name of art: "The Black Hole of Abuse"
image is © Lise Winne
india ink, watercolor and graphics, 2015
(for questions regarding use of images or to contract an image for your next article
contact: LilacGroveGraphics (att) yahoo.com)
Am I in danger?
If you feel you are in danger, you probably are in danger. It is important to get to a domestic violence center or shelter right away. Make every effort to keep your abuser from knowing where you are going. From there the center can help you get the help you need in the way of counseling, shelter, child care, financial assistance, legal assistance and advice. It's the first step to turning your life around.
How do I know I am in danger?
Victims can be very bad at assessing how dangerous their situation is because many of them develop some form of Stockholm Syndrome (link here and here) and they can normalize abuse in their minds. Normalizing abuse means victims taking responsibility for how their abusers treat them and make them feel.
Some people do not realize that the subtler forms of abuse are indeed, abuse. Here are a few of them:
gaslighting: does your partner say "I would never do that!" "I would never say that!" "You're crazy!" consistently during or after heated debates, or an argument, or after discussing an uncomfortable subject? This is a subtle form of gaslighting that usually gets worse over time.
financial abuse: rewarding you when your abuser thinks you are good and withdrawing money or punishing you by not letting you have access to money when your abuser thinks you are bad. This tactic is only for little children. Even then, it can have some adverse effects as sibling rivalry and chronic sibling abuse can be the by-products of rewards and punishments that go with consistent and enforced over-compliance of children. If an adult is doing this to another adult in a close personal relationship, make no question about it: it is abuse.
the silent treatment: The silent treatment is always emotionally abusive, especially in close personal relationships if it follows a heated argument, a debate, or after discussing an uncomfortable subject, or when someone threatens punishment. The other person gets angry and then refuses to talk to you, shutting you out when you want to resolve it, when you attempt to discuss it further, when you rationalize and reason with the person, when you apologize or tell them you did not mean to hurt them, or when attempts to find a time and place to discuss the topic that brought on the silent treatment are rebuffed.
On average, most silent treatments last from 24 hours to two days (for people who are not personality-disordered).
For those who do have personality disorders, read on:
Borderlines vacillate wildly between thinking their loved ones are all saints or all evil, and when they feel their loved one is all bad, giving the silent treatment can be the end result, until the pendulum swings the other way yet again, depending on what their mood is (their moods and overwhelming emotions dictate how they feel about a person, and it rarely has to do with what their loved ones are doing or saying).
Narcissists use the silent treatment when they think they are being criticized. Like Borderlines, they are also very prone to black and white thinking about their loved ones, though they do it in a much more cold scheming way than Borderlines. Narcissistic silent treatments last, on average, for three months. The longer they last, or the more chronic they are, the more narcissistic and dangerous the abuser is (in general). Narcissists who use the silent treatment, use it in such a way as to control, threaten, intimidate, dominate and punish.
Antisocials (sociopaths) use the silent treatment in order to achieve what they want, but if they see it isn't working, they move onto another tactic they think will better achieve their goals. Unlike Narcissists who go to great lengths to impress people, sociopaths don't particularly care whether people like them and tend to be loners who spend an inordinate amount of time on their next move. While the silent treatment is used by them in the same way as narcissists, sociopaths are much more determined and persevering and spend time during the silent treatment planning and plotting elaborate schemes (whereas narcissists tend to stop thinking about their victims once their victims fight back; they move swiftly onto the next supply/victim). Narcissists do as much damage as they can get away with without committing a crime, whereas sociopaths don't care if they commit a crime or not so long as they achieve their goals. They do not feel remorse when they are caught torturing others or committing crimes. They tend to go after pets, children and weakened or needy adults. They have little to no connection with their past, whether family or friends.
In school anti-bullying seminars, children are taught that the silent treatment is 3 year old behavior, where if Suzy-Q doesn't get her way in the sandbox, and her friend isn't playing exactly as she wants, she gives that friend the silent treatment. In other words, the silent treatment is regarded as very immature behavior.
But be forewarned: the silent treatment in a close personal relationship is very, very abusive and destructive and you can get PTSD from it just as easily as most forms of physical violence and sexual abuse.
pushing and shoving: pushing and shoving can happen in a relationship with siblings, or between rivals at a school, or between a husband and wife. In the case of children, it is often thought to be normal childhood behavior, especially by the more unenlightened over 65 generation than the generations predominant today. It is not. Children who are being bullied and physically abused by a sibling can be removed from the home by Child Protective Services.
School bullies can also be removed from the school.
It is especially not acceptable behavior between adults. If someone came up to you on a street and starting pushing and shoving you, it would be illegal and you could have them arrested. Why should it be viewed any differently in the home?
If a husband, wife, parent or sibling is pushing and shoving you, know that it is abuse. Abusers who push and shove can escalate very fast into life-threatening forms of violence (this is especially true when abusers are under the influence of alcohol).
I discuss many other types of abuse here.
One reason victims normalize abuse is that they grow accustomed to excuses from their perpetrators: "I had a bad day and I was irritated at you for not doing ---", "Every time I ask you to do something, you can never do it right, so I had to treat you like that", "You didn't do the dishes, so I smashed up the kitchen", "I may have a bad temper, but it is the best I can do, and you are lucky to have me", "You always make my blood boil with your excuses, and I had to do that to you to get you to behave", "Anyone would do that to you", "You're nothing. If you were somebody, I'd treat you better", "I can't stand you. You deserve to be treated like this", "When I ask you to do something, I expect it to be done. If you don't do it, you'll pay, and that is all there is to it", "You are to blame for how I treat you", "If you are going to be a bitch, you'll get hurt", "You are to blame for everything! If you were blameless I wouldn't treat you like this", "How dare you challenge me!", "Stop with your complaining! You know you deserved to be hurt", "You're so much better than that to accuse me. If you didn't accuse me, then I wouldn't have found a need to hurt you", "If you stop complaining and criticizing me, then I won't hurt you any more. If you continue, you will pay, and pay dearly!", "Punch you!? It was just a little scratch!", "Give you the silent treatment? You could have broken it at any time if you just did what we demanded of you!", "That look on your face! You deserved to be punished! And we'd do it again", "How dare you cross me or question me!", "I deserve not to be criticized! If you continue to criticize what I do or say, you will pay, there will be serious consequences!", "If you don't do what I want, you are nothing to me!", "I have given you so much, and because of that I have a right to slip up every now and then. Everyone has a temper", "If you had shown more gratitude, you might have been entitled to better treatment, but because you didn't show enough gratitude, you don't deserve to be treated well", "If you had done what I expected of you, I wouldn't have taken off -- or stolen from you -- or hit you -- or given you the silent treatment", "You're afraid of him? You should be shaking hands with that guy! You should be grateful, because you're a big, fat loser that nobody in their right mind would want!", "If you leave me, you will pay and pay and pay for it for the rest of your life!"
This is how you get Stockholm Syndrome, from listening to all of this crap (which happens to be psychological abuse) -- and letting it work on your mind so that you believe it. Abusers love to isolate their victims and keep them from hearing other perspectives (they use threats to make their victims comply, or they try to convince their victims that they are disabled or crazy, thereby putting the seed in their victim's mind that they need the perpetrator to help them). If all that you hear all day is how inferior and crazy you are, you tend to believe it. This is brainwashing; abusers use it right from the get-go, even at the luring stage. You are being groomed not to question, not to investigate, not to see hypocrisy, not to challenge bad treatment and dishonesty, to think of yourself as undeserving of love, respect, autonomy, financial independence, equality, talent and having a voice in matters which effect you. What you are really being groomed for, underneath all of the excuses for abuse is ... slavery.
Your abuser doesn't want to share power with you, he wants you to be subservient, so he puts you down. If you show autonomy or try to get your abuser to be reasonable towards you, he rises to the occasion to exert more control and domination over you. Verbal and psychological abuse are the first ways he tries to keep you down, and if he can't get anywhere with that, escalates the abuse. The escalations include financial abuse, emotional abuse, slander, breaking property, trying to keep you isolated, physical abuse, stealing, rough unwanted sex, forcing you into situations which are either unwanted or dangerous.
In the end, you are having a relationship with a dictator, not an equal.
Abuse is about someone wanting power, control and domination over you and purposely hurting and bullying you to get it. Lack of discipline over their emotions, lack of anger management is just a by-product of it all (used to terrorize you). Most abusers manage their anger just fine when there are witnesses about.
Have I done the right thing?
If you have trouble feeling as though you've done the right thing in getting out of an abusive relationship, read this post on how one person solved all of the inevitable doubts and desires to go back for one last try.
The experience a lot of victims feel is that once they begin to grow in self-worth and self-respect, they outgrow feeling victimized, and their systems won't tolerate abuse anymore anyway. It takes awhile to get there, especially if you have PTSD as a result of being abused (PTSD is easier to get than you would think!). The quality of life can be so much better when you are not under the siege of abuse. Many therapists find that victims become particularly productive members of society! You may have become conditioned to work really really hard for minute hopeful glimmers of respect or love. Imagine when you put that energy into something healthy, reciprocal and worthwhile! No more being dominated! No more walking on eggshells! It's just you and your productivity!
How to get an abuser disinterested in you:
(note: Don't try this with someone who is violent, has damaged your personal property in a rage, has or is stalking you, or has threatened you in any way, even financially or emotionally -- in these cases it is imperative to get help from a domestic violence center)
If you want to get gradual distance from your abuser, and have them understand that having a relationship with you won't be fulfilling for them, you can practice the gray rock method by Donna Anderson. The premise is that psychopaths want and need excitement. They want something from you at all times. They are driven by incredible feelings of envy, jealousy, selfishness and revenge, and most of all they want what you want! They love to see you either worshiping them, or upset and groveling! They love to abuse you! If you pretend that you are insufferably boring, emotionless, colorless, blending into the background, they will leave you alone. It is a way of camouflaging your brilliance, your sparkly personality, your intense interests. You pretend to be under the weather, a weary, dreary gray person, like a boring gray rock in a pile with other gray rocks. It is a tactic many animals and birds use when there is a predator about.
Another tactic birds use when they are attacked by a cat, for instance, is to lie still and pretend to be dead. The cat may let go of his prey briefly while he plays with it, or to make sure it is truly dead. Often the bird looks very dead, with a wobbly head, half closed dazed eyes. When the cat realizes that the bird is no longer moving and that it can't be played with, and shows disappointment and distraction, this is often when the bird surprises, takes flight and escapes. Human beings sometimes use the same practice unconsciously when they are trying to escape their abusers. Appearing sick, withdrawn, unattractive and overly compliant before making an escape is not only good planning, it is preferable for safety reasons too.
There are a lot of forums on the web about how to handle predatory family members, for instance. It is generally agreed upon that predators who are out to dominate, hurt and damage you, are happy and disinterested in you when they think you are suffering. They are also prone to leave you alone when you have nothing, when you are at the lowest point of your life, reeling with unsuccessful ventures, sick or impoverished. They love to discard you when you are at your lowest point, or when they find you boring and stuck in a rut.
When you are flying high in your career, love life or social life, you might be very tempted to rub their noses in it, but many forum users warn against doing that. When your abuser sees you in the spotlight is often when they worry that you will outshine them. This is when they get into stalker mode. I have read many forums now, and it is obvious that if given a choice between being stalked (and sweet talked) over the silent treatment, most victims would rather get the silent treatment any day, hands down.
In operation-stalk, abusers and narcissists either try to interfere with your success through slander and sabotage, or they come at you with apologies, crocodile tears and feigned interest in helping you. They may even apologize profusely to you for all of the hurt they caused you in the past just to get inside your life to screw you all up again. This is far more dangerous than their keeping the silent treatment going indefinitely with you. Why? Because when you reject their overtures of luring and seduction, which they put a great deal of stock into, they look at it as extremely unflattering and provoking if you do not take the bait. They've painstakingly rehearsed for the job, gone over how it will work many times in their heads, they've planned every step. In their mind they are deserving of the highest form of adulation and reward. Flattery is everything to them, and they are flattery addicts (they punish when criticized, and reward for being flattered -- more about that in another post). Their charming-glomming-you're everything hook which they put so cleverly in your path is left hanging there in a big sea or expanse with no one around, it is just a hook dangling there, unwanted. How dare you not desire them! How dare you walk away from them when they are so special! How dare you make them think about how they abused you in the past when they have tried so hard to give you a too-little-too-late apology! So, punishing you for not taking their bait overwhelms their thoughts. Their resentments run to extreme levels in their minds, and very often they retaliate more than they ever have.
In fact, they want you to accept them with open arms and no questions asked. They want very badly to punish you for letting them go, for not groveling to their silent treatments, insults and emotional abuses, for not being seduced by their tears, pleading, apologizing, rehearsed schemes, and at some point they may make their ambitions to hurt you and destroy you a reality. If they can! Some of them want notoriety, even if it is of the bad kind or criminal kind. They will never let their resentments towards you go until they feel they have adequately damaged you again. Unless by a very slim chance, they wake up (I discuss why this is unlikely at the end of the post).
They get into your life ... only to take you down again, and again, giving you plenty of bad advice and gaslighting through all phases. The best thing you can do around abusers in terms of talking about your promotions and successes is to downplay them, and find something to complain about. Complaining is another form of camouflaging and wearing gray. A lot of scapegoats who grew up with an abusive parent do this unconsciously, as a way to reward the parent by appearing uninteresting and very low in stature, so that the parent doesn't escalate abuse (they tend to escalate when they think a scapegoat is rising up in station or his voice is being heard in some corner of the family). From reading forums, it is clear that most scapegoats find a way to escape their oppressive family environments by slipping away unnoticed, keeping contact only through phone calls and writing, steering conversations to subjects like cooking, crafts, travel, car repair, home decorating and nature, never getting into the hot topics, never telling a parent where they are moving to.
The point is to let an abuser think that you are no big deal so that they will continue to see you as someone beneath them, leave you alone, and go on their merry way.
Another analogy is that it is like owning a house in an unpretentious neighborhood, keeping the outside of your house looking like a dump, all in order not to draw attention to what you have inside. This is in order to keep your property taxes down. The reality is that some places with lower taxes are a palace inside! This is the kind of masking that works wonders around people who are out to hurt you too.
Abusers also generally hate therapy. If you suggest that the only way for your relationship to survive is to get healthy through a therapy process with a domestic abuse counselor, he will most likely refuse to go, and not be able to withstand it if he does go (more on this in the next segment). He will show you that he will go off with someone else rather than go to therapy, and if you cannot take any more abuse without him seeing a counselor, making an ultimatum about therapy may work to your benefit as long as the relationship hasn't entered the physical abuse stage.
Is there any way to save the relationship without me getting abused again? Can't they just change?
I have discussed some of this topic in this post.
There are several huge challenges abusers have to overcome and many abusers are simply are not up to the task, and would rather just run to the next stop-gap person they have trained their minds to idealize rather than face difficult issues and problems.
lack of empathy or no empathy at all: Most abusers have very little empathy. Their empathy may be hidden in the far depths of their brain from when they were abused as children, or empathy may be totally lacking in their brain chemistry, or it may be hidden because they cannot believe or refuse to believe they are anything except exceptional and omnipotent to the point where people should admire, praise and love them no matter what, even if it means being endlessly abused by them, and sitting through their constant blaming-shaming sessions. There have been many studies indicating that brain chemistry and/or damage plays a part in how much empathy a person feels.
Many abusers don't experience empathy. They have no idea that empathy is a strong emotion like sadness, anger, laughing at jokes, and so on. In most of the population empathy is pronounced. In many abusers it is so dead that they spend their lives approximating normal behavior. They have to fake empathy to survive in society. How well they fake it, how well the acting job is, determines how much they slap themselves on the back for a job well done. They use their acting skills, in fact, as young children, and every time they meet a new person. If they think a person is worthwhile, they use it as part of their luring strategies. In fact, many abusers espouse civil rights, peace, women's liberation, equal pay for equal work, a women's right to choose, Head Start, the Peace Corp, liberal causes, but are tyrants and terrorists in their own households (most abusers are hypocrites).
By the time these personality-disordered individuals reach adulthood, they are adept at the vocal tones, the reaching out to comfort, the cock of the head to indicate they are empathetic people -- except they aren't at all. They get away so much with acting empathetic, that they learn to lie about many other things too. They use a myriad of tools to keep themselves unaccountable and blameless at all times including blame-shifting (blaming victims of abuse), rebutting, twisting, denying, condescending, deflecting, brandishing shock and anger, endless shaming sessions with their victims, gaslighting, slander and other tactics. Many abusers have the mentality of three year olds when it comes to how they conduct themselves in relationships.
Imagine what it is like to have no empathy. What is left is memory, the reasoning part of the mind, planning, containing facts, strategies to get what you need and want, dreams. Empathy puts the brakes on the predatory, selfish part of the mind. It makes us not only think of consequences, it makes us want to take care of others, it makes us want to ease suffering, and appreciate peace and understanding between ourselves and others. Some people are born with a lot of empathy; they live to help others. Without empathy, the human race would be in a perpetual state of war. Over-reactions and revenge would be the norm. It is doubtful we could even survive as a race.
Narcissism doesn't discriminate, even when it comes to narcissists' offspring. A lot of narcissists treat their children so badly that children get the message that they only exist to be dutiful sycophants who say yes to everything the parent wants.
"Honor thy Mother and Father" does not mean "Obey thy Mother and Father."
Many writers on abuse hypothesize that abusers and narcissists feel jealousy more intensely than the rest of the general population because they sometimes do have an inkling that they are not quite normal. On some level abusers and narcissists know others around them aren't just faking empathy, and they feel inadequate, secretive and guarded around them. They may actually be jealous of people with deep empathy, integrity and honesty. Abusers have been known to be very attracted to people who are exceptionally empathetic and honest, who wear their emotions on their sleeve, who fight for rights and causes (as I have written about in this post). While they like the team aspects of working with other abusers, they don't feel comfortable with them because on some level they realize abusers are all back-stabbers, jockeying for position, using a fake facade and lying to get what they want and just as likely to prey upon other abusers if there are no empaths around for the taking. This means they are always looking for more supply and acceptance from people with innocence, integrity, empathy, passivity, honor and prestige.
Abusers and narcissists tend to look at people in their lives as useful or non-useful, rather than as separate individuals who are fascinating and lovable because of differences. If a relationship doesn't appear to be a useful tool to the abuser any more, the abuser treats his victim like a broken toy, worthy of throwing away and abandoning, and goes shopping for another new one.
Toys that talk back are particularly irritating to abusers. That is why they feel rewarded and gleeful when their victims express sadness and hurt. "Bad toy! It should have known better when I was playing with its marionette strings, not to break, so it now deserves to be thrown away! Who cares if it gets more broken; it is broken already and I don't feel like fixing it, especially if it is going to talk back at me or fight against my manipulations!" That is the gist of how they regard others; again, it is 3 year old behavior.
In fact, if hurting you makes your perpetrator feel energized, powerful, smug and satisfied, you are probably dealing with a personality-disordered person. Normal people will act with concern if they hurt you; at the very least they will have a troubled look, they will say that they didn't mean to hurt you, and they will even listen to why you feel hurt, even if some criticism is involved in the telling (all without attacking you for it!).
If the abuser cannot feel empathy, how will he ever be a full partner in a relationship? With no empathy, the best you can hope for is more of the same: a relationship with an unfeeling, uncaring dictator. All the therapy in the world cannot correct his damaged brain or personality.
Having said that, some perpetrators do want to work on themselves (but only a very tiny percentage of them: some estimates put it at one percent of all perpetrators who voluntarily enter programs). In the mind of the perpetrator most relationships and people aren't worth the hard work, and they find therapy to be too grueling because they are criticized by therapists for being unfeeling, uncaring and exploitative. Therapists are focused on health and well being for everyone in a family or partnership, not on making one person happy, or saving a relationship that is beyond the point of ever being healthy.
Perpetrators mostly take the easy road: they avoid therapy, self reflection or working on anything by blaming, and if that doesn't work, abandoning their relationships and prowling around for a replacement relationship and person, hoping this time their toy soul mate won't talk back if it gets broken. Thus begins another idealize the new love stage (many abusers are in a constant vicious cycle of idealize, devalue and discard, always swapping out one victim/conquest for another).
addicted to flattery: As I mentioned before, most abusers, with the exception of sociopaths, are addicted to flattery (reward for flattery, punish when they feel criticized). Like all addicts, they lie to hide their addiction; they put feeding their addiction first before anything including any relationship, any personal honor or any cause. If they feel someone else will give them more flattery, more prestige and more unquestioning praise, they will drop their present relationships abruptly and without thought to pursue the high they get from a more effective sycophant. You mean nothing, except how much of your autonomy you are willing to give away to them, and how much flattery you are willing to give them, and how much abuse you are willing to take from them. You are not allowed to tell them that they have hurt you, without them either gloating about it, or going into a rage (because you telling them that they hurt you deeply challenges their flattery addiction).
How are they going to be able to withstand therapy with a therapist who will not flatter them? How will they be able to withstand a therapist who will focus on how they conduct themselves in relationships that is unhealthy for them and the people around them? Let's not forget: they think they are perfect and that everyone else is the problem! How will they be able to withstand critiquing, which is what therapy is about and what therapists do? The therapist's job is to get them on a diet of respectful caring responses so that they don't die of a heart attack, or broken heart, or give others a broken heart (with accompanying PTSD!). When perpetrators start World War III over even the slightest possibility of a critique, how long can they realistically last in therapy? How will they be able to stand someone peering into their psyche and childhood? How will they be able to transition out of blaming everyone else for what has gone wrong in their lives to having self reflection, especially if they have been dominating, adversarial and smug their entire lives?
Unless they want all of that peering and prodding and critiquing, it is hopeless.
An addiction to flattery makes therapy so much more challenging than any other addiction, because therapy is a direct bulls-eye challenge to it.
incapable or totally resistant to self reflection: Because they are addicted to flattery and are intolerant of anything that might sound like criticism, they are resistant to self reflection. See above.
a long history of being abusive: It is hard to get them to change from reacting to interpersonal problems with more healthy approaches. If they used the silent treatment to solve an interpersonal problem, they now have to change that to "I care how you feel, I care about our relationship, I care about resolving this with you and I'm going to stay in the conversation until it is resolved so that we can both live with the outcome comfortably." How many abusers do you know that find the latter approach at all palatable? Don't they always want to escalate abuse when there is an interpersonal problem instead of working it out, being caring and reasonable?
Don't forget that they don't feel empathy, so it is pretty impossible for them to say, "I care about you and your feelings, and I don't want to hurt you." The message more often is: "It's your fault that ----, you are to blame for ----, if you weren't so crazy and sensitive, you wouldn't be in this pickle ---, it's too bad you are so sensitive ---, I'm warning you, there will be consequences for feeling ---, if you don't fix this for me in the way I want, I am leaving ---, okay, I'm not dealing with your feelings because you are crazy."
The former paragraph is the healthy response and the latter is the disordered response.
Abusers feel they have to see everyone that challenges them as crazy, otherwise they cannot go about in peace with their addictions to flattery and idealizing potential sycophants. How likely is it that your abuser will treat you with respect when his mind tells him that he has to see you as crazy to feel that he is justified in behaving the way he does?
Also, how likely is it that your abuser is going to be able to go from the silent treatment and insults into caring, committed responses? Does he show any signs that he wants to be caring instead of being bullying and controlling? Does he show any signs of wanting to stop being punishing towards others when he doesn't get his way?
While a therapist can do a lot, the desire to change has to come from inside the abuser. It is a long history that has to be rehabilitated.
Do you have the patience while he or she goes through years of rehab and anger management classes, if that is what it takes?
What if he goes for a year, all the while espousing all of the wonderful things therapy is doing for him, and then he relapses back to his old ways, telling you that you were at fault the whole time, that he just went to therapy to see what it was like, to see what drivel you were believing in, and because he wanted to get you off of his back about it, that he never believed in any of it anyway, that therapy is only a big conspiracy plot? Can you live with the time invested, with how it all failed in the end?
How to Leave a Narcissist: Four key things to expect (step by step) -- from the Narcissists, Sociopaths and Flying Monkeys -- Oh My! blog
There are attorneys who understand narcissism and how the law can help you (by state) if you ever need a divorce, restraining orders and the like.