostly thin and thinner.

6) Getting out-of-control angry during disagreements

A discussion can get pretty heated and emotional without turning abusive.  But when swearing and name-calling starts (“You bitch!”  “You stupid cunt!”  “Fuck you!”) a line has been crossed.  So, too, if your partner displays ANY signs or threats of physical violence, whether it’s toward you, another person, an animal, themselves, or even an inanimate object.  It is NOT YOUR FAULT that an abuser gets enraged.  It is due to their own fucked up psychology that prevents them from being rational and empathetic.  Even if you really were the lousy partner they make you out to be, there is simply no excuse for verbal or physical violence.  If they are that desperately unhappy, the thing for them to do is not to hurt you, but to simply walk out the door and maybe never come back.  Which is exactly what you should do if anyone ever treats you this way.

If one or more of these red flags applies to your relationship, here is what you should do:

1) Run.

2) Run fast.

3) Run far.

4) Don’t look back.

5) Lock the door behind you.

That’s really all there is to it.  I’ve never seen an abuser change their stripes and make good on their apologies and promises.  You don’t need to take a chance on whether they will hurt you the same way again, or even worse.  If you still care about them, then wish them the best as you run.  The hell.  Away.

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