"The contemptuous person intends to shame the person he derides." (St. Thomas Aquinas)
Lately I’ve been attending numerous professional webinars on the topic of domestic violence, including a series from the Oregon Coalition for Change with Chris Huffineand several webinars featuring Lundy Bancroft as the keynote speaker. In all of these training sessions, one theme has been repeatedly mentioned as a particularly corrosive problem within abusive partnerships:
What is contempt, and why is it such a wounding issue in toxic relationships? Why do controlling and aggressive personalities cling to contempt as if it’s a something to be cherished, rather than a deadly vice that wounds the soul not only of the victim, but of the aggressor as well?
The answer rests in an individual’s choices and motivations. What do they desire, what’s their goal?
“Allow yourself to be loved! This is crucial, because the soul cannot live without love. The soul always wants to love something, because love is the stuff she’s made of, and through love God has created her.”
(St. Elizabeth of the Trinity and St. Catherine of Siena)
“Faith, hope, love, and the greatest of these …”
We all know the rest of this famous quote from St. Paul (1 Cor. 13:13). If you have no clue what I’m talking about, please stop reading this article, dust off your Bible, and begin a daily habit of Scripture studies.
With that settled, let’s continue. Here’s a crucial question I think we’ve all asked at one point or another in our lives: If it’s the greatest of all virtues, why is love so difficult?
There are many challenges to authentic love, but in this post I want to focus on just one—and the one that’s often the most difficult.
Love of Self.
Love of self can be particularly difficult if you've been trampled upon in an abusive relationship. When your sense of self has been buried, how can you even begin to love yourself again? When your every thought, motivation, and belief has been called into question, how can you possibly regain (or establish) love of self?
In a previous post I wrote about the early stages of a romantic relationship with someone who’s hiding an abusive personality, and how that experience likely damaged your self-image and tarnished your ability to trust your own intuition. In this post I’d like to address another reason why you were led astray — and how you should never, under any circumstances, blame yourself.
Everyone in an abusive relationship needs to realize that a skilled manipulator has an extremely fragile ego. Such individuals demand to be understood and “respected”—to the point of expecting their target to read their minds—but paradoxically they’ll never reveal their true, innermost selves.
There’s a two-fold reason for this: first, they abhor vulnerability, and letting someone know who they truly are—with the consequent risk of rejection—feels too vulnerable for them. Second, they don’t even know who they truly are.
They’re wandering … In circles.
If you’re involved with someone like this, you’ve likely come to realize that you’re expected to foresee all your partner’s needs and expectations, and to comply accordingly—even though he doesn’t want you to know the real him and therefore, you could never know what his true “needs” are.
And, of course, your own needs don’t matter.
It doesn’t make a difference if you’ve been dating for two months (yet are already love-bombed into a fairy-tale romance) or if you’ve been married for fifty years. If you’re with a skilled abuser, you’re with a liar, a manipulator, and someone who hides. He hides his true self from you, and he hides his true self from himself.
"Go away, go away, don't you come back any more! Go away, go away, and please don't slam the door!"
When a couple splits up as a result of domestic abuse—whether a temporary separation or the final straw—the victim will inevitably miss her perpetrator. For those who have never been subjected to intimate abuse, this idea seems unreasonable at best, and deluded at worst. Why would someone miss their abuser?
The answer is: Trauma Bond. But that’s a topic for another article.
In this post, I wish to discuss the agony of the “man who wasn’t there,” yet who still is. Once you’ve finally made your way out of an abusive relationship and are on your path toward healing, he still haunts you. Your thoughts, your daily activities, your motivations and your self-perception may still be guided by his gaslighting and manipulation. It takes great effort and healing to get him out of your head.
Yet it can be done!
Before I get into that, I want to quote a disturbing and applicable poem about what it’s like to finally be released from the confines of an abusive relationship … yet, at the same time, not truly released at all.
One of the first casualties suffered by someone with an abusive partner is the silencing of her inner peace as well as her once-reliable and trusted intuition. Perhaps you can relate: without even realizing what was happening, covertly and under the radar, your sense of self became whittled away. In your “previous life” you were full of hope, faith, love and trust—but now all that seems to have vanished, particularly the trust in self.
How could you have been so wrong? How could your intuition have let you down so tragically?
When you first met him, you were completely sure--from the moment he said “hello”—that he was the one for you. It was a bit like a fairy tale, or a romantic Hollywood movie.
Love at first sight.
He seemed to really get you like no one else ever had—he even told you that, so it must be true. I mean, seriously. Guys aren’t usually so sensitive and open about their feelings, are they?
But he was. Because he’d never felt this way toward any other woman—no matter how many he’d been with. He’d been so raw, so open, so vulnerable -- and you’d fallen face first in love.
But now ...
Attention has turned into obsessive jealousy and control, false accusations and demeaning comments. His “likes” have changed, but then again so have yours—because yours have to match his at all times. If they don’t … Well. Best not to wake that sleeping monster. It’s easier just to agree. Less painful, less traumatic.
One of the most destructive side-effects of being forced to endure an abusive relationship is the hazy fog that seems to settle over not only your mind, but your entire self — body, spirit, and innermost depths.
Physically you may feel depleted, exhausted, and perhaps even in actual pain. A few of the most common side-effects of chronic abuse include headaches, achy joints or muscles, and stomach issues. An erratic heartbeat or palpitations are also typical physical symptoms, as are shortness of breath, dizziness, generalized anxiety, sleep disturbances (either too much or not enough), and cognitive confusion.
Emotionally you may feel flattened and defeated or — as I heard one young adult recently describing her mother after enduring another abusive attack — crumpled and broken. Spiritually you’ve lost joy, connection, optimism, and the ability to feel the fullness of life.
You’ve lost faith, hope, and love. And when the greatest of these things has proven to be the most destructive, where does that leave you?
You feel “socially distanced” — from friends and family, from what was once the richness of your spiritual life, from yourself.
From your true inner self.
You may not even remember who your true self had once been, or perhaps you wonder if you ever knew her in the first place.
One of the hallmark traits of an abusive personality is extreme, possessive jealousy, which can take many forms—all with an end goal of isolation. Whether consciously or not, an abuser wants to keep his partner to himself, to ensure she’s available whenever he wishes, in whatever way he desires.
If his target maintains close relationships with anyone other than himself, he feels his control slipping. After all, being around other people may cause a target of domestic abuse to reassess her own situation and to be less vulnerable to her abuser’s gaslighting, criticisms, and manipulations. External friendships will help her maintain a higher level of self-esteem and self-worth—in other words, inner strength. And, if she’s exposed to other couples, she may see what a healthy relationship looks like—and begin to question her own.
Although an abuser may not consciously harbour these thoughts, the underlying attitudes and motivations are still present. Her ability to maintain close ties with others not only means he has less control, but it also means his target’s attentions aren’t focused on him 24/7—something an abusive personality absolutely cannot tolerate.
Isolation in a domestically abusive relationship is one of the key tactics of coercive control because it “deprives victims of all social support; the ability to resist weakens; it makes the victim dependent on the abuser.” This tactic is particularly toxic when the abuser begins isolating his target from her family.
How does a manipulative person accomplish his goal of isolating his victim? It all begins with convincing her that he’s the only one who truly understands her—after all, they’re soul mates, he’ll claim. He’ll employ all the romantic strategies in his playbook until she’s completely hooked. This is all done to solidify their relationship bond, making total isolation easier to achieve.
“Using pornography is not OK behavior. It is a perverse and ridiculous intrusion into your relationship. It is an insult, it is disloyal and it is cheating.” (Dr. Phil McGraw)
In today’s world, pornography not only seems to be everywhere, but it’s often viewed as “normal” and even “healthy.” Whether it’s soft porn in the form of sexy and objectifying ads for beer, trucks, clothing, movies, food, music—well, anything, really—to easily accessible hardcore porn on the internet, the over-sexualization of society has become a damaging wound. Is it inevitable that all guys—and, increasingly, women—interact with porn? Should we just shrug our shoulders and dismiss such behaviour as “the way things are nowadays”?
No. Absolutely not.
Pornography is destructive on so many levels. It isn’t merely demeaning and vile, but it also contributes to the prevalence of domestic violence.
“Most pornographic movies, magazines, and web sites can function as training manuals for abusers, whether they intend to or not, teaching that women are unworthy of respect and valuable only as sex objects for men. A great deal of mainstream pornographic material—not just the so-called “hard core”—contains stories and images showing the abuse of both women and children as sexy.” (Lundy Bancroft, Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men)
This post was inspired by a comment from one of my subscribers. After reading “Under My Thumb: Coercive Control and the Sensitive Victim,” she sent me an email to tell me that her ex-husband used to blare that same song as often as he could, laughing in a tauntingly cruel way. He’d encourage his children to sing along as if he was playing a carefree, fun game with them. They often did exactly what their dad wanted, not realizing how much they were wounding their mother—after all, they didn’t know he was purposely tormenting her, and they simply wanted his approval.
This sent a double-message to the confused and vulnerable children. First, their father made it clear that they’d only get approval from him if they went along with his “teasing,” which sent the bewildering message that if they didn’t antagonize their mother, they wouldn’t get his admiration or love. They were also being taught that a woman’s place was “under the thumb” of her superior husband.
This particular man never hit his kids. He never called them ugly, or stupid, or worthless. So, he never abused his children, only his intimate partner. Right?
Despite the current trend in referring to an abusive personality as "the narcissist," that phrase shouldn't be thrown around carelessly. Here's what it really means.
“The narcissist” and “the abuser” tend to be synonymous terms in the current trend of domestic abuse literature. It’s assumed by many authors—and therefore by their readers—that if a person is abusive they must be a narcissist. But what, exactly, do these authors mean by “narcissist”? Are they claiming that all abusive personalities have NPD, whether nor not they’ve been officially diagnosed? Or are they merely commenting on overbearing and controlling narcissistic tendencies?
First of all, no one has the right to carelessly bandy about terms as if discussing someone who has actually been diagnosed with a psychological disorder. It’s rare for someone to be diagnosed with NPD for two reasons:
I'm Jenny duBay, a domestic abuse survivor and now advocate. My degree is in Christian theology with a concentration on spiritual direction, and my vocational emphasis is on helping those who have suffered from domestic abuse to heal and reclaim their true selves.
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