Chipping Away at a Partner’s Self-Esteem is a Control Tactic
In one of my therapy sessions, a young woman told me that after 10 months of marriage, she now realized that her husband is emotionally abusive to her. In the early stages of their relationship, he could hardly do enough to please her. But as they got closer to their wedding day, his behavior toward her, although subtle, was negative and made her feel inadequate in some way. He made disparaging comments about her appearance or criticized her in front of friends. When anything went wrong, he blamed her for the problem and never seemed to take responsibility for his behavior. When she complained about his treatment, he called her a drama queen. She wanted to believe he loved her and had her best interests at heart. She considered that maybe she was at fault. Although she felt concerned and hurt, she blocked it out of her mind.
The above scenario is a classic sign of a controlling person’s attempt to chip away at a partner’s self-esteem. In time, the assaults become worse. Perpetrators have a deep-seated need to control their intimate partners, and what better way to control someone than to break down his or her self-esteem.
In the continuation of my series that provides a language to spot and describe emotional abuse tactics and effects, here are four more tactics with true stories to explain how emotionally abusive people undermine their partners’ sense of self-worth.
Myra & Yvette
Myra and Yvette are at an arts and crafts festival, searching for new artwork for their home. Yvette looks at pottery, macramé, watercolors, sculptures, and photographs, but only one painting catches her interest. The oil painting depicts an old red barn and farmhouse in New England that transport Yvette back to her childhood and evoke nostalgic memories. In her mind, she sees herself as a child in the painting, playing with friends at her favorite swimming hole and riding horses through grassy fields.
Yvette finds Myra at another booth and asks her to look at the painting. When Myra and Yvette return to the painting, several people are standing close by. Myra takes one look at the painting and rolls her eyes in disgust, as if to say Yvette is an idiot and has deplorable taste in art. Myra adds, “That painting is amateurish. I wouldn’t have it in my house. I know about art, so I’ll make the selections.”
Mock-Eyed: The use of eye movements or facial expressions to charge a partner with stupidity or ineptitude. Mock-eyes are usually accompanied by disapproving comments or body gestures. The tactic has maximum effect when performed in public.
Miguel & Vicki
Miguel often gives in to Vicki to avoid disagreements, because she insists on having her way. When Miguel resists her control, she looks for opportunities to punish him covertly, so she can claim to be innocent of ill will against him.
On Monday afternoon, Vicki arrives home and tells Miguel all about her new job: the contemporary decor of the office suite, the characteristics of her coworkers, and the specifics of her work duties. She finishes with a description of her boss. “He is smart, good-looking, and makes a lot of money,” Vicki jabbers. “If I were single, he’s the kind of man I would go for.”
After Miguel thinks more in depth about Vicki’s comments, he realizes that her remarks imply her dissatisfaction with Miguel. He is threatened by Vicki’s obvious attraction to her new boss and worries that she will hold her relationship with her boss over his head as a way to censure him when he disagrees with her.
No-See-Um: An insect in aquatic or semiaquatic areas that is hard to see, but has a sharp sting. No-see-ums happen in ordinary conversation, when the perpetrator issues a cutting remark so unexpected or out of context that only later does the recipient recognize the comment’s ill intent. A no-see-um is subtler than an ambush.
Sybil & Sasha
On Christmas Day, partners Sybil and Sasha, Sasha’s mother, and other family members exchange gifts and pleasant conversation. The Christmas tree sparkles and glows, stockings hang on the hearth, and everyone is in a festive mood.
Sybil is fond of Sasha’s mother and has carefully chosen a sweater for her, but when Sasha’s mother puts on the sweater, the size is too small. Sasha contorts her face and shrieks at Sybil, “What a moron! Can’t you do anything right? I told you what size she wears.”
Sasha’s harsh words stun Sybil out of her excitement about giving the gift. Family members within earshot are at a loss for words or pretend they didn’t hear Sasha’s unkind remark. Sybil tries to soften Sasha’s ambush by explaining that she can get the sweater in a larger size. The sweater exchange will be easy, but in the moment, Sasha’s reaction humiliates Sybil and darkens the mood.
Ambushing: In a seemingly civil conversation, ambushers hurl unexpected insults at their mates to offend or disorient them.
Abigail & Dirk
Abigail returns from the hair salon proud of her new hairstyle. She had her stylist cut her hair shorter in a trendier fashion. Her new style makes her feel younger and more attractive, and she expects her husband, Dirk, to like it too. She walks into the room where he sits with the newspaper, but he doesn’t bother to say hello. She parades through the room to get his attention. He finally looks up, squints at her, and returns to reading. “Did you get your hair thinned?” he utters.
Abigail’s face falls and she runs her hand over her hair. Dirk may as well have thrown a glass of cold water in her face. She responds, “Wouldn’t it have been just as easy to say something nice?”
Dirk whitewashes his spiteful remark. “You take things too seriously,” he maintains. “You need to lighten up.”
Whitewashing: The attempt to paint over personal wrongdoing or heartless actions toward a mate by claiming the mate overreacted or exaggerated the whitewasher’s behavior.
In part five of Emotional Abuse Exposed, I will provide more vocabulary and true stories to explain the variety of tactics and effects of emotional abuse. Keep the comments and questions coming. Let’s work together to expose and stop emotional abuse.