Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Emotional abusers alternately are controlling, charming
Carolyn: From "Sweatpants Girl," in Monday's column:
"He'll throw out these scathing comments, and I feel . . . degraded sometimes. But then other times he's really complimentary and great."
S. Girl aptly describes an abuse cycle and probably doesn't even realize it. If abusers weren't also charming sometimes, then who'd stick around? Enter the cycle: Shower victim-candidate with charm and attention, trap victim, exert control incrementally, re-introduce charm when victim resists, repeat.
As always, the suggested reading is The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker. It's about violence, but its lessons apply broadly — it's the 101 on spotting and shedding controllers.
Anonymous: Re: Abuse cycle: Do these men realize they are doing this? Are they doing it on purpose?
Carolyn: It's not just men. One of the worst emotional abusers I know is female, pulling this stuff on her husband. It's not uncommon.
And, "on purpose" makes it sound so premeditated, when I think it's more like an emotional reflex. The would-be abuser, "X," is insecure and needs to feel in control — abusers' common denominator. It needn't be conscious.
So, X meets "Y," a natural pushover. X is drawn to such people-pleasers, since they'll pretzel themselves to make a mate happy, and not even question whether abusers have any business asking them to.
Now the full-courtship press is on. X showers Y with the kind of attention that most impresses Y — charm, intensity, subtlety, elusiveness, whatever . . . until Y becomes the "first" person who "ever" got X's attention this way. X will even charm Y's friends and family — all the better for insinuation into Y's life.
Remember, X needs to feel in control, which means X can't get dumped by anyone — in fact, it's X who trades on the threat of leaving Y. That's how Y ends up doing all the work to keep X happy, when the exact reverse was true at the beginning.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. So Y starts buying X's romantic act — not just because X has been in the business of Y's wish-fulfillment, but also because X is a self-promoter, establishing himself as being hard to please, having exacting standards ("sweatpants are a deal-breaker," anyone?). That tricks Y into thinking X's opinion is valuable, so having X like you is an accomplishment.
(Ugh, it's painful just to type this.)
By now, X has "won" Y. That's when X feels safe around Y — and pushes marriage. The legal hold is big — though not as big as a child, which locks Y in for 21 years to life.
Anyway, when X achieves that security, X no longer feels compelled to suck up.
That's when Y suddenly hears that X doesn't really like Y's friends and relatives, and are you really wearing that . . . ? And if Y's going out with friends, then X goes, too . . . or Y has to check in every hour, because last time Y went out solo, X was waiting at home in a near rage over some perceived behavior by Y. So, Y will start trying to pre-empt X's rage by calling to check in, leaving early, eventually not going at all . . .
As you see, it can all be subconscious on the part of X. X is just protecting that sense of control.