Tuesday July 15, 2003
Dr. Irene; For the past three years, I have read everything I can read about verbal abuse. I have read about co-dependency, dependent personality disorder and people pleasers. I have been verbally abused for the 19 years we have been married. I realize how confused I am. I feel helpless knowing he is in my head. His look paralyzes me. When he says my face looks fat, I can feel it swell up. When he says my rear end looks fat, I look at myself in the mirror at my exercise club for the full hour during my workout. I am 44 years old 5'4" and weigh 120 lbs. And I am jealous of your svelte figure! He wants me to have plastic surgery for my face, stomach and rear end. He knows every button to push, every vulnerability, every fear and every phobia I have. He has made every decision in my life. I have no confidence to think for myself, even though, I have a good customer service type job that pays well and awards my achievements. He ignores our children and doesn't allow me to nurture them. :( I have been seeing counselors for two years. The lady I see now is helping me to gain the confidence to leave him. Great! Somehow, I believe he will continue to destroy my life. Still, I continue to make excuses to myself about his drinking, his stressful job, and fantasize that he will change. Yeah, he'll change. It's likely he'll get worse.
I have read all the Patricia Evans books and still have a problem with "why" he needs to control. Does it really matter why? If it looks like a duck, smells like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it is a duck! Do you understand why it's a duck? The point is that just because you don't understand how something is, it doesn't take away from the fact that it is! I am close to believing it is not my fault. Hallelujah! (When you can tell me how you "make" him come up with the yukky comments and behaviors he comes up with, I will stop praying to God and start praying to Omnipotent You! Meanwhile, I have to assume that you have no control over him, and that it is his problem when he does not accept the size of your (slim) hips. Why do I feel guilty for wanting to leave him? Because somehow (erroneously), you learned very early in life that you had to please others and forget about yourSelf. Which parent did this to you? Why do I feel sorry for him? Because you are empathic to a fault, even when it hurts you to be so. ("Keep hurting me, it's OK, I know you don't really mean to hurt me, even though you do. I just want you to be happy.") I do not love him. Good! I'm glad you understand that love is a two-way street based on mutual respect.
These questions are driving me crazy. I have been in total depression for weeks. I should feel happy for wanting to leave, for seeing light at the end of the tunnel, for saving my children and for saving myself. Hold on a minute. Why should you feel happy to leave? Besides the fact that there are no ways you "should" feel or be, don't expect to feel OK about leaving until well after you've left! It's frightening to deal with change and uncertainty! But, I don't feel relieved, optimistic or confident. It is very rare that a person will feel relieved, optimistic, or confident - until after they've done it - and gotten used to the new life, realized they can deal with it, and have enjoyed the emotional distance that is necessary to clear the vision and overcome some of the dependency feelings. Before you feel OK, you will need to see that you can be OK on your own! Look at it this way: you seem confident about your performance at work. Were you confident about your ability to handle the job before you started it? My guess is that you approached it with some trepidation, and your sense of confidence grew as you recognized you were able to handle it. That's just human nature. Please help me answer these questions. Thank you. I hope this helped. Good luck to you. Dr. Irene
Dr Irene; I am responding to your answers from the post just above.
I believe I was verbally abused by my ex-wife. Today, I appreciate my life more than ever. I feel I have so much catching up to do. I am sympathetic to the difficulties and confusion faced by the victim. I feel her danger and her loss of life. I absolutely despise the male abuser. I believe the forces in our universe want good to win over evil.
How would you help this victim? First, I want to know the victim. You answered the question about "why" the abuser needs to control by saying who cares "why"? If it's a duck, etc, etc.
I am asking why the victim cannot say "no" to the abuser if she knows how harmful he is to her and her children? She said she doesn't love him. You say not saying "no" or feeling sorry for him goes back to her childhood. Does this mean questioning why the victim cannot say "no" is the same as "If it's a duck, etc, etc."? Interesting point. To a cognitive behaviorist, like myself, (as opposed to a psychoanalytically-oriented clinician) the "why" is not terribly important. One can spend years unraveling the "why" and still not have acquired the cognitive and verbal skills necessary to change things! I am more concerned that an individual learn how to change what does not work than I am with understanding why whatever-it-is does not work. Unraveling the why - which is really interesting stuff - can always be done later. Seems you're doing just that now!
If the abuser continues to get more abusive, does this mean the victim keeps saying "yes" louder and louder while losing more and more self esteem? Sometimes this is exactly what happens. The victim loses more and more power in his/her attempt to placate/please, while the abuser's contempt for the victim rises - and abuse increases.
I hope I am not comparing apples to oranges. Is it possible the co-dependency between both parties is so strong they are merely acting out their mutually accepted roles together? With the understanding that not all cases fit into this framework, yes. Is this role playing what creates the feeling of normality in their lives? Yes. These "roles" are often what each individual understands/is used to given the combined effects of childhood lessons and their biology. Is this the reason the majority of victims never leave? Sort of. People reach some sort of adjustment (what is "normal" for them). That state, despite their complaining, is usually acceptable to the abuser - but is much, much more painful for the victim than it is for the abuser. These victims stay in abusive marriages primarily because they lack the financial resources to leave. They are not happy, but can't imagine how to get out, especially when there are children involved. Education really helps these people. First they realize they are not alone, they are not crazy, it's not their job to compensate for their partner, and what's happening to them is not OK!
Thank you for offering your recommendations on how to help this victim.
Thank you for asking. I'm glad you are out of your
abusive marriage and are enjoying your life. I hope your good outcome serves as
an inspiration to the lady above. God bless you!
Doc; If the victim of verbal abuse is brainwashed and believes she cannot function on her own and she lives 24 hours a day with this constant tormenting how does she change these beliefs? Slowly. One one step at a time. It reminds me of a child dealing with a controlling abusive parent. First of all, as a child it is impossible not to love your parents. Second, this abusive parental guidance is all the child understands. The child loses self esteem, self confidence and believes her identity through the eyes of the abusive controlling parent. Isn't the male verbal abuser treating the female victim the same as a child? Never allowing the victim to gain self confidence or even mature emotionally? I mentioned earlier the loving connection the child has with the parent. I can only imagine how much more confusing the circumstances are when the abuser and victim are intimate for 21 years. At least the child isn't connected sexually. Assuming the abused victim is connected with normal feelings, sensitivity and intuition that are not normal to the abuser and the victim is tormented for 21 years and can be compared emotionally to a confused frightened child where does the healing process start? I hear comments like "Everything I have I owe to him". If I can just make it through the holidays I'll be fine". I know the answers are not easy and every situation is different and complex. Where do you start if you are 44 years old, frightened, confused and feel worthless? The answer might be the same answer you would tell a 13 year old. I don't know. It's pretty clear that you feel like a 44-year old child. Yes, you have been dependent on your husband for 21 years. Yes, you feel frightened, confused, and worthless. I accept that you don't know where to go or how to start. However, you are NOT a child. You are NOT dependent on this individual for your survival, even though you may feel you are. The fact is that you are an adult - and not a child. That is a fundamental difference. A child cannot make it alone, but you can. Nobody said it would be easy, but you have everything you need to survive and - yes - thrive away from your abusive husband. Where do you start? Get into counseling if you aren't already. Start by calling your local battered women's shelter. Get antidepressants if you need them. Join support groups, live or online. Get a job, or job training. Talk to a divorce lawyer. Many will give you a free consultation. Do whatever you have to do, however you have to do it.
Back to your original question: how do you change your beliefs? By seeing a good cognitive therapist, though any therapy will be good therapy for you. An excellent book for you to help you get started on changing your belief system is The Secret of Overcoming Verbal Abuse: Getting Off the Emotional Roller Coaster and Regaining Control of Your Life by (The Father of Cognitive Therapy) Albert Ellis et al.
The point is that you can do this. You are in charge of your life. You. Nobody else. Sometimes you need help taking charge. Get it. If you don't do it, nobody else will... My best wishes to you! Dr. Irene
Dr. Irene, I am a 24 year old man who just finished a year long relationship (if you could call it that) with a 25 year old woman. I believe that she has some sort of personality disorder with some narcissistic traits. It was the first time that I had ever really fallen for a girl. It was also a long distance relationship. Those were the two excuses that I gave myself to ignore her erratic behavior. I really like that you take responsibility for your behavior! It started out really fast as she called me from the very beginning every couple nights and would talk to me for hours at a time. Our first date lasted a week straight as she came to visit me. She said that she was sick the whole week, but she never really showed any symptoms of being sick. Other than that though, we had a great time together and got along really well. She really seemed like the sweetest girl that I had ever met, but there was something inside me that felt wrong. I chose to ignore my instincts though because I was so attracted to her both physically and emotionally. I loved hanging out with her, she was easy to talk to, and she didn't drink and went to church every weekend (at least that's what she says...I have learned that actions speak louder than words). I thought she was my dream girl. Basically, from the very beginning, she controlled me by threatening breakups or by actually breaking up with me. Ouch! When she broke up with me each time, it almost seemed like she enjoyed how upset I got. Each time, I would tell her that I loved her and that I hoped she was happy, but I would NEVER call her afterwards asking for back. She left me twice for other men, saying that they were more "convenient" for her. She always found a way to crawl back into my heart saying that she was impressed with how strong I was for never begging for her back. When we were together, she called me 2-3 times a day and we talked for hours. Looking back, she did a lot of cruel things that I cannot believe that I put up with. Anyway, about a month ago, she started calling again. I refuse to return her calls or let her back into my life, but I am struggling with some issues. First off, I feel bad for her that she is lonely, but I realize that she will hurt me again if I let her back in. I refuse to let myself get hurt by her again. Good! There is a wonderful old saying, "Burn me once, shame on you. Burn me twice, shame on me!" Nothing that she can bring to my life is worth the pain. I feel guilty that I cannot control my emotions and just be a friend for her, but I know that it would not work. It's OK to feel badly that you cannot be there for another human being, but you are also smart enough and healthy enough to know that you can't do both. Good for you! Stay strong! Secondly, after reading your website, I wonder if I have some codependency issues (although part of me believes that I just got caught up with a beautiful girl who was very manipulative and I learned my lesson). "Some" codependency issues are not a bad thing. Being a caring person is in fact a wonderful thing. You just don't want to be caring at your own expense, repeatedly. I would assume that you've learned your lesson too. Sure sounds like you have. Now you just have to either drop the guilt, or allow yourself to feel a little guilt - but do nothing about it (like call, attempt to be her friend, etc.) Thirdly, I feel awful that, to her, it must seem like I am angry and bitter at her, since I am not returning her phone calls. Does it really matter what she thinks? She'll think what she thinks, and from what you've explained so far, it's not likely that she would understand where you're coming from anyway. Nor does it matter that she does. What does matter is that you do what is in your best interests. I want her to know that I hope she lives a happy life and I have no regrets for getting involved with her. I appreciate that you don't want to hurt her in any way and that you wish her well, but do you think you can handle it if she somehow entices you again? That's the type of "in" manipulative people use. I learned so much from this whole ordeal and we had some great times together. However, I know if I talk to her, she will either try to suck me in or she will turn everything around and put the blame on me. There you go; you are a smart young man who answered your own question. Just in case you forgot, I quote you from just above: "She always found a way to crawl back into my heart saying that she was impressed with how strong I was for..."That is why I refuse to answer the phone. So far, intuitively, you are doing the healthy thing. Keep it up!
So, my questions for you are: How can I get her to stop calling (I just want to move on with my life and every time she calls, it just puts me back on my emotional roller coaster)? You can't "get her" to do or stop doing anything. She controls what she does. The best you can do is discourage her from calling - by not answering the phone and by not returning her calls, as you have been. You will not discourage her from calling in the future by contacting her to "explain." That just reinforces her calling you, so she's likely to do it again next month. What is my best way to get closure? Time, time, and more time. Writing a journal may also help as may reading a few self-help books on her type of personality. Do you think I should meet her face to face as she may have become more fantasy and anticipation than anything else (the last couple months of our relationship was her promising to come visit and then backing out...I feel that she built up a lot of anticipation on my side and that I have created a dream girl in my head)? No. You're already telling me you don't completely trust yourself not to be conned back in. But you already know this. It's up to you to be strong, despite your tendency to want her to feel OK about you. How about this "compromise": contact her and face her when it's no longer important to you whether or not you do so. I feel that facing her would be like facing a fear. Again, it's up to you what you do. I would not advise contact. Why do that to yourself? Why do I feel guilty for walking away and not returning her calls? Because you are a decent human being. How can I stop thinking about this and get my life back? Getting on with your life is the best way to get on with your life. It may take some time, and if it does, let it. It is normal and healthy to have a little hole in your heart for a while. After all, distance or no distance, you guys were together for a year! It's normal to feel the feelings you feel. You are young and smart and time is on your side. You will heal. And when you do, you will be all the wiser for what you went through. Good luck to you! Thanks for your help. You are welcome. Dr. Irene
Doc: I have these thoughts I would like to share and ask for your opinions. I have been very focused trying to help a co-worker who has been verbally abused for many years. She married an abusive man when she was 18 and they have been married 23 years. We started discussing her situation approximately 4 years ago. At first, I could not believe she could not see her beauty or accept her intelligence. Then I learned about brainwashing, co-dependency and fear. This week I have pushed her for the one reason she stays in her abusive, hurtful, painful situation. She could not single out one reason even though "fear" was mentioned many times. Not just fear of her abuser, but, fear of this unknown without him. Then I realized something I had never thought about before. No matter how bad the abuse, she believes she can survive to live another day. She can mentally block out the abuse by staying busy at work, running errands for her children and believing she can survive his waves of abuse. She calls them "roller coaster" rides. She has accepted survival as her way of life. Her existence is not important. She has given him her life. She lives through him. It can't be about her if there isn't a her. I believe these are the reason she will not leave.
"It can't be about her if there isn't a her." How sad and how true... This is a lady who feels there are no options, so she just blocks it out and takes each day at a time. This is called "denial." Information is one of the most important elements that may help her break through her denial: information that she is not the only one out there, that there are other people in her shoes, and that there is support and a way! This knowledge may help her gain some hope. Support groups are generally available through the local battered women's shelter, even for women who are not physically battered. Therapy helps. Internet sites like this one help, and internet forums like The CatBox put her in touch with others in similar situations. I can't tell you how many women (and men!) have written to me over the years to let me know that the information they got on this site was crucial to helping them leave their abusive partner!
I was thinking about Step one from the book Violent Voices: 12 Steps to Freedom from Verbal & Emotional Abuse by Kay Porterfield which says the victim must, first, accept she is powerless to deal with the abuse. I'm not familiar with that particular book, but I can see how a 12-Step approach applies. I think most women subjected to verbal abuse do accept they are powerless. Hey.... if you haven't won an argument in 21 years you know you are not going to start winning tomorrow. I think the number one admission should be there is only one person who exists in an abusive environment and that is the ABUSER. Not the victim, not the children or anyone else. Okay? Okay! The victim may say "Fine, I don't exist". Now, what? Well, the NOW WHAT has more options if you believe you and the children don't exist. Why? Because it will be easier to reduce the list of doubts and excuses for not leaving. You won't say to yourself "He hurts me, but, he still loves me" I don't disagree with you though I think of it more like, "Who does he really love if he needs to push me around, even if he's sorry sorry? Who does he really love if pushing me around makes him feel powerful? The truth is he hurts her and he does not know how to love. Anyone. Take the "me" out of that sentence. You won't think about hurting the children because they don't exist. They only exist as objects he uses to criticize your parental decisions. Decisions he will not allow you to make. He manipulates, lies and uses the children to scare the victim into believing they need him. Same as needing her. The first step to recovery must include the total acceptance and understanding of this sick, hurtful, abusive and selfish individual. With those thoughts take back you from him. Now, you are ready to move forward. Though I can understand how you are thinking, I don't think you can ever take the children out of the equation. The marriage is about the children. Two people generally get married to provide a good physical and emotional home for the children. If the children are abused (or watch their mother be abused), are they in a good home? What will this do to the children when they grow up? Children are not "objects" and neither is the spouse! Nobody deserves to be treated like an object! Ever!
Back to your original question: your friend is terrified. Not only that, but she's never been alone and doubts her ability to make it alone. She's also likely brainwashed into thinking she can't. And, perhaps most importantly, it's likely she lacks the financial resources to leave. Finances, by the way, are often the greatest perceived barrier in leaving.
But she can leave. Many have left, and not only do they survive, they thrive.
First things first. Your friend needs information and support. She needs to know it's a possibility. Send her to this site and others. Get her the number to the local shelter. Maybe get her a book or two. One of my personal favorites is The Secret of Overcoming Verbal Abuse: Getting Off the Emotional Roller Coaster and Regaining Control of Your Life by Albert Ellis et al. Plus, there's lots more titles in The Bookshelf that may be more in line with your friend's particular situation.
You are a good friend. Good luck to her. Regards, Doc.