Normalizing toxic behavior is one of the greatest deficits an unloved daughter or son takes with her or him into adulthood. Evolution has guaranteed that children adapt to their surroundings in order to survive; the child who grows up with a bullying mother (or father) adapts by growing an emotional shell and becomes under-reactive so as not to be constantly hurt, but aches for love nonetheless. He or she may become an emotional bully too when thwarted or frustrated in adulthood. A child barraged by constant criticism or ignored becomes expert at getting parental attention either by over or under-achieving—all at the cost of growing her or his true self. Because a child believes that what goes on at home goes on in every house, she or he will normalize it young; that results in a kind of tone-deafness to both verbal and emotional abuse which is part of the baggage carried into adulthood.
How does this work? It all works unconsciously and let me give you a homely example. I am a big city girl, brought up with the credo that dark is dangerous and light is safe which is really good advice in most major cities. Alas, that means the joys of camping or living on a country road fill me with terror; I am afraid of the dark. Of course, even with lights, a city street will be more dangerous than a moonlit field in Vermont but try telling my brain that. Toxic childhood experiences work the same way; we are comfortable with the familiar even if it renders us unsafe, unhappy, and uncomfortable. Often, those who grow up around abusive behaviors are unable to identify them in relationships, whether they are intimate, friendships, or collegial. So how to tell the difference?
It may not always be easy, as I explain in my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life. Here are questions, answers, and 7 signs to help you navigate the road ahead.
I’m not a therapist or a psychologist but because I write about painful childhood experiences, these are questions I get asked all the time. I avail myself of research and life experience to answer them. These apply to both men and women; yes, women can be emotionally abusive too.
- Is anger always abusive?
No, nice and loving people get angry; everyone “loses it” now and again. Obviously, it would be way better if all of us were fabulous at regulating our emotions all of the time, but it’s not likely to happen. What follows applies to adults, not children, so please keep that in mind. A few things to watch here, and first up is what the angry person does after the outburst. And, mind you, that could be you or the other person. Most important: Does the person apologize or blame-shift, saying that your behavior forced or made them get angry?
If you blame-shift as a parent, you are hurting your child. You have to own your behavior; children aren’t responsible for how you act.
If you do it in an adult relationship, you are hurting your partner. If your partner excuses his or her behavior by saying you “made” it happen, that’s not just emotionally dishonest but abusive. As Dr. Craig Malkin notes in his book, Rethinking Narcissism, playing “emotional hot potato”—projecting his or her own feelings onto you—is something people high in narcissistic traits do because they can’t own their feelings.
Unwarranted anger requires an apology. Blame-shifting is a red flag as is any escalation into rage, especially if it’s consistent.
- Is complaining abusive?
No. In fact, John Gottman, the guru of healthy marriages, says complaining is part of the discourse between loving partners. Think about that and the word discourse which is a conversation, and not a tirade or a blaming session. Even partners or friends may have complaints about promises made or not kept; that is dyadic conversation and not abusive. If you believe that no one has the right to demand anything of you, you should not be in a relationship; if you want to be in a relationship but can’t tolerate another person’s needs, you should seek counseling.
Complaining is fine when it’s honest and involves something specific. It is fine to call out a spouse, lover, friend, or colleague for something specific and to give voice to your needs. Note the word specific. As Dr. Gottman points out, when complaining turns into criticism or criticism laced with contempt, a line has been crossed into toxic and abusive behavior. Criticism often begins with the words “You never” or “You always” and is then followed by a list of your personal character flaws and failings. When contempt is added in, it can devolve into name-calling. This is not complaining; it is abusive.
- Is arguing abusive?
People disagree and get into arguments but it’s how you argue that matters. Any of the behaviors or manipulations below are emotionally abusive and shouldn’t be a part of a healthy relationship. It may come as a surprise to you—especially if you associate arguing with screaming and yelling—that Dr. Gottman believes that some amount of conflict is actually necessary for a strong marriage or relationship. That sounds counterintuitive but it makes a great deal of sense since, as Dr. Gottman points out, in a healthy relationship, occasional conflict gives the couple experience at productive ways of reconciling their differences.
7 signs that your partner is behaving abusively
Abusive behavior need not always be expressed verbally; giving someone the silent treatment or refusing to answer her or him can also be abusive and manipulative. In a healthy relationship, power is distributed equally; the effort of one partner to control the other often lies at the heart of abusive behavior.
- Saying your thoughts, feelings, or needs don’t matter
Again, this can be done literally (“I don’t really care what you think”) or telling you that you’re way too sensitive and he or she is tired of your bitching or saying something dismissive such as “Not that again. Boy, do you have another soundtrack?” Then again, it can be done by simply ignoring you or pretending that you’ve said nothing. It doesn’t matter how it’s communicated; it’s toxic and abusive either way.
- Name-calling, marginalizing, or mocking you
Calling you stupid, fat, or anything else is a way of making you feel small, needy, and unworthy, and it’s a common tactic of those people who relish control. It can be done directly or indirectly, such as comparing you unfavorably to other people. (“If you made as money as Jim and I had all the nice things Jim’s wife has, we wouldn’t have credit card debt” or “I wouldn’t be saying this if you were as sexy and fun as Carol. She looks good in anything so it’s no wonder Jim is so happy.”) Making fun of your character or body with cruel intentions—or making you the butt of public jokes—is never okay.
- Stonewalling or other forms of the silent treatment
Refusing to answer someone is the most common form of toxic behavior (and predictor of divorce) and has been so widely studied as a behavioral pattern called Demand/Withdraw that it even has an acronym (DM/W). Studies show that women as more likely to take the role of demanding and men that of withdrawing. Again, not answering you is another way of making you think your words, thoughts, and feelings are inconsequential and trying to manipulate you. Refusing to talk to you for hours or even days is simply punitive as is actively ignoring you. These behaviors are not okay.
- Making you doubt your perceptions
Popularly known as gaslighting, this is a manipulative tactic meant to prey on your own self-doubts and anxieties as well as your love for the abuser. The abusive partner simply denies that he or she said or did what you’re talking about and does it in such a way that you’re confused and worried that perhaps you’re over-reacting or exaggerating. It can be accompanied by a litany of your flaws (“You’re always hysterical about something. No wonder you make things up”) or name-calling (“You’re just a crazy person, you know. Not even worth talking about this stuff with you because you’re too nuts.”).
- Frightens, intimidates, or threatens you
These need not be physical threats but can simply be emotional ones like threatening to leave if you don’t do x or y, or threatening to expose the “truth” about you to other people, and any other kind of threat to get you to toe the line. People who intimidate others often escalate their behaviors so this is an important and major red flag.
- Tries to isolate you
Once again, this can happen either openly or very subtly at the beginning of the relationship and then continues as things progress. Often, abusive relationships begin as whirlwind courtships, with what’s popularly referred to as “love bombing” which is complete with sweep-you-off-your-feet gestures like gifts, special restaurants, flattery, and confessions of true love at lightning speed. These are actually red flags but may not appear to be. It’s in the context of love bombing that the abuser begins to isolate his or her partner, either by asserting what Dr. Malkin calls “stealth control” or by an outright protest. According to Dr. Malkin, stealth control is one of the warning signs that your partner is a narcissist; basically, the narcissist changes up plans you’ve already agreed to in the guise of having you experience something better. So, when you’ve planned a weekend with the girls, he presents you with tickets to a faraway place or tempts you with a dinner-for-two at a ritzy restaurant on the very night he knew you were seeing your sister. Sometimes, the abuser simply protests your doing something he or she isn’t involved in, and makes you feel guilty about “abandoning” him or her. Usually, it’s phrased in terms of how much he or she loves and needs you—back to love-bombing—and before you know it, your world has shrunk down to two people. This can also be accomplished by putting down friends and relatives and trying to convince you that you need to choose between them and your partner.
- Bad-mouths you to others
This often goes hand-in-hand with efforts at isolation in an abusive relationship because it gives the person more control and makes you more emotionally malleable and fragile. Yes, the very person who professes to love you may also be running a smear campaign behind your back.
Real love doesn’t hurt. Control isn’t love. Pay attention to the warning signs. Abuse need not be physical and, yes, emotional abuse wounds, scars, and bruises.
Photograph by sasini. Copyright free. Pixabay.com
Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Fireside, 1994.
Malkin, Craig. Rethinking Narcissism: The Secret to Recognizing and Coping with Narcissists. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Schrodt, Paul, Paul L. Witt, and Jenna R. Shimkowski, “A Meta-Analytical Review of the Demand/Withdraw Pattern of Interaction and its Association with Individual, Relational, and Communicative Outcomes, Communication Monographs, 81,1 (April 2014), 27-58.