The fable goes that you can boil a frog alive. Just immerse the frog into a big pot of room temperature water, place the pot on the burner, and ever so slowly raise the heat. The temperature will rise so slowly that the frog will not notice. The frog’s body acclimates to the water as it gets hotter and hotter, and before the creature knows what’s happening, it succumbs, simmered to death.
In partner relationships, emotional abuse can sneak up in just this subtle way. In many families, teasing is a way to show love. As a teen or adult, you may tolerate such teasing, oblivious to the often inherent, yet thinly-veiled criticism. One woman put up with taunts of “clumsy,” which her partner turned into a nickname, “clumsy Clara.” Even though he insisted it was a term of endearment, she had not come from a teasing family and to her it was an insult. Over the course of the relationship as positive interaction declined, this label hurt more and more, affecting her self-image. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy; she tripped much more often when her critical partner was around. The socially-accepted vehicle of teasing also allowed her partner to up the ante, and he soon became overtly abusive with his words, worsening his taunts.
Emotional abuse is any behavior that is designed to control and dominate another, especially through humiliation, intimidation, and guilt. While we might recognize name-calling and constant, overt criticism as abusive, I think we need to call attention to more subtle tactics, such as repeated disapproval or even the perfectionistic demands of a partner who can never be pleased. One woman’s husband constantly chided her to work a little smarter in running their busy household. They had five children, all under the age of six. The poor woman was doing a respectable home-making job and the children were happy and healthy. But the fact that their home was not magazine-perfect allegedly authorized him to continue his criticism of her performance.
John Gottman, one of the premiere marital researchers in the United States, has identified such criticism and contempt as patterns that sound the death knell for a relationship. Criticism that involves attacks on personality or character, with the intent of making one person right and one wrong, is abusive: “You always,” “You never,” “You’re that type.” Contempt involves attacks on sense of self, with the intent to insult. Name-calling, sarcastic teasing, and nonverbal expressions such as eye-rolling and sneering are included. A third pattern that falls into this simmering pattern of abuse is stonewalling: withdrawal from the relationship to avoid conflict. This can be seen as trying to be neutral, but when stony silence, distancing, and disconnection convey disapproval, contempt and/or smugness, the effect is emotionally damaging.
The lesson of the frog becomes relevant as subtlety and sophistication of the abuse increases. In current culture, an accepted premise is that we must compromise for relationships to succeed. To stand ground on some issues, to refuse to sacrifice one’s wishes, is seen as a selfish threat to the relationship. This assumption may be true, in extremes. But the degree to which many women have accepted this directive sets us up for emotional abuse.
People-pleasing is socialized in girls from an early age, by phrases such as “did you hurt your friend’s feelings?”, or “don’t make Mommy mad”. We’re good girls. We want to get along. In the name of compromise, too often we internalize the unrealistic expectations of others for our behavior. After all, we already hold June Cleaver standards for ourselves. Or we lower our tolerance for another’s behavior; he’s stressed, she’s tired, he’s overworked. Criticism, impossible standards, or another’s temper are crosses we think we must bear to make the relationship work. We don’t see that the temperature is rising. The emotional abuse begins to wash away our self-esteem and confidence, much as boiling vegetables leaches out all the nutrients.
Healthy compromise is essential to relationships. Compromise, not sacrifice. When we sacrifice parts of ourselves to subtle efforts to control us, this is emotional abuse. The biggest mistake I see in women is this sacrifice, this loss of one’s self in order to make a relationship work. (This can happen without emotionally-abusive pressure from a partner. But such abuse accelerates the process.) In any significant relationship, the ideal is that our partners affirm us, allowing us to be our best selves, rather than attempting to recreate who we are. Compromise is about events and preferences, not changing self to fit another’s model. Compromise needs to be balanced, with both parties giving and taking. Sacrifice involves losing your strength and sense of self for the sake of the relationship, in a one-sided battle. And emotional abuse in the form of stonewalling, contempt, and endless criticism is a powerful vehicle to this loss of self.
The first step in freeing ourselves from the simmering pot of emotional abuse is awareness. We need to step outside ourselves and question. Who says this is an okay way to be treated? As a culture, we have an odd double standard, allowing behavior in couple relationships that we’d never tolerate elsewhere. If you are being chastised, teased, criticized, judged–verbally or nonverbally– in a close relationship, do a reality check. Is this any way to treat another human being? If you would not treat a friend or a coworker in this manner, speak up. “No one deserves to be treated like this” is a powerful statement to confront the abuse. Love should not hurt.