Bullying in relationships comes in many forms and for those of us who work with couples, it is an all too familiar occurrence. While physical bullying remains a serious and sometimes deadly problem, emotional bullying—the focus of this article—can be devastating as well. Emotional bullies may act as if they are never wrong and in turn, making compromise impossible. It is their way or the highway. They may not be verbally abusive, but their intractable stances oftentimes force their partners into submission. Other bullies may be consistently hypercritical of their partners’ ideas. In this way, partners are made to feel stupid, small, and insignificant. Screaming bullies shout their partners down. If they can yell over their partners, they win. And some emotional bullies cry or act distraught when they do not get their way. This technique confuses their counterparts. It may manipulate them into feeling too guilty to assert themselves thereby giving into to their seemingly distraught bullies.
No matter the specific style of emotional bullying, the dynamic I see most often is that of an abusive bully paired with a passive enabler. The enabler proves reluctant to stand up to the bully even if it means risking the health of other family members. Despite the pleas of friends and family, the passive partner will not answer the call. Children may even beg this parent to act but to no avail. Oftentimes the passive parent will tell the children “not to upset” the bullying parent and all will be well. The children may, in turn, develop a sense of hopelessness that can follow them into their future relationships. But why is the passive partner paralyzed? That is the question that will be addressed. The following reasons may shed some light:
1. They are true believers. Some passive parents claim that they are preserving peace via their passivity. They truly believe that the path of least resistance is the only solution available; they discourage any form of rebellion. Perhaps this type of parent grew up in a toxic atmosphere in which the only solution was to “hide” or “mediate” peace in the family.
2. They feel they have little self-worth. Some enablers fail to confront a bully because they fear that they have too little to offer the relationship. These individuals oftentimes have low self-esteem and low self-worth. One man told that he did not think anyone else would want him.
3. Fear of loss. Many individuals who have experienced significant loss in their backgrounds have told me that they will not chance challenging the bully and risking the demise of their relationship and family. Simply put, they cannot tolerate any more losses in their lives.
4. Too little practical leverage. Some individuals fear that they cannot financially support themselves; without their partners, they may not be able to survive.
5. Fear of being alone. Some people have told me that they simply cannot live alone. Even if they could afford to financially, they would not want to attempt it. Many of these individuals transitioned right from their families of origin to cohabitation or marriage.
6. A need to replicate abuse. While this is usually unconscious, many people seem to find bullies and or tolerate them because that is what they grew up experiencing. In this sense, to live with a bully is familiar. One woman told me that although her father was an abusive drunk she thought all the fathers in the neighborhood were.
7. The need to support a fantasy. Some passive enablers who have come from toxic families of origin may strive to achieve a different outcome in their current relationships. Albeit an unconscious motivation, it would be their way to “overcome” their dysfunctional pasts. The problem with this fantasy is that to make it real, they must once again join with an abusive bully.
8. The passive-aggressive enabler. Not all enablers allow the bully to get away free of consequences. Many will fight back in a non-confrontational way such as forgetting the bully’s birthday or ignoring Valentine’s Day. Some may forget to pick the bully up at the train station after a long trip. Others may encourage the children to do what they want, but to make sure to hide it from the bully. The problem with this style is that it usually sustains the relational dynamic by giving the bully more to be angry about. Enablers who employ guerilla fighting have most likely learned this style in their families of origin and still perceive it as the best way to deal with a bully.
The best way to avoid becoming involved with a bully is to know thyself. The more insight you have into your own background and unconscious motivations the better choice of partner you will make. A second suggestion would be to closely observe your prospective partner in their relationships with others. Because most people are not able to compartmentalize, you may be given a glimpse into your future with them. And third, ask your prospective mate about their prior relationships. You may find that bullying has been quite the pattern.