In therapy with clients who are in emotionally abusive relationships, I determine what coping methods they are using to handle the abuse. Coping methods are thoughts, emotions, and behaviors used in an attempt to reduce negative outcomes. Often, I find that my clients are using maladaptive coping mechanisms that are counterproductive and create more trouble. First, I help them realize how they are contributing to the abuse, and second, we find positive ways to tackle the issues and nurture emotional health.
The following terminology and true stories illustrate how people exacerbate the problems in their relationships by reacting to emotional abuse in dysfunctional ways.
Alicia & Chase
Alicia and Chase have been together for three years, even though he cheats on her, lies to her, and complains about her weight, choices, and opinions. At times, he buys her expensive gifts, helps her pay her credit card debt, and takes her on extravagant vacations to foreign countries.
Alicia believes that Chase is her soul mate and that one day they will marry and he will transform into a dependable, kind, and loving partner. Alicia’s girlfriends warn her about Chase, but she tells them that they don’t know him like she does and haven’t seen his better qualities.
Alicia doesn’t tell her girlfriends that she secretly blames herself for the relationship’s problems and considers herself lucky that a wealthy and attractive man like Chase is with her. She endures the emotional pain he inflicts on her and waits for the day he will change.
Fictional Thinking: Alicia uses fictional thinking to cope with Chase’s emotional abuse. She creates fiction about herself, her partner, and her relationship and sees the fiction as truth. Fictional thinkers bury the facts with their stories and believe what they want to believe. When friends or family members see the truth and try to expose it, fictional thinkers stick with their stories or craft more stories to refute the evidence. In many cases, fictional thinking is what draws a person into an abusive relationship. Fictional thinkers become truthful thinkers when they muster the courage to accept painful realities.
Derrick & Simon
Derrick is a makeup artist who lives in Los Angeles when he meets Simon, an actor, at a film shoot in New York. The two men fall in love and commute between New York and California for a year, until Derrick moves into Simon’s home in Greenwich Village. Simon presses Derrick to get married. Derrick agrees, even though Derrick wants a longer relationship before they commit to each other.
At the wedding, Simon humiliates Derrick by shoving cake in his face during the cake-cutting ceremony, but Derrick chalks up the incident to Simon’s wedding nerves. Life is blissful during the first few months of their marriage. Simon’s career as an actor in a popular television series opens up doors to celebrity friends and trendy nightlife. Derrick enjoys doing things for Simon, and Simon comes to depend on him.
But Simon’s requests turn into demands. At three o’clock one morning, Simon arrives home with friends who are drunk and hungry, wakes up Derrick, and orders him to cook steaks. Simon is irritated, but he gets up and cooks the meal.
A couple of weeks later, Simon mortifies Derrick at a private party by pushing him into the pool with his clothes on. Simon laughs. “You look like a wet rat!”
Derrick is shaken and confronts Simon about his disrespectful treatment when they return home. Derrick tells Simon he loves him and relishes their life together, but he will leave if Simon doesn’t improve his conduct toward Derrick. Simon apologizes and asks for another chance.
Four years go by, during which Simon continues to sabotage their relationship by mistreating Derrick. Derrick continues to give Simon passes on his behavior and waits for the day when Simon will change. Derrick believes he has been good to Simon for a long time, and Simon owes him a lot. “Sooner or later, Simon will realize how much I do for him, and he will treat me well,” Derrick reasons.
Meanwhile, Derrick is deeply conflicted and unhappy with their relationship and with himself.
Hooked on Hope: Derrick is hooked on hope. He clings to the expectation that Simon will change for the better, when there is no real and lasting evidence that change will happen. Unhappy partners pin their hopes on the possibility that their mates will become aware of harmful behavior, feel shame and remorse, and transform their ways. Hope hookers give their mates the power to resolve issues and wait for that resolution. They don’t realize that people who mistreat others don’t change easily. They will wait forever if they keep issuing more chances that lead to the same disappointing results.
Candace & Jürgen
Candace won’t see Jürgen’s belligerence, groundless accusations, unreasonable demands, and suffocating know-it-all attitude as emotional abuse. She accepts that he is a difficult person, but she plasters over his abuse with a variety of excuses and explanations.
Sometimes Candace attributes Jürgen’s behavior to the highs and lows of marriage. At other times, she relies on a male stereotype that describes men as unable to talk about their tender emotions, so they express them in “manly” ways. Candace believes she has more maturity and emotional strength than Jürgen does, so she “takes the high road” and tolerates him as if he were a well-meaning but willful teenager.
Meanwhile, Candace stays in a heightened state of anxiety and has episodes of debilitating fatigue that have no physical cause.
Masking: Candace is masking the truth. She is unwilling to acknowledge the presence of emotional abuse in her relationship. Those who use masking to cope minimize or deny their mates’ abusive behavior and act as if their relationships are normal or will eventually improve. They conceal their torment and deny the reality of deeply troubled unions with their partners. They may see themselves as morally superior to their abusive mates.
Nina & Paul
Nina depletes herself to meet Paul’s oppressive mandates and suffers from his wrath if she doesn’t. On their way to meet Nina’s parents for Sunday lunch, Nina weeps while Paul scowls. Her nerves are shot after yet another one of Paul’s jealous fits, in which he charges her with being interested in a man she talked with at church.
When they get to the restaurant, Nina asks Paul to go inside and meet her parents while she stays in the car to freshen her makeup. “Tell them I’m on the phone,” Nina suggests.
As Nina works to conceal her puffy nose and red eyes, Paul transforms into the picture of joviality and greets Nina’s parents with bright-eyed enthusiasm. “Nina got a call from her boss on the way over, and she’s finishing up her conversation with him,” Paul lies. “She’ll be in shortly.”
When Nina walks in and smiles at her parents, her mother’s face falls. “My allergies are acting up again,” Nina fibs. “I probably look worse than I feel.”
Staging: Nina is staging to cover up the abuse in her relationship. She colludes with her abusive partner to present a united front of “happy couple” when the two of them are with others.
My blog is all about helping people understand emotional abuse tactics and the damaging effects in their relationships. Gaining insight into how to identify and stop controlling and manipulative tactics can result in healthier relationships and a better quality of living. Keep the comments and questions coming. Let’s work together to expose and stop emotional abuse.