How is it possible that I spent ten years with him, not realizing what was happening to me? Was I blind or something? That’s the most discouraging part: That I played along, hoping we’d turn a corner or something. It’s hard not to beat myself up for that.
Kate, age 42
The sad truth is that Kate’ s quandary isn’t all that unusual. The counterintuitive answer is that yes, it’s entirely possible that you might not recognize at first that you’re being emotionally abused. It’s particularly true for those of us whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood and who have an insecure style of attachment.
Absent the emotional anchoring that the support and love of an attuned parent bequeaths a child, many daughters go into the world in search of love without having the slightest idea of what love looks like or feels like. These women are apt to mistake volatility and kiss-and-makeup scenarios in a relationship for passion and efforts at control for caring. Additionally, their need to be loved is often matched by their ability to normalize behavior that marginalizes them because that’s all they experienced in childhood and adolescence.
Abusive behavior also gets normalized and excused because the abusive partner has other qualities that make you conflicted about ending the relationship. The fact that the abuse isn’t physical may make you mistakenly think that it’s not that big a deal (it is), or you may hang on to the fact that he’s a good provider or respected in the community. Alas, what this means is that when you finally wake up as Kate did, you will have to recover from your own role in enabling what happened to you.
If you’re unsure whether your relationship is as toxic as you think it might be, here are six red flags you need to pay attention to especially if they are consistent features of your relationship.
- Lack of discussion and use of withdrawal
Every relationship will run into an obstacle or two, but as marital John Gottman has noted, it’s not whether you disagree or even fight but how you do it. If your partner is unwilling to discuss your differences of opinion—it doesn’t matter what the subject is—and stonewalls you every time you try to talk, the relationship isn’t in a healthy place. Stonewalling is often accompanied by other behaviors meant to manipulate you—telling you that you run on at the mouth or that you’re too sensitive —and to make you feel as though what you’re asking for has no validity. “The same old tattoo,” is the phrase that was used by the narcissist in my life every time I tried to talk about how he would tell me partial truths and, once exposed, would tell me the problem was mine because I hadn’t asked the right question. These efforts to shut you down are also efforts at control.
- Manipulating your insecurities
Your intimate partner knows you and is also aware of what pushes your buttons; a loving partner does what he can to bolster your sense of self while an abusive one uses that knowledge to bully or keep you under his thumb. If your partner is in the habit of using accusatory statements to deflect attention from his behaviors when you call them out—saying, “You always whine and bitch about everything” or “No one should have to put up with your constant harping”—you need to pay attention. Turning the tables on you—highlighting your flaws or past mistakes or indulging in what John Gottman calls kitchensinking which is a litany of every one of your shortcomings—when you try to address something he’s done is another reliable sign.
- Subtle and overt efforts at control
Does your partner have a habit of switching up plans you’ve already made together at the last minute such as changing the restaurant from Chinese to French or deciding to book a trip to New York when you’d agreed on the Caribbean? And when you challenge him on it, does he say, “Well, I thought you’d be pleased because the French bistro is so much nicer” or “I thought you’d be happy with my surprising you”? Dr. Craig Malkin calls this stealth control and identifies it as the hallmark of a narcissist in his book Rethinking Narcissism. Over time, you actually forget your own preferences and desires as you adjust to your partner’s always being in the driver’s seat. More overt efforts at control include setting up conflicts when you’ve decided to see your friends and your spouse makes alternative plans and shames you into going with him or makes a point of disparaging your friends as stupid or losers. The controlling partner prefers you isolated and without a network.
- Use of threats
These aren’t necessarily physical threats but statements such as, “If you’re so unhappy, why don’t you just leave?” or, alternatively, “I’m of a mind to walk away for once and for all if you don’t stop your constant complaining.” If your partner turns every moment you disagree or voice your opinion into a winner-take-all situation, it’s time you took a few steps back and reassessed why you are still in the relationship.
This is a psychological form of control which preys on your insecurities by your partner’s denying that something happened or was said; it effectively becomes your word against his, despite the truth of your observation. The end goal here is to have you mistrust your own perceptions and have his narrative provide the “truth” of any situation. Of course, what’s being manipulated here as well is how much you actually care for your lover or spouse.
Is your partner someone who always needs someone to take the fall when something goes wrong or gets broken or damaged? And is that someone usually you? Constant blaming puts you in a 24/7 posture of defense, has you tiptoeing on eggshells, and has you in a state of anxiety about making a mistake. Blaming can include magnifying and harping on everyday ordinary mistakes such as getting involved in a fender-bender that wasn’t your fault and blaming you anyway (“Can’t you ever pay attention? Do you know what this will do to our insurance rates?”) or making a big deal about forgetting to pay a bill (“Thanks for trashing my credit rating”) or pick up the dry cleaning (“Can’t I trust you to do anything right?).
If these patterns are present in your relationship and you’re still on the fence, please seek counsel.
Photograph by Clem Onojeghuo. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Fireside Books, 1994.
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists.New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.