The Verbally Abusive Partner
By Dr. Irene Matiatos Ph.D.
I suppose that leadership at one time meant muscle but today it means getting along with people. - Indira Ghandi
Probably due to cultural and biological factors, verbally abusive people tend to be male, though there are plenty of abusive women out there as well. These people are often hard to spot in therapy - even when they are dragged into treatment by a spouse or partner. They are likeable and present themselves well. They will also offer plausible explanations to counter their spouse's seemingly irrational complaints against them. Appearances aside, the verbally abusive individual is broken internally. The identity they present to the world, and often to themselves, is a facade. Abusers tend to have little or no clue that they have a problem. Although they may admit to occasionally losing their cool or getting loud, they are very, very good at defending their misbehavior and adept at pointing out how they were provoked to behave in an angry way. For example, when Dana confronted Bob* about ignoring the family and angrily snapping at her, Bob calmly let me know that Dana was right: he locked himself up in the study trying to figure out how he would pay her excessive bills. The poor fellow would rather agonize over how to afford Dana's spending than deny her--despite the family's financial crisis. Unable to contain herself, Dana exploded into a loud defense of how her self-esteem depended on coifed hair and manicured nails. On the surface, Dana appeared to be the errant, spendthrift wife. Bob, the devoted husband, was right!
So, what's wrong?
What is wrong is that verbal abusers are "always right!" The pattern is typical: abusers justify their displays of anger or disrespect by blaming the partner. The spouse, usually over-responsible, emotional, and codependent, has, in fact, acted out--and is likely to concede. (Read about the abused spouse here.) In this case, Danaís defense appears frivolous and disrespectful of Bob. She appears to be the verbal abuser! Bob's emotional and verbal abuse becomes lost in the process and is somehow excused or forgiven. Dana, ashamed of her outburst, may, in fact, believe that if Bob is truly "verbally abusive," then so is she.
"abusers appear innocent or justified in their behavior"
It is easy to miss or misinterpret the abusive partner's subtle provocation. Yet, it is this silent provocation that characterizes the abusive element of the relationship. To the casual observer, as well as to the therapist who may be unfamiliar with the abuse phenomena, abusers appear "innocent" or justified in their behavior. The abuser's provocation is transparent, while the "hysterical" partner's reaction is all too visible.
The verbally abusive relationship differs from normal relationship patterns in distinct ways. There is an imbalance. In normal relationships, partners take turns poking at each other. In the abusive relationship, the abuser almost always provokes, and the abused partner almost always defends. The provocation is always offensive, and it is virtually transparent. The retort, by comparison, is always defensive and highly visible, with the abused partner appearing to be at fault! ("Poor Bob, I'd lock myself up in a closet too if I had to put up with her")
Another characteristic unique to the abusive relationship is that while partners in a normal relationship offensively provoke each other during difficult periods, in abusive relationships, the abuser provokes the partner when things are going well! The goal is to push the partner away because it is too scary to be too close, or to retaliate against the partner for a perceived slight.
"The expectation is that the partner be ready, able and willing to "be there" at all times, no matter what!"
The partner cannot come too close because they can hurt you. The reason the partner may hurt the abusive person, even when not retaliating, is because of their own imperfection. Every person has emotional needs! No matter self-sacrificing and understanding (i.e., codependent) the partner may be, nobody is always selfless! The partner may also hurt when they fail to mind-read well enough to provide the necessary emotional stuff. The expectation is that the partner be ready, able and willing to "be there" at all times, no matter what! This is the central cognitive schema, or deeply held set of beliefs, that create the problem.
The abuser's self-absorption and expectations spawn imbalance: The relationship is one-sided and is exclusively focused on meeting the emotional needs of the angry person. The abused partner's emotional needs are are seldom met -- and are often actively thwarted. The active thwarting of the abused partner's emotional needs is often the provocation. In Bob and Dana's case, Bob was willing to give Dana anything but what she really wanted, his emotional partnership. Partnership is something he is unable to give.A healthy relationship is reciprocal. Each partner must possess a measure of healthy self-acceptance and acceptance of the other. It is mutually understood that there is a constant give and take, with ongoing sacrifice and concession, each partner knowing that their giving will eventually be returned. By comparison, the abusive relationship is one-sided. The abusive partner, who denies vulnerability and human imperfection, is unable to participate reciprocally. The partner's imperfections are experienced as a personal assault.
This broken individual desperately needs to feel invincible, to win, and be in control. Being wrong, having to "give in," give up, or to place anotherís needs before their own is unacceptable. The only thing left, that feels somewhat OK, is to "win." If that's all there is, there is intense pressure to hold onto it.
Emotional closeness and reciprocity threaten the little power angry people have. Closeness and reciprocity imply the ability to honestly accept one's own imperfections; to be wrong, lose, give up, give in. Clinging to rigid standards of perfection, the abusive individual cannot operate honestly. Honest reality is dangerous. It threatens the little emotional stuff being right affords. Therefore, what-really-happened-in- the-world has to be bent. The angry person must "be right" to feel ok -- even if reality has to be reinvented to justify the angry personís perspective. This manipulation ensures that the abuser is "right," and gets the partner to "agree." With this agreement comes the short-lived satisfaction of having won. Too often, the codependent partner, lacking a strong sense of self, gives up his or her own reality in favor of the distorted reality of the abuser! Dana's guilt and shame over her outburst caused her to accept Bobís blame and table her initial outrage.
In sum: The angry person pushes away their partner whenever the partner is perceived to violate rigid and implicitly-held beliefs: the partner must always be there and never disappoint. Since partners are imperfect, they will disappoint. The angry person will retaliate or defend against the partner by provoking, pushing away, and/or blaming. Reality may be distorted to justify whatever it takes to be right. The angry person will come to believe the reality they invented! With little self-acceptance and its inherent sense of OK-ness, the angry person can only simulate OK-ness, by winning, being right, controlling what is by manipulating it to make it so.
"Angry people have learned to take things personally and to feel blamed. They resort to extreme measures to prove that they are not at fault!"
More often than not, the abuser was the victim of childhood abuse, emotional neglect, parental illness, addiction, difficult life circumstance, or just poor genes. This individual never learned that it is OK to mess up and own up to it. For whatever reason, this individual never learned that others are imperfect too. This individual never learned that a (fill in the blank: angry, absent, sick, drunk, etc.) parent may mis-behave toward a child. This individual never learned that the parental mis-behavior has absolutely, positively nothing to do with the child (even if the child is "bad") and absolutely everything to do with the parent! Angry people have learned to take things personally and to feel blamed. They resort to extreme measures to prove that they are not at fault!
Nevertheless, nothing, nothing, nothing excuses an adult's selfish, disrespectful or abusive behavior toward another human being. Above all, to disrespect another person is to disrespect oneís self! (How can you possibly feel good about yourself if you treat others in ways you don't respect?) One cannot disrespect oneself and have self-esteem!
Treatment is difficult and the prognosis tends to be poor for very angry people. Anything beyond simple anger management skills is reserved for the highly motivated, i.e., usually those facing the loss of their partner, those who can't stand their life, etc. Read about an abusive man's successful treatment here (or link to same at the end of this reading).
"The key words are self-acceptance and self-awareness."
The abusive individual's problem is rooted in self-absorption. The ability to consider the other person's point of view is obliterated by the absorption with perceived attack, self-defense, etc. The goals of treatment are to increase non-judgmental self-awareness, to expose underlying beliefs, and examine whether or not these beliefs work. The key words are self-acceptance and self-awareness. Self-acceptance mitigates the self-absorption. Acceptance implies empathy and forgiveness of self and other. The need to retaliate or be right is reduced. Self-awareness increases self-control and personal power. If the little micro-choices we make millions of times a day (e.g., getting angry if snubbed vs. being amused if snubbed) don't work for us, the fix is to increase awareness. With awareness comes choice. With choice comes (real) power: Personal power.
Read about the successful treatment of one angry guy
The Abusive Personality : Violence and Control in Intimate Relationships by Donald G. Dutton, Ph.D. A scholarly, research-oriented book. Excellent and comprehensive. You will really understand the abusive personality after you read this.
as of December 7, 2000