I have had occasion because of an unpleasant experience with someone close to me to think of something I learned once.
In the interests of confidentiality, let’s just say that the situation from my past. The “lesson” (with a different person than the one mentioned in the above paragraph) involved me and a “significant other.” It was a long time ago. It involved a relationship which began auspiciously and which endured.
I had previously had a horrible relationship with someone else which caused me great pain. It took me a long time to get over it; caused lasting damage to me emotionally; and prevented me for quite a while from being able to trust someone and get involved in a new relationship.
But then I met Miss Right. I learned from this newfound relationship something that I had hitherto not been able to see or recognize for myself, even dimly: namely, a sixth sense which she had about how to avoid emotional damage to oneself and how to protect oneself from it; an awareness of when it is advisable to step aside, get out of the way, and extricate oneself; an ability to know when conditions warrant this.
I learned, quickly, from my new partner that one doesn’t have to submit to being dumped on and abused.
Prior to this, my habitual way of dealing with emotional abuse — abuse of any kind — was to stand there, so to speak, and submit to it.
From my new significant other, I learned that there was another way.
If she felt (this was, as I said, early in our relationship) that our relationship was starting, in the least, to become abusive emotionally, or “trending” in that direction, if she got a hint that I was going to be mean to her, she was quite prepared to leave, to exit, right then and there. With no further discussion. Without having to plead with me to change my behavior. She had apparently done this in the past.
Her approach and instincts were that no relationship was worth the trouble of being disrespected and abused. Better to have no relationship than to have an abusive one.
I quickly picked up on this, and it cured me of any misogynist instincts or tendencies I may have had. I knew that if I mistreated her, froze her out emotionally, it would be sayonara. She would be gone fast.
A valuable lesson she taught me. It was a lesson that worked both ways. I learned not only the strategy of beating a fast exit whenever I got an inkling that someone was having fun being nasty at my expense. I learned that it works both ways, and that no one should have to put up with abusive behavior from me.
Please note: I don’t intend to imply that at the slightest hint of a disagreement, it is advisable to terminate a relationship. People in intimate relationships (e.g., married couples) or in close quarters quarrel all the time.
What I am thinking about in this post are situations where there is an ongoing pattern of hatred or emotional cruelty, or perhaps an intermittent pattern, but where, when it rears its head, one knows instinctively that it’s more than just a disagreement. It could be a situation where what seemed at first like a mere disagreement has led to festering anger, causing the other person to wish to hurt and degrade you. When you can sense hatred or vindictiveness, chronic surliness, and the like, then, it seems, it’s time to exit, so to speak, in order to protect oneself. This can happen with friends, lovers, and close relatives. I have experienced it.
To me, a good yardstick might be: are you and the other person inclined to bicker? Well, so what? It may or may not be serious; perhaps one or both you are crotchety. But, be alert for cases when a person whom you were once close to and on good terms with (and more) — so you thought — suddenly seems to be looking constantly for ways to undermine you. That’s a bad sign. You seemed to be in their good graces. Now they are constantly finding fault and won’t cut you any slack. Their face is set in a continual glower; their demeanor towards you is one of outright anger, or barely concealed anger — chronic anger, that is — which consumes them. They are constantly looking for things about you to take offense at.
You can see this in people who are constantly looking for opportunities to attack. You make what seems to be an innocuous remark; they pounce on it. They enjoy finding fault with you in matters and using standards of measure large and small. (For example, they may say they find you obnoxious, a “big” measure; or, they noticed that your tie isn’t knotted properly or your shoelaces have come undone, a “small bore” measure.)
These are the kinds of situations I’m talking about.
In my opinion, such situations can occur with persons with whom one has been intimate or had a long time relationship. Things change, and suddenly they are inimical to you. Or, present you with something you can’t endure.
In such cases, no matter who it is, it may be advisable to completely cease communications. You may find that you feel better despite the pain of separation, and despite the thought: I can’t believe it’s come to this. Having no relationship is better than having an abusive relationship, than having one in which one finds oneself being attacked and degraded, no matter who the other party is. Perhaps a rule of thumb might be — I have found it helpful — is to ask oneself: is damage control or damage repair possible? Is the other person willing to be reasonable and listen to you? When you realize that discussion will only lead to more attacks upon you or degradation, and continual “hostilities,” with no possibility of agreement, meeting of minds, or resolution foreseeable, then it’s time to get out with as much of you is still intact.
I have been doing some more thinking about emotional abuse. When and how does it occur? And why do people submit to it?
Based on my own experience, it seems that it is often the case that one person — or sometimes a group of persons — feels superior to someone. In the case of the latter, a group, it occurs when the group treats one person as an outcast or pariah, or not as good as the others, and gangs up on the target of their abuse. By so doing, they have a collective sense of being better than the lowly reject: more refined, knowledgeable, and sophisticated; and, on the right side when it comes to contentious issues or matters or dispute — they love to be in the majority.
It often seems to be the case that the feelings of superiority are not necessarily based on anything definitive, but that the supposedly inferior person plays along with the other’s (or others’) treatment of them as an inferior. The supposedly superior person, the dominant one, is used to telling the supposedly inferior person what to do and how to act, pointing out his or her faults, and so on. Often, there is some sphere of activity in which the “superior” person enjoys contemplating his or her supposed superiority to their “inferior,” or perhaps it is some mark of distinction or achievement. It seems to both parties that things have always been this way, and the “inferior” person doesn’t want to “rock the boat.” Perhaps he or she dimly senses that being “uppity” (contentious when it comes to submitting to authority) or questioning authority will cause the dominant person or group to come down hard on them.
Then something happens. The “inferior” person forms a relationship with someone new who appreciates them, doesn’t look down on them, or admires them, and helps to free them from “bondage.” Or the “inferior” party makes strides forward in life and begins to feel less inferior. Or the “inferior” person — usually by incremental steps at first not noticeable — begins to surpass the “superior” person in some field of endeavor in which the latter took for granted that he or she was superior or more knowledgeable. It shouldn’t make a difference, but it does, because the “superior” person wants to prevail, or be dominant, in all respects.
What seems to often happen is that the “superior” person becomes jealous or can’t accept the “inferior” person’s newfound assertiveness. If the “inferior” person begins to question the authority of and things said by his “superior” — the latter’s edicts — the latter can become very angry. The “superior” person has been used to deference on the part of his or her “inferior” and has always secretly taken pleasure in having his or her pronouncements accepted and adhered to. He or she also enjoys giving advice and playing the role of mentor or boss.
The hardest thing to deal with is jealousy. Or, as the poet James Thomson wrote:
“Base Envy withers at another’s joy,
And hates that excellence it cannot reach.”
— The Seasons (1746)
I have observed this with former friends and relatives of mine and with friends of my wife. If they observe you moving ahead in areas they always thought were their domain, or perhaps just getting ahead in life — or forming new relationships which they are not a party to and in which your new partner doesn’t acknowledge their authority — they often become sullen and resentful. And lash out. Using a pretext to criticize you. Or dropping you altogether.
It usually behooves you, at this juncture, to cease relations with them.
— Roger W. Smith
August 2017; updated February 2018