The Dynamics of Abuse

Can focus on social media abuse shed light on abuse in relationships?

Posted Jul 23, 2018

Abuse on twitter can be ignored, but some people suffer similar abuse in relationships that are more difficult to switch off.

Last week (July 20) Maggie Haberman wrote a piece in which she explained her decision to “pull back from Twitter." Her frustration with Twitter, and the anxiety she suffered in engaging with it, will resonate with many who value honest, clarifying discussions.  Haberman notes that Twitter, filled with “anger, intellectual dishonesty, motive questioning, and sexism,” distorts the discourse. The initial attraction of Twitter was as a venue to promote her own stories and provide context, gradually adding more of her own voice.  Recently, however, she found herself “spending an increasing amount of time explaining an errant word or a poorly phrased tweet.” An offhand comment could easily spark a firestorm. It became “harder to discern what is a big deal and what is not.”  

Discerning users of Twitter will recognize all this. Twitter, like much of social media, thrives on quick, strong and shallow judgments—particularly negative ones that are more likely to get attention. Just as in our social lives, reasoned and civil comments have far less impact than rudeness, abusive comments attract more followers on social media. Ease with which users can promote their own judgments is as thrilling, and as corrupting as power. The insults and abuse that are hurled are not targeted at an actual person, who can be deeply hurt, whose relatives can be deeply hurt, and whose life can be overturned. After all, in this world, where users are reduced to profiles, where photos relay only bits and pieces of a person, indifference is more common than empathy.  

Outrage becomes a kind of entertainment wherein users compete for the stage. This competition, alongside the tendency for angry and negative views to be contagious, reinforces and escalates abuse. Furthermore, social media lacks the usual feedback that regulates our behavior toward others. We do not see the unmistakable expressions of pain; there is no crack in the voice, no tearful eye or downturned mouth to remind us that we are abusing a real person. There is no one present to scoff at careless cruelty, no tensing around the eyes, no pull of muscle at the corner of a mouth to signal, “This is absurd and unfair.” And then, when perverse “approval” for such abuse comes with forwarded posts, additional followers, and like-minded comments, the nasty effect rather than good judgment, is rewarded.

When Haberman complained to a friend that Twitter lodged a “feeling of anxiety in [her] chest” and that she “could not turn off the noise,” her friend very cleverly posed one of the key prompts used in cognitive behavioral therapy: “What is the worst that could happen if she stepped away from Twitter?” Presumably, this focused her mind, because she then decided to step away from Twitter.

This is all well and good for a Twitter user, but Haberman’s wonderful descriptions of the mechanisms of abuse on Twitter reminded me of how these same techniques are used in abusive relationships. Sometimes the abuse is from parent to child; sometimes the abuse is to a partner; sometimes this abuse occurs in a tightly knit group (particularly a cult), or even in the workplace. Here are the familiar dynamics of abuse:

1.   Anger distorts the conversation: generally one person’s anger becomes the center of attention and the implied litmus test for what is acceptable and what is not.

2.   When you begin to exercise your own voice, accusations fly. There may be times when the relationship seems open and forgiving, and in such moments of relaxed happiness, you begin to speak your mind, casually, in your view, neutrally.  Suddenly, however, you find you have “stepped out of line” or “revealed your stupidity” or displayed “your true colors.”  

3.   There is then much motive-questioning and an abusive version of mind-reading.  “You’re trying to undermine me,” you may be told. “You were showing disrespect.” Or, there is contempt: “That shows how much you know.” 

4.   You then spend a great deal of time and energy explaining what you really meant.  You try to placate with assurances of respect and compliance.  These may dampen the angry fire, but most people in this situation describe how they are sent some signal of warning, or deepening suspicion, along the lines of “I see I have to watch out for you.” Or “You’re not going to get away with this again.”

5.   It is “hard to discern what is a big deal and what is not.” Since, in an abusive relationship, the measure of acceptability resides only in the abuser’s response, and, since abusers are notoriously volatile, it is often impossible to predict how what seems like an innocuous comment can trigger ferocious criticism.  

It is useful to be reminded that it is within our power to turn away from abuse on social media. When the abuse arises within a close relationship, however, particularly that of parent and son or daughter, the answer to the question, “What is the worst that could happen if I step away?” is far more complicated and taxing. No single post can help someone answer this question, but it can suggest ways to frame the challenge.


Michael Xenos, M., &  and Peter Ladwig, P. (2013). The “nasty effect:” Online incivility and risk perception in emerging technologies.The Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, . Vol.19 (Issue 3), Pp 373–-387.