UPDATE 22 February 2017. This article is one of the most popular I have ever written and continues to receive many hits, so I want to add useful additional information as I come across it, such as this excellent piece which has just appeared on the Huffington Post:
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Couldn’t understand why people stayed with abusive partners
I struggled to understand why people stayed with abusive partners, or went back to them. Then one day a crisis caused me to realise that for years I had been in a situation that had parallels with such abusive relationships.
I hadn’t recognised this partly because the relationship did not conform to the stereotype. Not only was it not a case of a brutal hulk of a man physically abusing a timid little woman, but it was also not a sexual relationship.
Nonetheless, when I woke up, it was as if a veil had been lifted. I understood many things I hadn’t before. I had been the legendary frog, boiled alive because it did not notice the gradually rising temperature of the water it was in.
Grateful for being boiled
If I could find myself in this situation, I thought, then surely many others could too. So, in the hope of helping you to avoid the same mistakes, I outline my story here. I realise that what I experienced is extremely mild compared to what many go through, but I think certain aspects of it will have general application. I am not writing this to elicit sympathy. Indeed, I feel I have gained great insight and so am now unlikely to experience the same thing again, and am therefore almost grateful for what I have been through.
Every relationship has many aspects to it. I am only relating here the aspects of my ‘friendship’ which I believe have general relevance to abusive relationships. Apart from the omission of irrelevancies, I have also simplified some bits slightly, but what follows remains an accurate account of the psychological content of my experience.
Like most longstanding relationships, my ‘friendship’ with X started well and for good reasons. This person was, on the surface, charismatic, creative, good at expressing himself/herself in writing and appeared to share my values. It seemed to me that something positive, dynamic and mutually supportive could emerge from our association.
Our ‘friendship’ went through the same cycle four or five times (I could work it out by going through my diary, but I don’t want to re-live the experiences) before I at last gained insight and resolved never to respond to X’s approaches again.
Phase One – largely positive
In the initial phase of a cycle we would get on well. As X always appeared to be ‘up against it’, engaged in some worthy struggle against the odds, I naturally tended to help him/her with his/her various projects. X would treat me in a friendly and respectful way. I met several really good people through X, and I remain grateful for this. Even in this generally happy phase, however, I realise that I felt slightly frustrated by the one-sided nature of our relationship: X invited me to things, but never accepted an invitation from me and so we always met on his/her territory. Similarly, my opinion on various topics was not of nearly as much interest to X as what he/she had to say. X was driven, and focused almost entirely on his/her own projects – you could say ‘self-absorbed’. In a mild form, this can be a good thing, in that it can make for great productivity.
My help was initially gratefully received, but as my contributions became less needed with regard to any particular project (either I had given all I could give, or the project’s success or failure had become obvious), X seemed to have less tolerance for me…
Phase Two – walking on eggshells
In this phase I felt as if I were walking on eggshells as X became increasingly rude. It felt as if everything I did or said was being misinterpreted and I found myself constantly apologising for myself, which only seemed to make things worse.
Ordinary polite gestures such as offering to help with simple physical tasks would be rejected scornfully, as f I had done something offensive. Attempts at friendly conversation or chat would be rebuffed and/or met with a request to communicate ‘only about important things’, without these being defined. X would happily jabber away with third parties about his/her recent adventures, sometimes in front of me, having just rebuffed my polite enquiries on the same subjects (‘You saw the pictures on Facebook!’)
Making allowances/Desperate attempts to placate
Anxious about being misunderstood (feeling I had inadvertently caused X offence), I tended in this phase to try ever more desperate ways to communicate, to placate, to ‘make amends’ and to reassure X of my best intentions, always excusing his/her behaviour towards me as being my fault and/or being a symptom of the stress/pressure poor X was under in his/her ‘noble struggles’ with the wider world. Towards the end of this phase, I felt as if I were no longer walking on eggshells but on a minefield and, furthermore, as if I had leprosy.
Phase Three – breakdown
By the time this phase was reached – invariably after my useful purpose in X’s latest project had been served – I would be feeling anxious, frustrated and depressed: concerned about X but unable to help. I was walking on solid mines, not just a minefield. X would react hysterically to a perceived misdemeanour on my part, and send me a message (by email or Facebook) accusing me of dreadful character flaws and behaviour, and also barring reciprocal communication.
Having little insight, I would tend to continue for a while with destructive introspection (‘I must really have behaved badly! At the very least, I have failed to express myself well.’) and in making excuses for X. This was ridiculous, as objectively my behaviour had been impeccable – or at least normal – and X had been way out of line, but I couldn’t see it then, such was my ability to think impaired by my depressed state brought on by a long period of escalating abuse.
How did we return to Phase One?
After months without any contact from X, during which I would recover my joie de vivre and self-esteem, move on with my life and forgive X and myself for everything, I would receive a new Facebook friendship request from X. Still aware of all X’s good points, thinking that he/she had had time to reflect on things and also start anew, and so hopeful that this time we would communicate well and have the wonderful friendship I had wanted from the outset, I would accept the request. X would issue me with invitations, and we were into Phase One again…
How did it finally end?
The crisis at the end of the final Phase Three involved what I can only describe as the email equivalent of a classic ‘green-ink letter‘ (full of hysterical accusation, repetition, capital letters and colours) following what was a minor misdemeanour on my part (if you can call it that). In fact, the straw that broke the camel’s back (we’re having a ‘field day’ with clichéd metaphors here) was actually not a casual mistake on my part, but something I had done out of consideration for another party (a woman in her nineties) that slightly inconvenienced X. The mismatch between the ‘offence’ and the torrent of abuse I received was extreme. The email was also revealing in another way: X’s assassination of my character, ironically accusing me of projecting my issues onto him/her, spoke volumes about what his/her intractable problems were. It finally became clear to me the extreme and entrenched nature of X’s problems and the fact that I would forever remain powerless to fix things. I was free!
This is perhaps the most important part of this essay – the signs of a ‘boiled frog’ relationship that I should have picked up on earlier. I believe it is likely you are in such a relationship if you experience several of the following:
- Your friends warn you that you are being used/abused. (This is perhaps the clearest indication that something is wrong, and it happened as early as the second cycle of my ‘friendship’ with X. Friends who directly observed our interactions told me that X’s behaviour towards me was unacceptable and that I was being used. One who had merely heard an account of the end of the first two or so cycles and had never met X, told me that X was ‘poison’, would definitely approach me again, and even risked destroying me if I took up the ‘friendship’ again. Instead of taking my friends’ advice, I defended X vigorously, making excuses for the behaviour. I have recently heard details of X’s unhealthy interactions with several other people – I was clearly not entirely to blame, despite X’s extensive green-ink critique.)
- You feel as if you are always walking on eggshells.
- You find yourself constantly feeling the need to apologise.
- You experience chronic anxiety with regard to your relationship.
- You are aware that X (whoever this is for you) behaves differently towards others.
- There is a lack of reciprocity in the relationship, be this with regard to the focus of conversations, the issuing and acceptance of invitations, the performance of little services for each other, or whatever.
- You find yourself becoming increasingly depressed.
The contribution of one’s own personality and upbringing
I was brought up to be polite and courteous, to turn the other cheek, to open doors for people, etc. I realise now that this made me vulnerable and was perceived by X as weakness. I speculate that X initially saw me as useful but when my purpose in any one project had been largely served, and when he/she had been rude to me a few times and I had failed to put a stop to it, he/she began to feel bad about his/her behaviour. However, lacking insight into this, X subconsciously justified his/her behaviour by finding fault with me. This escalated, with X’s apparent loathing and despising of me really a projection of his/her own lack of self-esteem. The worse X behaved towards me, the more he/she despised me. the worse he/she treated me…
The abuser as victim
I think it is likely that X, and most, if not all, abusers, have themselves been abused and/or suffered in situations of powerlessness in dysfunctional relationships. Possibly part of the reason they may loathe/react against their own victims is that these people evoke painful memories of what they themselves were like in the past. They wish to distance themselves from such painful memories. Another possibility is that they have grown up knowing only one way to deal with relationship difficulties, and that is through abusive behaviour.
Labels can be misleading
There are many degrees and varieties of abuse, and many of us are potentially both abused and abusers at various times in our lives. Without awareness, it is all too easy for the abused to become abusers, as suggested above. I think one should always allow for the possibility of reform, and for the possibility of an abuser in one particular relationship not being so in another. Labels can be misleading.
How not to be a boiled frog, and to help your abuser
I have resolved never to turn the other cheek more than once (and that for only very minor offences). Everyone can be annoyed occasionally and do or say something rude, but repeat offences should, I think, be met with a polite request to desist, along the lines of: ‘That is unacceptable. I’d appreciate it if you apologised and did not repeat it.’
A third offence requires a stern warning and an ultimatum. A fourth offence and it is time for you to leave. I think this is the best approach, even if your only concern is for the potential abuser’s wellbeing. By tolerating bad behaviour you are only encouraging escalation and also, through the mechanism I suggested above, potentially contributing to worsening the abuser’s self-esteem, rather than helping it. You are enabling him/her to avoid the consequences of his/her unacceptable behaviour and so not obliging him/her to address it.
In short, do not tolerate lack of courtesy. It helps no one.
To mix metaphors, let’s hope that this little account will stop several hideous batons of abuse being passed on, and so prevent other frogs from being boiled. My relatively minor scald marks are healing, and I am hopping away from the steaming water, looking forward to more pleasant ponds. Let me know if this essay rings any bells with you. (I couldn’t resist one final metaphor!)
Since posting the above I have had some interesting feedback. Someone mentioned the words narcissism and paranoia. Then I chanced on some interesting YouTube videos on narcissistic personality disorder. They rang some bells, and I post a few below for your interest. I also came across an article on ’15 Styles of Distorted Thinking’. It’s a useful checklist to run through whenever you find yourself getting upset about something. Next, a friend referred to several interesting articles, including this one, which rings very true: Recovering from Narcissistic Abuse, Part II: The No-Contact Rule. In August 2014, I came across this article: Five Powerful Ways Abusive Narcissists Get Inside Your Head.
I have also attended a fascinating talk by the amazing Avigail Abarbanel on the Israeli settler-colonialist mentality, its roots in the abuse and trauma suffered by the Jewish people over centuries, and its parallels with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). This essay will make her argument clear to you. It contains a description of NPD which rang bells with me, given the experiences I describe above.
This is an interesting article which, although it refers to male abusers, could apply to either gender: The Real Reason Why We Love Bad Boys, Toxic Partners and Emotionally Unavailable Men.