We do that because, in the moment, we chose to stay in the relationship, even though the sailing isn’t always smooth. Some of the time, we fail to recognize that we’re actually excusing behaviors that should never be tolerated. People with insecure attachment styles whose emotional needs weren’t met in childhood do this more often and for longer than securely attached people who are much more likely to call out hurtful behavior because, for them, it’s anomalous.
Those who were used to being marginalized, ignored, mocked or picked on in their childhood homes are much more likely to normalize or excuse bad behaviors. It’s a bit like the pile of boots and shoes by the front door that you get so used to that alas you no longer see it. (For a more in-depth discussion of how this affects unloved daughters, see my new book, Daughter Detox:Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
Tools of manipulation and power
All of these behaviors are ways of exerting control over you, and are signs of an imbalance of power in the relationship, as well as clues to the other person’s motivations. Some of them are more obvious than others but the real key is whether or not you’re calling them out for what they are or whether you’re pleasing, appeasing, rationalizing, denying, or making excuses. We all need to take responsibility for whether or how we tolerate behaviors that shouldn’t be a part of anyone’s emotional landscape.
Marginalizes your thoughts and feelings
Laughing at you or telling you that he or she doesn’t care what you think is not okay, or that your feelings are unimportant or perhaps laughable. Or that your thoughts are wrong—based on fuzzy thinking—or that you’re “too sensitive” or “too emotional.” These are manipulations, pure and simple.
Calls you names or disparages you
It’s one thing to complain about someone’s action or inaction—how he or she failed to deliver on a promise, kept you waiting for an hour, didn’t take out the trash, etc. It’s quite another to criticize someone’s character, replete with examples; These criticisms usually begin with the words “You never” or “You always,” and what follows is a litany of everything the other person finds lacking or wrong about you. This is not okay, ever. If this is a pattern in the relationship and you feel denigrated or put-down most of the time, do not rationalize the other person’s behavior by making excuses (“He only called me names because he was frustrated with me” or “She really didn’t mean what she said. It was just the heat of the moment.”) By making excuses, you encourage the behavior and, yes, normalize it.
This is a power play, used by people who perceive the other person in the relationship as weaker or easily manipulated; parents do it to children, using the force of their authority, as do adults who are intent on control. The gaslighter calls the other person’s perceptions or vision of reality into question by denying that something was said or done, and then suggesting that you’ve made it up or misunderstood. The gaslighter preys on what he or she knows about your level of confidence in your perceptions as well as your insecurity and games both.
Treats you with contempt
Mockery, laughing at you, or displaying physical gestures like eye-rolling to communicate contempt for you, your words, and your actions is never okay and always aimed at exerting control over you. Every healthy relationship requires mutual respect, and the absence of contempt should be a hard-and-fast rule for everyone.
Projects his or her feelings on to you
In his book, Rethinking Narcissism, Dr. Craig Malkin points this out as a narcissist’s favorite ploy, calling it “playing emotional hot potato.” Rather than own his or her feelings and take responsibility for them, the narcissist projects those onto you—trying to make his or her anger yours, for example. This shifts the balance of power in a subtle way because while you can see his anger—his fists are clenched, his jaw muscles working, his face is flushed—now you’re on the defensive, saying that you’re not angry.
Manipulates your insecurities
This ploy is akin to gaslighting but goes further to shut you down, stop you from speaking out, and keeps you contained and controlled. With this behavior, he or she takes advantage of the knowledge he or she has about you—that you get nervous when someone gets angry, that you’re likely to back down if you’re challenged strongly enough, or that a stray comment about your weight will make you docile and apologetic, for example—and uses it to make sure you stay in line. This can be harder to see but if it’s a pattern, you’re floating in a toxic sea.
A refusal to listen or even discuss an issue you’ve brought up is one of the most toxic behaviors of all, and both frustrating and demeaning at once. The worst thing you can do is take responsibility for someone’s refusal to communicate, especially by falling into the habit of self-criticism or blaming yourself for picking the “wrong time” to initiate discussion and the like. This is a highly toxic and manipulative behavior—that’s the bottom line.
All of the behaviors are efforts at control. They have no place in a healthy relationship.
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Photograph by Milada Vigerov. Copyright free. Unsplash.com