Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Parenting & Relationships

Be careful how you 'test' someone who's been abused

My new girlfriend was emotionally abused by her husband. Her husband took his own life over a year ago. One thing he did was pick fights: He'd do something she hated, over and over, until she got mad, then a terrible row would ensue. She learned to deal with this by not reacting, which made HIM mad, but seemed to work better for her.

Now, it seems she's "turned off" the reaction mechanism. If I do something that would bother most people, either inadvertently or in fun, there's no reaction. I wonder if this is a red flag, whether it's a sign of other problems or whether this is GF 2.0 and her way of growing.

— Anonymous

Why would you "do something that would bother most people ... in fun"? I get the inadvertent part, but the other part sounds as if you're baiting her to see whether and how she'll react. Wanting to know is understandable, but actively trying to provoke and test her, if that's what you're doing, is not cool.

If you're doing it just to be goofy, then you explain that and see if she can distinguish past from present and just roll with it. If she can't, then you see whether you're comfortable toning it down. Standard new-relationship tweaking.

To the larger question, the only thing that feels right is to say that if your girlfriend hasn't gotten therapy in the aftermath of her husband's emotional abuse and suicide, then I fervently hope she does. That is a lot of messed up stuff for one person to process.

It's not, however, a gimme that her non-reactions are a bad thing. I (and plenty of others) devote a lot of electrons to the cause of acting vs. reacting. I believe a whole lot of relationships would be more rewarding, and trusting, if the people in them resisted the impulse to react with their first emotional response to every little thing, and instead made thoughtful choices to act.

What you're really looking for here is whether she has learned to be calm or has defensively gone numb. The difference is often apparent in how giving a person is; it's difficult to shut off just one type of emotion, and so if she's merely calm, then I'd expect her to be loving, open and calm. If she's numb, then I'd expect her affection, joy and enthusiasm valves to be "turned off" as well.

Re: Turned off:

Having been in a relationship that was terribly emotionally abusive, and learning that non-reaction was the only tolerable choice when being baited, one becomes very careful about acting on one's first emotional response. I know I still overreact internally to things, especially early on in a relationship when there is little to judge a partner's behavior on except past (terrible) partners.

I don't think that makes someone emotionally numb, just cautious, and I wouldn't be surprised if this new girlfriend was seriously debating whether she wants to be with someone who tries to mess with that caution "for fun." So tread lightly. Be nice.

— Anonymous 2

Be nice — easy thing to forget. Thanks for your insight.

Email Carolyn at tellmewashpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

Comments
Big concerts this weekend: Luke Bryan, Hall and Oates, Weezer, Logic and more

Big concerts this weekend: Luke Bryan, Hall and Oates, Weezer, Logic and more

HIS KIND OF NIGHT: Luke BryanItís been three long years since Tampa has seen the well-groomed hide of Luke Bryan, the Hollywoodiest hunk in Nashville. But heís about to make up for lost time. On Saturday heíll headline his biggest-ever show here, a b...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Top things to do this week: Go Skateboarding Day, Hollywood medium Tyler Henry

Top things to do this week: Go Skateboarding Day, Hollywood medium Tyler Henry

Tyler Henry: Hollywood MediumTyler Henry, the so-called Hollywood Medium who stars in an eponymous E! hit show, is coming to town with a live show called "Life Lessons I Have Learned From the Departed." The soft-spoken 22-year-old has done readings f...
Updated: 4 hours ago
5 things to do under $5: USF Summer Plant Festival, Bridal Show, free show by AnastasiaMax

5 things to do under $5: USF Summer Plant Festival, Bridal Show, free show by AnastasiaMax

1 Summer Plant Festival: If you think you canít get anything to thrive in Floridaís brutal summers, check out the vendors with fruit trees and advice on how to grow them, along with hundreds of blooming butterfly plants, herbs and tropical and exotic...
Published: 06/20/18
Your guide to St. Pete Pride: What's changed for 2018

Your guide to St. Pete Pride: What's changed for 2018

Pride weekend kicks off in St. Petersburg Friday with a free concert hosted by a RuPaul’s Drag Race star, a parade along the downtown waterfront on Saturday and an expanded expo of vendors and art on Sunday in the Grand Central District that ga...
Published: 06/19/18

Tell Me About It: Mom/daughter dynamic feels controlling

Q: I am afraid I may be a controlling mom of my young adult daughter, but we have a dynamic in which she seeks me out often, solicits my advice, and makes me too important in her life. I admit to offering that advice because it is hard for me to draw...
Published: 06/19/18

Tell Me About It: Regretting staying too long in bad romance

Q: I recently broke up with someone after two years. Even though there were things that bothered me while we were together, I would convince myself I was overreacting, he didnít really mean it, etc.Now that itís over, I feel like a fool for not havin...
Published: 06/18/18

Tell Me About It: After years of depression, a diagnosis

Q: Iím 33 and have dealt with depression on and off since my adolescence. I grew up in a household with every kind of abuse you can think of, but I didnít start seeking help until my early 20s via talk therapy, and cut ties entirely with my abusers. ...
Published: 06/17/18
Top things to do in Tampa Bay for the week of June 18-24

Top things to do in Tampa Bay for the week of June 18-24

St. Pete Pride: One of the largest Pride celebration in the Southeast happens this weekend, bringing a rainbow of activities. Things set off on Friday with the free SP2 Concert at North Straub Park, hosted by Coco Montrese of RuPaul’s Drag Race...
Published: 06/15/18
Updated: 06/18/18

Tell Me About It: Pregnancy news confirms estrangement

Q: I just found out my son and his wife are going to be parents. Iím very excited and somewhat confused and a little hurt: Sheís seven months along. I donít know why the long wait to tell me. They live in another state, and I havenít seen them in abo...
Updated one month ago

Tell Me About It: Sister must face her poor choices in men

Q: Last night, I received my umpteenth call from my sobbing, devastated sister (mid-20s) over yet another semi-hookup-flirty-thing guy that didnít work out. He is moving away and she found out via an announcement at work, not from him.This is a years...
Updated one month ago