Many of us dislike confrontation, especially if we grew up in households where arguing and contentiousness were the norm. We may have learned that it’s easier (and safer) to duck under the radar when a mother or father is in a fighting mode or that to go along to get along just made life easier. Others grew up in families where the bellowing was so intense that we coped with being scared on the daily and, even now when we’re adults, raised voices reduce us to the quivering little girls we once were. That was the case for Kim, now 41:
“I don’t think I understood that there were homes where parents actually sat down and discussed things until I was a preteen and started going on sleepovers. I remember being shocked by how quiet Mary’s house was and how relaxed everyone was at Gillian’s. Not at my house where the yelling between my mom and dad was constant. I still get anxious when people yell or get angry.”
Many of us back away when challenged in adulthood because that’s what served us growing up. We may immediately try to mollify the person who’s angry or even take the blame so as to defuse things, even though we’re not at fault. The ready apology becomes a way in which the unloved daughter is often manipulated in relationships, from romantic connections to friendships, as Molly told me.
I wasn’t even conscious of how often I said “I’m sorry” until my sister called me out for apologizing to my mother after she dressed me down for no reason. I wasn’t even thinking of saying it but found myself saying it anyway. My sister pointed out that I do this constantly so as to avoid unpleasantness with people and, once she said that, I started paying attention to how often I did it. I realized I was making myself powerless constantly. Therapy has helped me change immensely.
The limits to peacekeeping
When your first impulse is to keep the peace, you also run the risk of muzzling yourself and denying yourself the opportunity to express your feelings and thoughts. With some people, especially those who relish control or enjoy both combat and the win or are high in narcissistic traits, the default position of saying “I’m sorry” or apologizing for what you actually haven’t done can be an open invitation for them to take advantage of you. Yes, sometimes we will ourselves into playing the doormat, alas. That was what “Patti” learned after two years in therapy:
“I actually thought I was empowered—taking charge of the unpleasantness so my adult life would be different. But I was forcing myself to stay quiet and even worse, making it harder to resolve issues in my marriage. My husband said I was shirking responsibility for decisions and that got me into therapy at last. It was true. I forced him to make the decisions alone and then I would complain about his choices. I made myself into the child I’d been in my marriage—upset and voiceless until I got help and realized that disagreement is allowed. I never learned that as a kid because I thought it was too dangerous.”
But, if you’re aware of your avoidance of confrontation, it’s especially important that you draw the line at certain abusive behaviors that should never be tolerated. If you don’t set firm rules about what’s acceptable and what’s not, you can easily become a participant in your own victimization. For the behaviors that follow, the worst possible stance you can take is to rationalize the person’s behavior. It doesn’t matter who that person is; these behaviors are never okay even the person is a parent, a spouse, or a close intimate. The operative word here is never.
4 behaviors you must always stand up to
Yes, just as there must be zero tolerance, there must also be a consistent and strong reaction on your part. This doesn’t mean screaming or yelling; it means a clear message delivered calmly. You are in charge of setting boundaries, after all. For more on why a toxic childhood can blind you to abusive behaviors, see my book, Daughter Detox: Recovering from an Unloving Mother and Reclaiming Your Life.
- Name-calling and mockery
This should be obvious but it’s amazing how inured you can get to this treatment, especially if you grew up with it. That was “Katie’s” observation:
Both my father and my mother called us names to keep us in line; my older sister was mocked for her weight, I was made fun of because I stuttered when I got nervous, and my brother was clumsy. We were Dumbo, Marble mouth, and Klutz. Yes, the names stung but they were so familiar that it was easy to write them off as some kind of weird term of affection. It was my husband who pointed out that it was just mean, and not funny at all.
It doesn’t matter what the name is. Don’t make excuses for the person doing it; if he or she is not a frustrated four-year-old who doesn’t know better, it’s never okay.
A term that came into being as a result of a play that was made into a movie, gaslighting refers to manipulating someone in such a way as to have her or him doubt her or his perceptions and version of reality. Most of the time, the focus is on the use of gaslighting in adult relationships but manipulative parents use it on children where it is startlingly and devastatingly effective with long-reaching results. By definition, parents bring special authority to the table—they are adults and superior in knowledge—and that makes the damage gaslighting inflicts on the child way worse because it won’t occur to a younger child that she’s being manipulated. Even when she gets older and feels as though she should muster the courage to confront her parent, she may have continuing doubts about her perceptions and thoughts; these can last for years. Sometimes, the unloved daughter may not even recognize it’s happening because it feels so familiar; that was true for “Jacque” in her first marriage:
“My husband denied that things happened all the time. He would belittle me or put me down and then deny he’d said it or he’d say he was joking and I was too thin-skinned to take a joke. When I complained about how much money he was spending, he told me I had the numbers wrong and then when I confronted him with the bills, he laughed at me. Everything he did was meant to make me doubt myself. And it worked until one day, I said enough and left him.”
Gaslighting is a tool of manipulation and control, used by someone who knows about your self-doubt and insecurity. Working on seeing how your childhood continues to affect you is the best strategy in the long-term; in the short-term, recognize gaslighting for what it is and call it out.
Refusing to answer a question posed is a method meant to annoy and ultimately escalate even the most reasonable of discussions into something else. Psychologists have studied this behavior which is formally called Demand/Withdraw so often that it even has an acronym, DM/W; according to studies, women are more likely to be in the Demand position and men in the Withdraw role. By refusing to answer a question or enter into a discussion, the person withdrawing marginalizes and ignores the person speaking; that in turn is bound to make the person asking frustrated and perhaps even angry. It’s at this point that the person withdrawing seeks to gain the upper hand, either by continuing to refuse to answer or accusing the person of making the demand of being unreasonable, angry, or hysterical.
It’s been called the most toxic of all relational behaviors for a reason. If you are in a relationship where the possibility of dialogue has disappeared, please seek professional help. You may not be able to salvage the relationship but you will be able to stop additional damage to your sense of self.
This term was invented by marital expert John Gottman and it refers to the litany of character flaws unleashed on a partner, including pretty much everything but the kitchen sink which gives it its name. The litany often begins with “You always” or “You never” and what follows is a list of everything the person thinks is wrong with you or lacking. Used on a child, it is emotional abuse of the first order and extremely damaging; used on an adult, it is debilitating, guilt-inducing, and, yes, abusive.
It’s yet another power play, whether it’s used on a child (which, frankly, is so easy that it deserves a cliché like shooting fish in a barrel except that the cliché covers up how hateful, damaging, and reprehensible it really is) or an adult.
The recitation of your shortcomings rolls off the person’s tongue, stripping you to the bone unless you recognize it for what it is: Bullying and manipulative. The short answer is nope.
If peacekeeping is your ready answer to every disagreement, you must realize this is a weakness, not a strength. In any case, these four behaviors are never okay. See the word “never?”
Photograph by oladimeji odunsi. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
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.
Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. New York: Fireside, 1994.