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Verbal Abuse and the Mirror of Love

What do you see in the mirror of love?

Verbal abuse is the use of words or tone of voice to demean, devalue, or otherwise hurt someone's feelings. Though rampant in distressed families, all those who love each other are susceptible to verbal abuse. The culprit is the Mirror of Love.

Attachment relationships - those held together by strong emotional bonds - serve as mirrors of the inner self. We learn how lovable we are and how valuable our love is to others only by interacting with the people we love. Young children never question the impressions of themselves they get from their parents. They do not think that their critical, stressed-out mothers or their raging fathers are just having a bad time or trying to recover from their own difficult childhoods. Young children attribute negative reflections of themselves from their parents to their own inadequacy and unworthiness.

Suppose you had internalized your body image based on reflections from a fun house mirror, which made your hips look a mile wide. You would think you were in deep trouble and that no diet could help. Once you've internalized a negative self-image, you distrust even accurate mirrors - people who are gaunt from eating disorders see themselves as fat when they look in a mirror that reflects little more than skin and bones. Even those who do not have eating disorders but who were told repeatedly as children that they were too thin are likely to see themselves as thin adults, despite mirror reflections that show a few extra pounds.

When it comes to physical appearance, at least we have lots of other mirrors to compare to the distorted funhouse reflection; this gives us a good chance to overcome an internalized negative image of the body. But there are no reflections of love other than those we get from the people we love. If you judge how lovable you are based on reflections from someone who cannot love without hurt, you will have a necessarily distorted and inaccurate view of yourself.

The instinct to believe the information about the self that loved ones reflect weakens somewhat as we grow older, but it remains active throughout life. You would probably laugh -- or at least not get angry -- at someone who implied that you have green hair, but if your husband or wife says it, you're likely to run to a mirror. The default assumption is, if your partner is displeased, there must be something wrong with you, and you need anger or resentment for protection. No matter how much we argue with loved ones about their criticisms and put-downs, we are likely to believe them, at least unconsciously. We might not agree with the particular flaw pointed out, but on some deep level, we'll perceive a defect that must be defended. Some part of us buys into the "blemishes" reflected in the mirror of love, even when we know intellectually that our loved one is distorting who we are. This hidden pressure from the mirror of love is why successful and powerful people are just as vulnerable as anyone to verbal abuse and to walking on eggshells in their love relationships.

Of course the mirror of love also reflects good news. If you learn how lovable you are and how valuable your love is from compassionate caretakers, you will naturally have a more realistic view of yourself in love relationships. You'll be disappointed and saddened sometimes, but you will hardly ever feel inadequate, unworthy, or unlovable. Just as important, when you feel sad or disappointed, you will know that you can do something to improve your emotional state, if not your situation. Your sadness will be short-lived - you'll feel bad for a while, then regroup and do something that will make you feel valuable once again. The mirror of love generates energy when it reflects value, and depletes energy when it doesn't.

In verbally abusive relationships, the mirror of love reflects mostly flaws and defects, in the form of criticism, sarcasm, resentment, and anger.

Everyone in the family begins to confuse "function" with value and "task-performance" with love. The pain is never about the facts or specific behavior -- no matter how your loved one puts it, no matter how much he or she claims to be talking "facts" or "logic" or "tasks," the message reflected in the mirror or love is:

"If you don't do what I want, I can't value you. And if I can't value you, you are not worth loving."

Why We Hurt the Ones We Love: Blaming the Mirror
A distressed or misbehaving child can make us feel like failures as parents and thoroughly inadequate. A raging or rejecting parent can make a child feel powerless, inadequate, and unlovable. A distracted, demanding, or hostile lover can make us feel disregarded, devalued, and rejected. After working for many thousands of hours with people trying to overcome painful relationship problems, I'm convinced that we use resentment and anger to punish loved ones, not so much for their behavior as for our painful reflections in the mirror of love. We want to attack the mirror because we don't like the reflection.

The only way out of this morass is to stop viewing emotional pain as a punishment inflicted by someone else and learn to act on it as an internal motivation to heal, correct, and improve. This will lead to a deeper self-compassion and put us more in touch with our deepest values, which will, in turn, inspire more compassion for one another. You can love without hurt, but only if you use pain as a signal to heal and improve rather than punish.


More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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