Tuesday, March 31 2015
Note: Dr. Stosny posted some of this same material and much more on emotional abuse on the Oprah Winfrey website
Anger and abuse in relationships are about blame: "I feel bad, and it's your fault." Even when they recognize the wrongness of their behavior, resentful, angry, or emotionally abusive people are likely to blame it on their partners: "You push my buttons," or, "I might have overreacted, but I'm human, and look what you did!"
The strategy of trying to control others fails to satisfy them for the simple reason that the primary cause of their anxiety is within them, not in their environment. It springs from one of two sources: a heavy dread of failure or fear of harm, isolation, and deprivation.
The partner who stonewalls may not overtly put you down. Nevertheless, he/she punishes you by refusing even to think about your perspective. If he listens at all, he does so dismissively or impatiently.
Harmful Adaptations to Anger and Abuse: Walking on Eggshells
Women are especially vulnerable to the negative effects of walking on eggshells due to their greater vulnerability to anxiety. Many brave women engage in constant self-editing and self-criticism to keep from "pushing his buttons." Emotionally abused women can second guess themselves so much that they feel as though they have lost themselves in a deep hole.
Recovery from walking on eggshells requires removing focus from repair of your relationship and your partner and placing it squarely on your personal healing. The good news is that the most powerful form of healing comes from within you. You can draw on your great inner resources by reintegrating your deepest values into your everyday sense of self. This will make you feel more valuable, confident, and powerful, regardless of what your partner does.
No One Escapes the Effects of Abuse
Everyone in a walking-on-eggshells family loses some degree of dignity and autonomy. You become unable to decide your own thoughts, feelings, and behavior, because you are living in a rigid pattern of defensive-reaction that runs largely on automatic pilot.
No fewer than half the members of these unfortunate families, including the children, suffer from clinical anxiety and/or depression. (“Clinical” doesn’t mean feeling down or blue or worried, it means that the symptoms interfere with normal functioning. You can’t sleep, can’t concentrate, can’t work as efficiently, and can’t enjoy yourself without drinking.) Most of the adults lack genuine self-esteem (based on realistic self-appraisals), and the children rarely feel as good as other kids.
When it comes to the more severe forms of destructiveness, purely emotional abuse is usually more psychologically harmful than physical abuse. There are a couple of reasons for this. Even in the most violent families, the incidents tend to be cyclical. Early in the abuse cycle, a violent outburst is followed by a honeymoon period of remorse, attention, affection, and generosity, but not genuine compassion. (The honeymoon stage eventually ends, as the victim begins to say, “Never mind the damn flowers, just stop hitting me!”) Emotional abuse, on the other hand, tends to happen every day. So the effects are more harmful because they’re so frequent.
The other factor that makes emotional abuse so devastating is the greater likelihood that victims will blame themselves. If someone hits you, it’s easier to see that he or she is the problem, but if the abuse is subtle – saying or implying that you’re ugly, a bad parent, stupid, incompetent, not worth attention, or that no one could love you – you are more likely to think it’s your problem.
Important questions to ask of yourself:
Walking on Eggshells
Millions of people walk on eggshells in their love relationships. Partners are in constant dread that the other will set them off - push their buttons - or make them feel disregarded, rejected, unattractive, incompetent, inadequate, or afraid.
Start the healing process by taking the Emotional Abuse Quiz.
When we love someone - and are loved in return - we have enormous power over that person's wellbeing, whether we want it or not. Abuse in love relationships is the misuse or neglect of the power we unavoidably wield over the wellbeing of loved ones.
Everyone who loves another and is loved by another is susceptible to some form of emotional or verbal abuse, by virtue of the Mirror of Love.
Attachment relationships - those held together by strong emotional bonds - serve as mirrors of the inner self. We learn how lovable we are and how valuable our love is to others only by interacting with the people we love. Young children never question the impressions of themselves they get from their parents. They do not think that their critical, stressed-out mothers or their raging fathers are just having a bad time or trying to recover from their own difficult childhoods. Young children attribute negative reflections of themselves from their parents to their own inadequacy and unworthiness.
Suppose you had internalized your body image based on reflections from a fun house mirror, which made your hips look a mile wide. You would think you were in deep trouble and that no diet could help. Once you've internalized a negative image, you distrust even accurate mirrors - people who are gaunt from eating disorders actually see themselves as fat when they look in a mirror that reflects little more than skin and bones. Even those who do not have eating disorders but who were told repeatedly as children that they were too thin are likely to see themselves as thin adults, despite mirror reflections that show a few extra pounds.
When it comes to physical appearance, at least we have lots of other mirrors to compare to the distorted funhouse reflection; this gives us a good chance to overcome an internalized negative image of the body. But there are no reflections of love other than those we get from the people we love. If you judge how lovable you are based on reflections from someone who cannot love without hurt, you will have a necessarily distorted and inaccurate view of yourself.
The instinct to believe the information about the self that loved ones reflect weakens somewhat as we grow older, but it remains active throughout life. You would probably laugh -- or at least not get angry -- at someone who implied that you have green hair, but if your husband or wife says it, you're likely to run to a mirror. The default assumption is, if your partner is displeased, there must be something wrong with you, and you need anger or resentment for protection. No matter how much we argue with loved ones about their criticisms and put-downs, we are likely to believe them, at least unconsciously. We might not agree with the particular flaw pointed out, but on some deep level, we'll perceive a defect that must be defended. Some part of us buys into the "blemishes" reflected in the mirror of love, even when we know intellectually that our loved one is distorting who we are. This hidden pressure from the mirror of love is why successful and powerful people are just as vulnerable as anyone to verbal abuse and to walking on eggshells in their love relationships.
Of course the mirror of love also reflects good news. If you learn how lovable you are and how valuable your love is from compassionate caretakers, you will naturally have a more realistic view of yourself in love relationships. You'll be disappointed and saddened sometimes, but you will hardly ever feel inadequate, unworthy, or unlovable. Just as important, when you feel sad or disappointed, you will know that you can do something to improve your emotional state, if not your situation. Your sadness will be short-lived - you'll feel bad for a while, then regroup and do something that will make you feel valuable once again. The mirror of love generates energy when it reflects value, and depletes energy when it doesn't.
In verbally abusive relationships, the mirror of love reflects mostly flaws and defects, in the form of criticism, sarcasm, resentment, and anger. Everyone in the family begins to confuse "function" with value and "task-performance" with love. The pain is never about the facts or specific behavior -- no matter how your partner puts it, you hear: "If you don't do what I want, I can't value you. And if I can't value you, you are not worth loving." This is the message the verbally abusive partner reflects back at you, no matter how much he or she claims to be talking "facts" or "logic" or "tasks."
Why We Hurt the Ones We Love: Blaming the Mirror
A distressed or misbehaving child can make us feel like failures as parents and thoroughly inadequate. A raging or rejecting parent can make a child feel powerless, inadequate, and unlovable. A distracted, demanding, or hostile lover can make us feel disregarded, devalued, and rejected. After working for many thousands of hours with people trying to overcome painful relationship problems, I'm convinced that we use resentment and anger to punish loved ones, not so much for their behavior as for our painful reflections in the mirror of love. We want to attack the mirror because we don't like the reflection.
The only way out of this morass is to stop viewing emotional pain as a punishment inflicted by someone else and learn to act on it as an internal motivation to heal, correct, and improve. This will lead to a deeper self-compassion and put us more in touch with our deepest values, which will, in turn, inspire more compassion for one another. You can love without hurt, but only if you use pain as a signal to heal and improve rather than punish.
Children who witness resentment, anger, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, or physical violence walk on eggshells. The usual symptoms are:
Living in a household where they walk on eggshells increases the likelyhood of becoming either an abuser or a victim of abuse as adults.They run a higher risk of:
Witnessing a parent victimized is usually more psychologically damaging to children than injuries from direct child abuse. Seeing a parent abused is child abuse.
The best thing you can do for your children is have a compassionate marriage. Parents model for children how to regulate their own
emotions and how to participate in relationships. By watching us, they learn how to:
When parents stop walking on eggshells, their children develop:
Even if your partner does not cooperate with making your marriage more compassionate, you can change your kids' lives for the better with compassionate parenting:
Unless your child's symptoms are severe, our experience has been that doing the work in the Boot Camps, as outlined in Love without Hurt, eliminates most of the symptoms. Children learn by modeling -- by watching how their parents regulate their emotions. When you are less reactive, more authentic, and more compassionate, they will be, too.
Help is available in the Love without Hurt Boot Camps.
The biggest challenge of living with a resentful or angry person is to keep from becoming one yourself. The high contagion and reactivity of resentment and anger are likely to make you into someone you are not.
The second biggest challenge, should you decide to stay in a relationship with a resentful or angry person is getting him or her to change. Four major thorns are likely to obstruct transformation:
Victim identity breeds entitlement
Driven by high standards of what they should get and what other people should do for them, the angry and resentful frequently feel disappointed and offended, which, in turn, causes more entitlement. It seems only fair, from their perspectives, that they get compensation for their constant frustrations. Special consideration seems like so little to ask! Here's the logic:
Conditioned to blame
This is an easy habit to form, since resentment and anger have amphetamine and analgesic effects - they provide an immediate surge of energy and numbing of pain. They increase confidence and a sense of power, which feel much better than the powerlessness and vulnerability of whatever insult or injury stimulated the conditioned response of blame.
If you experience any amphetamine, including anger or resentment, you will soon crash from the surge of vigor and confidence into self-doubt and diminished energy. And that's just the physiological response to amphetamine; it does not include the added depressive effects of doing something while you're resentful or angry that you are later ashamed of, like hurting people you love.
Imagine the worst thing you have ever said or done to someone you love. You were upset or felt provoked, and you said or did something that caused that person emotional hurt.
How would you respond if you saw a stranger do or say the same thing as you to the person you love?