(Trigger Warning: If you yourself have been a victim of emotional abuse, please proceed with caution.)
It happened so many times that all of the details have blurred together in my memory. I can’t describe a particular context or setting, but I know one thing for certain: it happened dozens of times, and it followed the same script every time.
Early in our marriage, my wife had successfully trained me to not respond when her words or actions caused me to feel demeaned or inferior, not until at least a few days had passed.
“You bring up these criticisms too soon,” she had told me, amid a handful of other similar, arbitrary restrictions.
Like Goldilocks and her porridge, I was dutifully searching for the approach that was “not too hot, not too cold, but just right” to be able to resolve marital conflict as most other couples did. I wanted nothing more than to peacefully resolve these matters with her, so inside the Hamster Wheel I remained.
While waiting for those days to pass, without exception, no matter how I responded to the initial hurt, she would abandon me emotionally, temporarily allowing our relationship to the empty status of roommates.
After a few days, I’d bring up the matter, being as careful and non-judgmental to return to it as I could. Each and every time, her reply caused my head to swim:
“But that’s not what you happened. You didn’t say X. You said Y.”
“I didn’t say Y. I said X. I know I didn’t say Y,” I’d say.
“Yes, you did,” she insisted. “We were right there, and you said Y.”
“But I’ve never even thought Y,” I would say, sounding defensive, I’m sure, while trying to make sense of the claim. “How could I have said Y if I never even thought it before?”
“I don’t know. But I know you said Y, and that’s why I said Z. And if it wasn’t for the fact that you said Y, I wouldn’t have ever said Z.”
The Reality of Mind Control
The first time this happened, I knew it was a dodge, her intentional defense, to reject having to take any personal responsibility for treating me as badly as she had. In fact, I vividly recall believing the same over the course of the next several years.
But much can be accomplished by Repetition. Ask any former prisoner of war, and they’ll tell you it’s true. Drip. Drip. Drip.
By the hundredth time she used this tactic, I was convinced: there’s at least as great a chance that I actually said Y as not, even if I knew in my heart of hearts that I had never even harbored Y in my thoughts.
So we never got an inch closer to resolving any conflict in which she had initiated some negative action or reaction toward me (or our children, for that matter). Not once. And her fragile ego remained thoroughly insulated from any threat of attack.
For me? The brainwashing hit me down to my core.
As a teacher of Literature, I had always prided myself on my powers of observation and analysis. But here I was, wholly uncertain of my ability to understand a thing in which I myself was directly involved.
Was it possible that I had forgotten entire portions of the incident?
Most of the time, I could recall where we both were in relation to our environment. I could recall with specific detail both the emotional tone and timbre of the moment. I could remember down to the last detail what happened.
Could my mind be so impaired that I could hold certain thoughts that I myself was not even aware of? I didn’t think so. But was it possible?
Maybe. I didn’t know. But the planting of that seed caused the next horrible consideration to bud:
Could I be losing my mind?
Programming by Design
I couldn’t know at the time that my own wife, the woman I loved and cared for, was exploiting my emotional state, my personal history, my powers of observation, my recall, my reasoning faculties, and more.
To what end? Why, to control my mind, of course.
So long as she could control me, she could keep herself safe from having to bother with my petty criticisms. She could preserve her status in our home as the only one to whom actual dignity and respect was owed. And that’s all that ever really mattered.
I am altogether sickened by the knowledge that such a thing could happen between two people. But it hasn’t only happened between couples. Various tactics have been used by malevolent governments throughout the ages.
I don’t want to believe I live in a world where toxic supervisors are allowed to treat their subordinates as inferior simply because of rank.
I don’t want to accept that anyone could be so corrupt that they would knowingly and willfully work to strip away the humanity of a fellow human being.
But I’m forced to accept it. I don’t have the luxury of rejecting it. Because it’s precisely what happened to me.
You Can’t Know What You Can’t Know
To this day, I’m somewhat embarrassed by the fact that it happened to me, though I know I shouldn’t be.
From the moment we met, she worked to emotionally exploit me. But I couldn’t see it for what it was. And I had no ability to consider how all of her toxic behavior toward me could in some way be connected, not until I did the deep dive to figure this out.
There’s a term we use in the Abuse community. On that sunny afternoon just three summers ago, I red-pilled. And it changed everything for me.
After several weeks of research, I had found the term, “covert narcissists.” As I read about their common traits and behaviors, it was like time slowed down to a crawl.
There it was, nearly three decades after the abuse had begun, the answer to everything: why we had never emotionally bonded, why we could never resolve a conflict in which she was had acted badly, why this, why that, and on and on it went.
Likely, you’ve heard people say, “You can’t know what you can’t know.” While the expression has seeped into regular discourse, the statement is actually the result of a model called the Johari Window. Not knowing what you don’t know is, thankfully, only the first step to knowing something about a topic.
As you can see, we undergo a natural process when going from Total Newb to Jedi Master, regardless of the topic, regardless of your intellect.
But the model must be modified with respect to have value for the victim of emotional abuse. In most situations, the only person who really understands what’s happening is the abuser themselves.
The Boiling Frog
No emotionally healthy, self-respecting woman would ever dream of a second date with a creep who hit her during their first date. And no physically abusive man leads with his toxic behavior. Abuse only thrives if it’s done from a place of concealment, deception, and guile.
It’s the same with emotional abuse, whether the abuser is a man or a woman. We meet someone, we like them, we think they like us, and – if we don’t heed the red flags well enough – we can choose very poorly. We can marry very badly. And the consequences are tragically predictable.
But there’s the heart of the matter right there. We all navigate romantic relationships differently, according to a whole host of factors. And yet, victims of abuse by romantic partners seem to follow the same pattern, generally speaking. Why is that?
The most common and most difficult factor to discuss here is the reality that most abuse victims enter into the abusive relationship because of their past trauma that short-circuits their relational radar, either causing them to not see red flags early on or causing them to dismiss them outright.
You can’t see what you’re not able or willing to see. And if you can’t begin to know a thing if you can’t see it properly, there’s no telling how badly you might get hurt.
They say that every personal journey begins with a single step. But for people who have been victimized by emotional abuse, the past impacts made by others impair their very ability to walk in such a way as to avoid future trauma. Sadly, they’ve been hurt in a way that makes them much more likely to once again experience more trauma of the same kind.
And now you know.
If you know someone who continues to swim in the same abusive relationship waters, please share this. Because that’s what friends are for. Peace.