We have heard a lot in the news lately about people, mostly women, who have been harassed, betrayed, abused and battered. We have heard a lot of the obvious reasons why it has always been difficult for spouses and women generally to say “enough is enough.”
We have also heard a lot about the amazing loyalty of Trump voters, many of whom are zealous in their support of a person and a set of beliefs that are opposite to something the voter holds dear. This is particularly true regarding the Trump administration’s problems with men’s alleged transgressions against women. But more about that later.
There are so many reasons why it is difficult to escape an emotionally, sexually or physically abusive relationship. These reasons have been enumerated by the women who have recently come forward. They include many practical reasons including very realistic fears, such as the fear of losing one’s job, the fear of reprisal, the fear of actual physical danger, and fear of endangering or losing one’s children.
There are also many emotional mechanisms which tip the scales in favor of staying in a bad situation. The most obvious involve fear of being judged, fear of being blamed for the abuse, shame about having been in an embarrassing situation, stigma, and the self doubt resulting from gaslighting by the abuser.
Thus realistic social pressures as well as realistic fear of the abuser undermine the ability to make rational choices in our own interest. But there’s more.
The psychology of sticking with a bad situation
There is one other factor that I believe is often involved in this kind of misplaced loyalty. It is a concept from experimental social psychology known as cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is a well researched phenomenon.
The idea is that if you get someone to do something that is strongly against their interests through heavy coercion, like threat of torture, they will hate you and be all the more clear on their convictions. “I only did it because I was coerced!”
But if you get someone to do something for a very small reward, they will be in a state of cognitive imbalance. They have inadequate justification for their having behaved against their interests. In other words we end up believing what we need to believe to justify our behavior.
The classic example is the prisoner of war who is induced to give up secrets not through threats of torture but simply for a cigarette. This is more effective because it sets up a cognitive imbalance. We resolve this dissonance by saying “If I betrayed my country for a cigarette, maybe my country isn’t so important after all.” Now we are back in balance.
How we rationalize abuse
Staying loyal to an abusive person creates an extreme state of cognitive dissonance.
In addition to all the other forces which keep people in an abusive situation there is a need to find a justification for staying with an abuser simply in order to find a mental state of equilibrium.
We could not stick around if we said “I’m hate my situation and I see no signs of anything changing”. We need to find a way to say ” I’m sticking around because….” Justifying our loyalty in this way is a is a very specific form of rationalization. It is not justifying something we really want to do like having another piece of cake, it is justifying something we don’t want to do, like living with the unrelenting stress of emotional abuse.
What looks like “enabling” or “co-dependence” may be this need to bring our thinking in line with our behavior. This then feeds on itself.
How does it get started?
Once we make a commitment to someone we are usually willing to accept some of their imperfections. But as a partner’s behavior gets worse, there is increasing need to justify our loyalty to the relationship. This feeds on itself. We latch onto the few good things or happy memories and convince ourselves that this is the person we love.
As partners engage in this dissonance reduction process, their sense of their own ineffectiveness is reinforced since this also justifies the behavior. And partners may also convince themselves that this is somehow what they deserve, which also reduces dissonance but erodes self confidence. The longer this goes on the more there is to justify.
I believe that this process may also be involved in the loyalty of Trump supporters (remember: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody….”?) Thus the worse Trump behaves the more cognitive dissonance is generated. As time goes on Trump supporters have had to conclude that they really believe in him, that everything he does is for the good etc. And lately it appears that these supporters have simply decided that listening to Trump is “fun”. Going to Trump rallies is entertainment, an exciting day out with the family. In this case the commitment gets stronger as the payoffs become more tenuous. This looks like pure dissonance reduction since a vote is just a vote; it’s not a marriage. The outside forces actually keeping Trump voters loyal are fairly meager, group pressure at most.
Setting some boundaries
- Focus on your feelings. Keep track of what is being done to you and how it makes you feel. Write it down in a daily diary if it helps.
- Focus on your own effectiveness. Take some small steps to shape things in your daily life, such as leaving a room or leaving the house for a while rather than sticking around out of habit. Don’t stay on auto.
- Get feedback from supportive people. By this I mean get reinforcement for your own importance, brains, attractiveness and self efficacy. In other words ask for reassurance about yourself from trusted friends.
- Ignore people who tell you how wonderful your spouse or partner is. Don’t let them make you doubt your own experience.
- Put your emotional survival first. Recognize that you can thrive on your own, even when there are challenges. If there are children involved, recognize that they are negatively affected by your unhappiness even if you don’t show it.
- Do not think that the abuse is a sign of love. That’s what I said. As sex addiction therapists we teach that intensity is not intimacy. The intensity of abuse does not mean the person is intensely attached to you. They are only afraid you might seize your power and leave them.
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