Behind a cut for emotional abuse.
This is a follow-up question to letter 1141. I’m not that letter-writer, but I’m in a very similar situation. My husband has become emotionally abusive and extremely controlling, we have young children together, and I do not have much of a support network. I’m working with a good therapist to fix things: crafting an ultimatum to my husband, getting my ducks in a row to divorce if that fails, and working on building up some support for myself.
For the support part of it, my first step is going to be to tell my mother about what’s going on. She’s not local but she does live within driving distance, and we have a positive relationship. However, I have absolutely no idea what to say or how to broach this subject.
- Things that are making me feel stuck:
I’ve been pretending everything is fine for a few years now (I didn’t even realize until therapy how much I was hiding things to try and appear normal). So, she has no clue.
- Also, my husband has been a part of our family for a long time, so she knows him and likes him (and I used to like him too – things weren’t always the way they are now).
- The abuse is not easy or quick to explain. He doesn’t abuse me physically. It’s weird things like…I’m required to ask permission to use the car (and not as a formality, I get turned down). If he tells me he doesn’t like an outfit, he expects I won’t wear it again. He is super messy, but I’m not permitted to touch any of his mess even to keep the house at a baseline level of clean. Related to that, he doesn’t let me have people over because the house is messy … and so on and so forth, there are a LOT of rules. The whole thing is just … weird and horrible and humiliating. It’s been REALLY hard to even talk to my therapist about it, honestly. (Overall, I’m not sure how to balance wanting a support system with desperately not wanting anyone to know about this).
- Talking about problems – even more normal ones – is not really a thing that is done in my family. My mom and I phone weekly and also email a few times a week, but it’s silly lighthearted stuff: how my kids are doing, recipes we liked, anecdotes from work, etc. I don’t know how one even broaches the topic of a serious, sad, shitty thing like possible marriage-ending levels of abuse.
- I’m scared that if I screw this up, and say it wrong or describe it wrong or use the wrong tone or something, she won’t actually be supportive. Like, she’ll think it’s all been my fault, or that it doesn’t really sound that bad or divorce-threat-worthy, or…I don’t know. Like I said, I’ve stupidly let myself get to a place in life where I don’t have a ton of support-system-people, so it’s pretty paralyzing to think about this possibility.
I guess that covers it. I’m not trying to rehash letter 1141 too much – your response was great. So my TL;DR is: Can you please give me some scripts of what to say and do when talking about my own emotional abuse with people who I hope will be supportive?
Thank you so much.
I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this, but I’m glad you are starting to reach out for support and build a path out.
There are two tasks here and they aren’t necessarily the same task and it might help to separate them.
1) Getting support from your mom b/c you are unhappy in your marriage.
2) Convincing your mom & other potential supporting people that what is happening is abuse.
Maybe right now you focus on the first one. Maybe the other part isn’t quite safe until you are free. That’s not fair, and it doesn’t make what you’re dealing with Not Abuse, but maybe reframing it can help you have some of the conversations you need.
When it’s “just” “emotional abuse” and it’s expressed as this weird list of rules and controlling behaviors, people who don’t have experience with that stuff don’t necessarily define it that way. It’s part of what’s maddening about it, like, you try to describe it to other people and your story comes out of your mouth like “He makes messes and won’t let me clean them” and “If he doesn’t like an outfit I feel like I’m not allowed to wear it” and it’s immediately “I KNOW, I KNOW IT’S SO FUCKING WEIRD, I ALSO DO NOT UNDERSTAND WHY ANYONE WOULD BEHAVE THIS WAY, BUT IT IS HAPPENING, AND I AM GETTING THE FUCK OUT, SO HELP ME PLEASE.” You’re the hysterical person in the horror movie trying to explain that no, really, vengeful ghosts are opening all the kitchen cabinets at night and your kid really is talking to her new Imaginary Fun Mirror Friend Who Loves Death who definitely is starting to answer back, and everyone is looking at you like you are crazy when you are telling the truth and…
…until people/you believe in the truth/the monster/the ghosts/the abuse…
…nobody is safe…
…And what happens in horror movies is that the people who tend to survive them get to the point where they’re like “Idc if you believe me, I am getting an old priest & a young priest/a real estate agent/a moving van/a giant fucking chainsaw and I am GETTING OUT OF HERE.”
This is where you are, Letter Writer. You gotta go, even if nobody comes with you. So you might do better (for now) naming it as abuse to yourself and your therapist and maybe your lawyer and friends who get it, but finding other ways to describe it when you talk to other people. This is unfair, but it is also survival.
Someone recently asked me something that I will probably tackle at length that boiled down to: In these sketchy situations like #1141/687/547, where there is no physical abuse and not necessarily screaming or things that easily check off the boxes on emotional abuse checklists, how do I know it’s toxic?
I’m still thinking about it (I’ll stay thinking about it) but the stuff that jumps out when I read a bunch of these letters in a sequence all together is this:
1) The Letter Writer is very unhappy in the relationship.
2) The Partner is convinced that they (he, in these specific cases) are An Authority on How Things Should Be: What is the proper amount & type of exercise (hint: It’s NEVER the one that LW #687 is actually doing), whether & when broken glass should be cleaned up from the floor (Thanks forever, #547), ethics around STI testing and disclosure (also #547, that dude is a GEM), the proper distance to maintain in art galleries and on sidewalks, and oh hell, let’s throw in “how long it takes to get places,” and “how much water goes in a teakettle” and then today we add “whether a fellow adult is allowed to use the car,” “what outfits can & can’t be worn” and “what things (mess) & people (none) are allowed to be in the house.
LOOK AT THAT LIST IT’S A FUCKING RIDICULOUS LIST.
Like, the Partners are claiming to be the boss of how their fellow adults navigate clothing, food, exercise, water, friendship, and the motherfucking space-time continuum. They are just that sure that they are right about everything.
3) And if you, the lovely Letter Writer(s) say: “Listen, you don’t have to like this sweater, but I’m still wearing it on my body” or “I need the car today” or “This is how much water it takes to wash dishes, which you’d know if you ever tried it sometime” it’s treated like a request or a negotiation. Like, over time, y’all feel like you’re “not allowed” to disagree, or there will be Consequences. Maybe not hitting consequences (at least not so far), but, sulking consequences. Yelling consequences. Silent treatment consequences. Another four-hour discussion that has to happen right now, even though you are already late for the thing you needed the car for or even when you’re exhausted and you have to be up early in the morning to do something important. Ruining an evening out – going home, making a big scene, embarrassing you in front of friends or family. A long recitation of his feelings and psychological wounds that ends with you apologizing and comforting him. Not doing something he promised consequences, like, he said he would watch the kids so you could go to your art class but now he’s just not sure he can. He finds a way to create enough friction around you doing what you want & need to do that it starts to get easier to just go along with whatever he wants.
There are consequences even when whatever it is is totally low-stakes and doesn’t really affect the partner at all. Like, no one will be hurt if you wear what you want on your own body, but it’s worth it to him to hurt your feelings about it.
4) And when you, lovely Letter Writer(s), take reasonable steps to deal with the conflicts, like, going to couple’s counseling or suggesting taking separate cars to events, you’re ignored (or straight up overruled). But the conflicts don’t go away. You’re never allowed to just say “Um, I’m not doing that” and consider the discussion closed. The discussion is closed only when he says it is (and when it’s decided his way).
5) It’s almost like the conflicts – excuses to have & create constant conflict – are happening on purpose. Probably the biggest takeaways from Lundy Bancroft’s seminal book about men who abuse women is that abuse is just not that deep. It’s basically a giant sense of entitlement. These people just think they deserve to be catered to in all things, they should never be inconvenienced, they should have the full attention & compliance of people in their lives, their feelings are the most important feelings, and when their desires and needs come into conflict with the needs of the other people in their relationships, they think their needs should always, always come first, and they will take steps to enforce that hierarchy even if it means violence or fucking with their partner’s self-esteem and sense of reality. Also, men who abuse women are universally misogynists (even, if in the case of “Mr. Sensitive”, they talk the talk of being feminists). On some basic level they just think that women exist to take care of them and that we count less than they do in the world.
These abusers take many forms. Sometimes they show up as Mr. Right:
(Note: Bancroft uses male identifiers throughout, because his research was based on studying men. Anybody can act like the people in these descriptions, so if you recognize somebody in your life but the genders don’t match up, it probably still applies.)
“Mr. Right considers himself the ultimate authority on every subject under the sun; you might call him Mr. Always Right. He speaks with absolute certainty, brushing your opinions aside like annoying gnats. He seems to see the world as a huge classroom, in which he is the teacher and you are his student. He finds little of value in your thoughts or insights, so he seeks to empty out your head and fill it up with his jewels of brilliance. When Mr. Right sits in one of my groups for abusive, men, he often speaks of his partner as if she were in danger from her own idiocy and he needs to save her from herself. Mr. Right has difficulty speaking to his partner—or about her—without a ring of condescension in his voice. And in a conflict his arrogance gets even worse.
Mr. Right’s superiority is a convenient way for him to get what he wants. When he and his partner are arguing about their conflicting desires, he turns it into a clash between Right and Wrong or between Intelligence and Stupidity. He ridicules and discredits her perspective so that he can escape dealing with it.”
…When Mr. Right decides to take control of a conversation, he switches into his Voice of Truth, giving the definitive pronouncement on what is the correct answer or the proper outlook. Abuse counselors call this tactic defining reality. Over time, his tone of authority can cause his partner to doubt her own judgment and come to see herself as not very bright. I notice how often I am speaking with the intelligent-sounding partner of one of my clients, only to have her say to me: I’m not that smart. The abuser wants her to doubt her mental abilities in this way, so that he can control her better.
Besides knowing all about the world, Mr. Right is also an expert on your life and how you should live it. He has the answers to your conflicts at work, how you should spend your time, and how you should raise your children. He is especially knowledgeable about your faults, and he likes to inventory what is wrong with you, as if tearing you down were the way to improve you. He may seem to enjoy periodically straightening you out in front of other people to humiliate you, thereby establishing his unquestionable intellectual superiority. When Mr. Right’s partner refuses to defer to his sophisticated knowledge, he is likely to escalate to insulting her, calling her names, or mocking her with imitation. If he’s still not satisfied that he has brought her down low enough, he may reach for bigger guns, such as ruining evening plans, leaving places without her, or saying bad things about her to other people. If he is physically assaultive, then this is the time he may throw things, raise fists, or attack violently. In short, Mr. Right finds some way to ensure that his partner regrets her insistence on having her own mind.” – Source, Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That?
And sometimes they show up as Mr. Sensitive:
Mr. Sensitive appears to be the diametric opposite of the Drill Sergeant. He is soft-spoken, gentle, and supportive—when he isn’t being abusive. He loves the language of feelings, openly sharing his insecurities, his fears, and his emotional injuries. He hugs other men. He may speak out about the absurdity of war or the need for men to get in touch with their feminine side. Perhaps he attends a men’s group or goes on men’s retreats. Often he has participated extensively in therapy or twelve-step programs, or reads all the big self-help books, so he speaks the language of popular psychology and introspection. His vocabulary is sprinkled with jargon like developing closeness, working out our issues, and facing up to hard things about myself. He presents himself to women as an ally in the struggle against sex-role limitations. To some women, he seems like a dream come true.
So what’s wrong with this picture? Nothing obvious yet. But this is exactly the problem: Mr. Sensitive wraps himself in one of the most persuasive covers a man can have. If you start to feel chronically mistreated by him, you are likely to assume that something is wrong with you, and if you complain about him to other people, they may think you must be spoiled: You have the New Age man, what more do you want?
The following dynamics are typical of a relationship with Mr. Sensitive and may help explain your feeling that something has gone awry:
1. You seem to be hurting his feelings constantly, though you aren’t sure why, and he expects your attention to be focused endlessly on his emotional injuries. If you are in a bad mood one day and say something unfair or insensitive, it won’t be enough for you to give him a sincere apology and accept responsibility. He’ll go on and on about it, expecting you to grovel as if you had treated him with profound cruelty. (Notice the twist here: This is just what an abuser accuses his partner of doing to him, when all she is really looking for is a heartfelt I’m sorry.)
2. When your feelings are hurt, on the other hand, he will insist on brushing over it quickly. He may give you a stream of pop-psychology language (Just let the feelings go through you, don’t hold on to them so much, or It’s all in the attitude you take toward life, or No one can hurt you unless you let them) to substitute for genuine support for your feelings, especially if you are upset about something he did. None of these philosophies applies when you upset him, however.
3. With the passing of time, he increasingly casts the blame on to you for anything he is dissatisfied with in his own life; your burden of guilt keeps growing.
4. He starts to exhibit a mean side that no one else ever sees and may even become threatening or intimidating.
Mr. Sensitive has the potential to turn physically frightening, as any style of abuser can, no matter how much he may preach nonviolence. After an aggressive incident, he will speak of his actions as anger rather than as abuse, as though there were no difference between the two. He blames his assaultive behavior on you or on his emotional issues, saying that his feelings were so deeply wounded that he had no other choice.
Many people reject the possibility that Mr. Sensitive could be an abuser…
…This gentle man style of abuser tends to be highly self-centered and demanding of emotional catering. He may not be the man who has a fit because dinner is late but rather erupts because of some way his partner failed to sacrifice her own needs or interests to keep him content. He plays up how fragile he is to divert attention from the swath of destruction he leaves behind him.
The central attitudes driving Mr. Sensitive are:
• I’m against the macho men, so I couldn’t be abusive.
• As long as I use a lot of psychobabble, no one is going to believe that I am mistreating you.
• I can control you by analyzing how your mind and emotions work, and what your issues are from childhood.
• I can get inside your head whether you want me there or not.
• Nothing in the world is more important than my feelings.
• Women should be grateful to me for not being like those other men.” – Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That?
Or check out The Water Torturer over here (he sucks real bad):
“The Water Torturer’s style proves that anger doesn’t cause abuse. He can assault his partner psychologically without even raising his voice. He tends to stay calm in arguments, using his own evenness as a weapon to push her over the edge. He often has a superior or contemptuous grin on his face, smug and self-assured. He uses a repertoire of aggressive conversational tactics at low volume, including sarcasm, derision—such as openly laughing at her—mimicking her voice, and cruel, cutting remarks. Like Mr. Right, he tends to take things she has said and twist them beyond recognition to make her appear absurd, perhaps especially in front of other people. He gets to his partner through a slow but steady stream of low-level emotional assaults, and perhaps occasional shoves or other minor acts of violence that don’t generally cause visible injury but may do great psychological harm. He is relentless in his quiet derision and meanness.
The impact on a woman of all these subtle tactics is that either her blood temperature rises to a boil or she feels stupid and inferior, or some combination of the two. In an argument, she may end up yelling in frustration, leaving the room crying, or sinking into silence. The Water Torturer then says, See, you’re the abusive one, not me. You’re the one who’s yelling and refusing to talk things out rationally. I wasn’t even raising my voice. It’s impossible to reason with you.
The psychological effects of living with the Water Torturer can be severe. His tactics can be difficult to identify, so they sink in deeply. Women can find it difficult not to blame themselves for their reactions to what their partner does if they don’t even know what to call it. When someone slaps you in the face, you know you’ve been slapped. But when a woman feels psychologically assaulted, with little idea why, after an argument with The Water Torturer, she may turn her frustration inward. How do you seek support from a friend, for example, when you don’t know how to describe what is going wrong?
The Water Torturer tends to genuinely believe that there is nothing unusual about his behavior. When his partner starts to confront him with his abusiveness—which she usually does sooner or later—he looks at her as if she were crazy and says, What the hell are you talking about? I’ve never done anything to you. Friends and relatives who have witnessed the couple’s interactions may back him up. They shake their heads and say to each other, I don’t know what goes on with her. She just explodes at him sometimes, and he’s so low-key. Their children can develop the impression that Mom blows up over nothing. She herself may start to wonder if there is something psychologically wrong with her.
The Water Torturer is payback-oriented like most abusive men, but he may hide it better. If he is physically abusive, his violence may take the form of cold-hearted slaps for your own good or to get you to wake up rather than explosive rage. His moves appear carefully thought out, and he rarely makes obvious mistakes—such as letting his abusiveness show in public—that could turn other people against him or get him in legal trouble.
If you are involved with a Water Torturer, you may struggle for years trying to figure out what is happening. You may feel that you overreact to his behavior and that he isn’t really so bad. But the effects of his control and contempt have crept up on you over the years. If you finally leave him, you may experience intense periods of delayed rage, as you become conscious of how quietly but deathly oppressive he was.” – Source, Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That?
There are more in the book. ‘Cause, of course, there are more. But these three are the ones I meet over and over in the letters I get, and the story is all the same story: They feel entitled, so they belittle and manipulate and control and you end up questioning your sanity and worth as a person (but they never do)(unless it’s to manipulate you).
Which leads me to 6) One way I smell abuse or at least a very toxic situation is when the Letter Writer(s), have tried all reasonable-person sorts of things like talking it over and speaking up and suggesting reasonable normal fixes to the problems, and it’s not working, even though their Partner is the World’s Most Rational Being, so they start to wonder if they themselves are the problem. They write to me wondering if there isn’t some secret sub-basement of emotional labor they could do to fix their partners and the relationship. The “Is it me?” thing. The “did I just not give them enough chances?” or “I know I’m not perfect” or “Maybe my ability to people is just broken?” thing. The “am I allowed to leave this person?” question.
Which, if you want to picture me reading emails in my office, this is the part that always makes me start yelling at the computer screen. These motherfuckers have rules-lawyered you into questioning your own reality and it makes me so very angry on your behalf.
Because: You don’t have to be perfect in order to want kindness and consideration from your romantic partners! You also don’t have to tell the story perfectly or be able to define what’s happening perfectly or convince everybody of what Abuse is to deserve support from people who love you! You’re allowed to just want your relationship to be relaxing and happy and not a giant source of stress in your life!
Edited to Add: Lots of people want to try to diagnose these people further, but in the end “why he’s doing it” isn’t as important as the fact that it’s making you unhappy. If this pattern exists, where you’re being mistreated and overruled and talked down to, and you feel trapped and miserable, you’re isolated from friends & family & possible support networks, you’re ashamed of what’s happening and feel like it’s your fault sometimes, if you feel like you’re not allowed to break this person’s dumb rules or yell back or be happy & comfortable in your own house or life, if you’re not really “allowed” to say no or have your own preferences or boundaries, if you had to describe your relationship and all the words that come to mind involve eggshells or quicksand, his mindset/mental health history/emotions/reasons/history of attachment issues/possible narcissism don’t really matter to me except in that I have no expectation that he will ever get it or change or try harder (except the exact amount necessary to keep you around to abuse more). I have no scripts for talking to him or fixing it or convincing him. You are a smart and good person and you already tried all the reasonable and kind and loving shit and here you still are not allowed to [drive your own car][wear certain clothes][snap photos of cool stickers on the street][walk next to another person][make tea][chop vegetables in the way that suits you][have friends] and it doesn’t really matter why he does it (though he would really love it if you spent a bunch more years trying to suss it out), it just matters that you know that you deserve freedom and safety and kindness. Just think of me as the sidekick in the horror movie who, when the weird shit starts happening, is like “I’m not sure if that’s demon possession or a poltergeist, but when do we do the exorcism/flee for our lives?” because I BELIEVE YOU and IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT.
So, back to you, specific Letter Writer, when you think about talking to your mom. What if you didn’t use the A-word right now, but you described a) your feelings b) your actions & decisions c) what you need and d) (if necessary) his specific behaviors. Like:
- I feel really unhappy with him.
- I feel really down and depressed when I’m with him.
- I feel like I can’t breathe in my house.
- He has a lot of rules for how I dress, when I can use the car, when I can have people over, I feel very constricted by this, I don’t think adults should have rules like that about each other.
- He keeps the house very messy and fights with me when I try to clean it. It’s very stressful to me to have a gross, messy house.
- He yells at me and I feel like I’m not allowed to every yell back.
- Yes, that is very strange behavior, I know. I don’t have an explanation as to why he does any of that.
- He makes it hard for me to have friends. I feel isolated when I’m with him.
- I think I would be happier without him.
- I am unhappy enough that I am considering divorce.
- I am not looking for advice on fixing the marriage, I think it’s unfixable and my best shot is to leave.
- I think I’ve tried everything I can safely do and it’s time for me to go.
- I’ve been pretending everything was fine for a long time in the hopes that one day I would wake up and it would be fine. But I don’t think it will be, so I gotta go.
- If/when I divorce, I need [specific help] with childcare/housing/money.
- I know you love him, and I love him too, and it’s scary to think about things changing, but I believe I will be happier when we aren’t married anymore.
- I never told you how unhappy I was because it felt disloyal – I wanted us to work it out if we possibly could. I don’t think that’s possible anymore.
- Yes I think it will be very hard to be a single parent, so, imagine how much harder I think it would be to stay in that situation.
- I don’t think we are capable of modeling healthy relationships for the kids anymore.
- I don’t need you to agree with or understand my choice but I do need you to [keep our conversations confidential][have my back][help out with childcare], and if you can’t or won’t help, I need you to tell me now.
As a blogger, as a community facilitator, I am very interested in naming abuse when I see it so that other people can name it when they need to. But you can use other words if you need to. You are the expert on your own life, your own needs, your mom (& whether she can be trusted), your own story (& how much & when to tell it & who gets to hear it). You. Only you. “I am just really unhappy in my marriage and I think this is the right decision for me” is a good enough reason to leave, you don’t have to give more reasons than that if you think you are talking to someone unreasonable or someone who won’t get it. The world is not your shitty husband, you don’t have to make an airtight case to drive its car, even though the world can break your heart with how many people will make excuses for or minimize the things he does or try to tell you that it’s not really ABUSE-abuse if you don’t have to go to the emergency room.
Wishing you a future of riding in your own car when you want to with your music on the radio wearing clothes that you like on your way home to your nice clean house that you fill with friends and laughter and love and only people who are kind to you. I hope your mom can be one of those people. ❤ & courage.