There have been many times in the past when I’ve run into someone at work who could twist my words to suit his own purpose. If I’d challenged him in some way, he would launch a subtle verbal assault that built gradually to convince me he’d been the victim and I’d been the one who had caused the problem.
The turnaround could be so skillful and bizarre that I’d often be at a loss, feeling confused and frustrated as to how to respond. He’d have a keen sense of where I was vulnerable – the shame of being me that came with depression. Incapable of accepting any responsibility, he would stay on the attack until my inner doubt about my own worth and judgment left me completely unsure of myself. I’d probably end this by agreeing that the situation was more complicated than I’d thought.
Then I’d turn away feeling as twisted as his words, aware that everything I knew to be true had been reversed to put me on the defensive. In disgust, I’d berate myself for not having been able to dismantle his phony logic on the spot. How could I have been so readily disarmed? I’d wind up feeling bad while he’d walk off with another notch in his belt.
I had been dealing with a master manipulator who could never be wrong. Instinctively, I knew this person would never change, and rather than repeat this crazy-making experience, I’d usually decide to stay clear of him as much as possible.
That’s just a hint of the damage a psychological and emotional abuser can inflict. In most of my work settings, I’ve been independent enough to limit encounters like that one. But many people live through each day with an inescapable, dominating abuser, either on the job, in the family as a child or in an intimate relationship as an adult. For them, there’s no getting away, and the damage to their core identity can be permanent.
These are the stories presented in agonizing detail by Marie-France Hirigoyen in Stalking the Soul. I felt sick reading many of them because of the success of the abuser in reducing his victim to a state of helplessness. There are no happy endings for the abused women – and women form the vast majority of these victims – no plot reversal as a movie might demand that brings on the defeat of the bad guy.
At best, the woman might get away to face a long period of recovery from deep depression and loss of an independent identity. A small number of men finally recognize that the abusive life they’re leading is not only destructive but also conceals their own fear and shame. They seek treatment on their own. Others are forced into it by a court order or employer. The great majority, however, remain unreachable and move from one victim to another.
A second powerful book about abusive and controlling men is Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That?. It’s more comprehensive and thoroughly researched than Hirigoyen’s work, but I found it a bit less powerful than the narrative approach of Stalking the Soul. Both, however, are must-reads on psychological and emotional abuse.
Each book analyzes in detail the steps by which an abusive man builds power over a vulnerable woman and finally renders her so helpless she doesn’t know to resist. Her own identity is so compromised that she becomes dependent on the abuser. As Hirigoyen says, she becomes complicit in her own oppression. Both writers, however, are emphatic that the victim is not voluntarily complying – she’s lost a will of her own. There is no shared responsibility for the abuse.
Many employees, unable or afraid to change jobs, face wide-ranging forms of abuse from superiors who try to undermine them completely. They either have to quit in desperation or get fired when accused of causing problems they can’t defend against. Often the manager has been able to turn the rest of the office against her. There’s nowhere to turn for sympathy or help.
There’s also little or no way out of a marriage or life partnership with an emotional abuser. A women meets a charming, even dazzling partner, falls in love, enjoys a blissful time and feels emotionally complete through this intimate bond. But then everything starts to go bad. Minor insults delivered with a laugh, sarcastic comments about everything she says – just enough edge to make her wonder what he means and whether or not she’s meeting his needs.
Things build from there to such acts as withholding intimacy because of something she’s done, blaming her for causing a series of problems, complaining about unreasonable behavior to their children, her family and friends. She’s not sure what’s happening and doubts herself, becoming more dependent on her partner. By then she’s so confused that she loses the ability to act independently or to think clearly in his presence. In trying to resist, she gets angry and appears unreasonable to the people she looks to for help. The angrier she gets, the easier it is for her partner to point out coolly how impossibly demanding and irrational she’s become. He complains to everyone that he’s constantly victimized by her outbursts. The woman finds herself completely trapped.
Hirigoyen sees an urgent need for better understanding of this dynamic among therapists. By applying their customary techniques, they can worsen the situation. Family therapists, for example, tend to assume that problems are a shared creation of the members of the family system. One person may play out the role of trouble-maker, but the others depend on this to avoid looking at their own issues. It’s the interaction and behavior of them all that needs to change. For Hirigoyen, that approach only gives credence to the complaints of an abusive man and offers little relief from his aggression.
Therapists offering individual treatment may pay too little attention to the current dynamic of abuser and abused. They push the discussion entirely into the woman’s past to find the source of the problems she sees in her present life. Both types of therapy only add to the woman’s confusion, as these authority figures seem to support the abusive partner by assuming she’s partly responsible. It takes special awareness and training for therapists to respond helpfully in these cases.
This is one of the most painful problems to look at closely. But the more I understand the impact of abuse of all types – emotional, physical, sexual – and other forms of traumatic experience (whether or not they’re recognized by the The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), the more I learn about the relationship to depression and a multitude of other problems. A damaged sense of self and an inner belief that we’re fundamentally wrong or bad create a terrible vulnerability – often stemming from neglect and overt abuse as children. When someone else not only agrees with that belief but does everything they can to exploit it, we can feel our grip on reality slipping completely away.
If it’s possible for you to do so, I hope you can share some of your insights about emotional and psychological abuse. I know how hard that can be, but whatever you can offer will be helpful to other readers.