Victims of abuse often feel they have some sort of control over their abuser. We come by that feeling honestly. After all, we’ve spent much time studying our abuser’s every move and manner of speech. It’s imperative to think we can control the abuser because that’s the only way to foresee the type of trouble we’re going to be in today.
We victims try to control when and where we’re abused, how we react when we’re abused (meek vs. defiant reactions result in different outcomes – sometimes), and why we’re abused. Ironically, our “control” over them is limited to causing them to abuse us on our terms. Did you ever notice that?
Poking the Abusive Beast to Cause Abuse
Some of us victims actually push the abuser’s buttons when the cycle of abuse isn’t moving fast enough. For example, perhaps you want your spouse to behave at next week’s family reunion. Maybe you want him sober or maybe you just want her to be nice to you in front of your family.
But there’s one problem. Your abuser is not at the point of blowing up yet, which means the tension between the two of you will be cotton ball thick by the time the reunion rolls around. That tension is going to ruin the impression you want to give your family. You want them to think everything is great in your marriage – it feels shameful to admit what goes on at home.
So you begin doing and saying things that you know will bother your spouse. Maybe you cook the wrong foods or go out with colleagues after work. Then you watch for their reaction, knowing just how to respond to their annoyance to hasten the upcoming explosion.
You probably want to drop some reminders about the reunion during this process. You wouldn’t want to attend the function with a shiner. Most likely your abuser will work with you on this. Abusers don’t like to leave marks where anyone can see them if they can help it.
Have you ever purposely behaved this way? Looking back, does hindsight tell you that you brought onto yourself some sort of abuse for a reason? If so, don’t admit this to your abuser (they’ll use it against you for sure)! But if you recognize yourself in the situation above in any small way, it’s time to admit that you ‘poke the beast’ to yourself.
I will never judge you for admitting to it. I understand that when we’re abused, crushed, and weakened, any hint of personal power feels better than complete subjugation. Abuse causes us to do things against our character. Forgive yourself. I did.
Pleading, Debating, & Fighting Fire With Fire
Suzette Haden Elgin, author of You Can’t Say That to Me and master of “the gentle art of verbal self-defense” says there are three natural reactions to verbal assaults, and none of them work. You may naturally
- plead for the abuse to stop (encourages the abuser to give more of the same because it’s working),
- try to logically debate with the abuser (despite the appearance of logic, the abuser argues on emotion or personal belief presented as logic),
- or be abusive in return (i.e. poking the beast).
Ms. Elgin says that the reason these three responses to verbal abuse do not work is because the abuser gets what s/he’s after: your attention. I think the abuser wants more than that. I think the abuser wants to win.
Your abusive spouse “wins” when they leave you in emotional turmoil, decimated and wondering “What just happened?” and “How did I miss the signs for that?!” They’ve won because you are weakened, enabling them to feel strong. As others have said, they seek power over you so you are easier to control.
When you react in any of those three ways, you are acting in ways as close to the definition of codependent as you can get.
Verbal Self-Defense In Abusive Relationships
I admire Ms. Elgin’s conception of our natural but ineffective reactions to verbal abuse. However, verbally abusive partners are not the pansy-at-heart type of abuser who merely acts out through verbal abuse who can be tamed by receiving positive attention. By the time someone is old enough to be anyone’s partner, what may have begun as attention-seeking behavior has evolved into outright controlling behavior.
People who are old enough to have a partner cannot be “loved” into good behavior.
So, the goal of verbal self-defense with an abusive partner becomes one of self-empowerment, not change in the abusive partner’s behavior. Try these tips to empower yourself:
- Decide what methods of defense make you feel most powerful.
- Practice using those methods of defense in your mind first. Run through a typical argument with your abuser in your imagination and see yourself reacting in your most powerful way.
- Use your methods the next time you pick up on a sign that your abuser is about to start some crap. Let’s use our hard-won knowledge for good instead of evil!
- Adjust your method if it doesn’t work as you envisioned. It is okay to fail at this before you find your sweet spot, but you won’t succeed if you give up.
If this sounds a lot like setting personal boundaries, then you’ve been paying attention. You must protect yourself, no one else can do it for you. Click to read “Self Reliance – How to Stop Verbal Abuse (Part 4)” next.
I value your insights, so please leave your comments!
*Both women and men could be abusers or victims, so do not take my pronoun choices as an implication that one gender abuses and the other is victimized.