When stirring up trouble is used as a control tactic in relationships
It takes maturity, self-reflection, and mental discipline to be in a healthy relationship. These traits are useful when conflicting needs, opinions, and expectations cause disharmony between intimate partners.
Couples who possess these qualities can usually resolve disagreements with acceptance, understanding and compromise. There is an equitable balance of power and neither partner is a victim. When there are hurt feelings, there is little residual damage. Self-esteem, trust, and respect are left intact. Partners feel emotionally safe with each other and enjoy intimacy and companionship.
The serious trouble begins when one partner is stuck in controlling behaviors such as tantrums, unrealistic demands, and persistent blaming. These behaviors are rooted in formative years when immature minds develop maladaptive ways to cope that are reinforced. If left unchecked, these childish antics gain in potency and become embedded behavioral patterns that continue into adulthood.
Adults who lack effective coping skills often have a distorted self-concept with low self-worth and feelings of insecurity. They may have egocentric or Narcissistic traits and be vulnerable to the slightest criticism.
Instead of facing these disturbing feelings, they avoid them by transferring their pain onto their partners. They use covert tactics of psychological intimidation to manipulate their partners’ thoughts, feelings, and actions to feel better about themselves. This involves the use of deception, contradiction, and inconsistencies between words and behavior. When their partners express their hurt and confusion, they use denial to create guilt and self-doubt.
Therein lies the difference between a love spat and emotional abuse.
Emotional abuse tactics destabilize victims so they can’t react. Defending themselves only invites more maltreatment. There is no possibility of negotiation or resolution. Perpetrators who can’t handle their own emotions don’t respect the feelings of others.
Victims have no understanding of their partner’s ambiguous intentions and methods of control. They typically sense there is something terribly wrong in their relationships, but they don’t want to accept the magnitude of their predicament. They cling to false hopes that their relationships will change so they can return to the heady feelings of love and joyfulness they once had.
Early in the relationship, victims usually aren’t aware that they are getting involved with someone who has an obsessive need to control them. Perpetrators of abuse are typically very skilled at creating an image that conceals their abusive traits.
Once the relationship becomes committed, perpetrators alternate between warmth and coldness. This creates a cycle of abuse that keeps the victim searching for ways to keep the peace that are often dysfunctional. They react to the mistreatment as if it were normal and may blame it on themselves. Some believe that if they were better, smarter, or more attractive, there would be less trouble in their relationships.
Victims must understand that there will be no improvements until their abusive partners have the desire and courage to accept that their beliefs and actions are sabotaging their lives and relationships. They must be willing to learn new, more mature perspectives and ways to cope and put them into action.
Otherwise, if victims stay in the relationship, their abusive partners are likely to inflict serious damage on their self-esteem, eventually robbing them of happiness, vitality and personal growth.
The following true story illustrates what happens in an emotionally abusive relationship:
Marla & Judd
When out with friends, Judd tells a story about Marla that knocks her intelligence and embarrasses her. He calls her a dumbo. After returning home, Marla complains to Judd that his actions were way out of line. Judd gives the impression that he is trying to have a meaningful conversation to resolve the issue, but he hides his intent, which is to plant guilt and uncertainty in her mind. He puts his arm around her and says, “Don’t you realize that I was just kidding? You know I love you more than anyone in the world. I would never want to hurt you.”
In an effort to understand him, she asks him to explain why he made her the butt of a joke, but he blocks her objections with the claim that she doesn’t listen to him. She finds it difficult to react because his words don’t fit his actions, and there’s no clarity in what he says.
Marla isn’t sure whether or not she overreacted to Judd’s comments. The more she tries to comprehend his actions, the more he confuses her with platitudes, denial, and blame. In the end, she is overcome with despair, and the original issue is left unresolved. (Excerpt: From Charm to Harm: The Guide to Spotting, Naming and Stopping Emotional Abuse in Intimate Relationships 2014)
Abuse victims must do some soul-searching to identify and understand their own psychological issues. Could it be they chose partners who confirm their low opinion of themselves? Have they recreated relationships similar to the one they had with a difficult parent in an effort to heal unresolved emotional pain? Do they convince themselves that if they are tolerant and patient, they can “fix” their partners? Are they denying the truth and hurting themselves and their children in the process?
Delving into the answers to these key questions with honesty and having the courage to make difficult changes can eventually lead to healthy and joyful relationships where disagreements are resolved. But it’s not going to be with someone who uses a partner’s vulnerability as a weapon for control and refuses to look inward.