A bullet-proof vest for the soul: psychological abuse in relationships

In a recent  NPR interview by Michele Norris, about psychological abuse in relationships, Dr Steven Stosny (Psychologist; Author, Love Without Hurt) spoke about the gender difference regarding the things that we are mean about when we systematically put our lovers down.  While Stosny acknowledges that we all say mean things sometimes, non-abusive relationships allow for apology (and hopefully a change in behavior moving forward) while abusers tend to be self-righteous in telling the other that they deserve the bad treatment or are at fault for “making me do it.”

Stosny claims that one in four relationships have some degree of psychological abuse, and that this abuse can be a precursor to physical abuse (in about 40% of cases); yet he points out that as wrong as physical abuse is, unless it results in disfigurement or overt maiming, it is the psychological abuse that causes more damage—making people feel lastingly unlovable and worthless (while physical abuse is easier to recognize as “wrong” and out of control—about that other person having issues).

Obviously this sort of thing going on between parents is not good for children (see Aces Study), and so I thought it might be useful to raise our own awareness of the triggers that abusers tend to attack in us:

Women:  Stosny claims, “If a woman is abusive, she will usually hit the male vulnerabilities of dread of failure as a provider, protector, lover or parent. So she will say, ‘you know, I could have married somebody who made more money than you. I had better sex with my last boyfriend. You’re a terrible parent, and I don’t feel secure with you’”.

Men:  Stosny says, “When a man is abusive, he tends to hit fear vulnerabilities. He’ll make her afraid that he is going to hurt her, or he’ll trigger her fear of isolation that ‘nobody will love you, nobody will care about you’; and her fear of deprivation: She can’t have a nest, she can’t buy anything for the house, she can’t buy anything for herself.”

Perhaps it makes sense for us to consider whether, even at the sub-abuse level, we might tend to push these triggers in our partners (and to raise our own self-esteem by cutting the cruelty out in ourselves, and not buying into the cruelty that comes toward us).  It might also be useful to imagine that if these are the most universal trigger points in abusive situations, then maybe they are more about the universal threats that hurt normal human beings, and not any fair assessment of our worth.  Maybe we could benefit from some sort of imaginal bullet-proof vest that reminds us that we are good enough as providers, protectors, lovers and parents; that we are good enough to be loved by others, that we are not alone, that we do deserve to have shelter and to have necessary things for our children and ourselves.

Sometimes forces such as the economy, unfairness, etc. leave us in a situation of deprivation, but the very last thing we need to be thinking is that it’s all our fault, or even worse that it’s our just desserts for being awful and unlovable.  As our self-esteem heals, we make choices consistent with higher lovability and worth and very often our outer circumstances shift to match our inner improved beliefs about ourselves and our place in our shared world.

Keep in mind that people who feel good about themselves are generally kind.  Thus mean, abusive people have low self-esteem; they may make others feel unlovable because they themselves feel unlovable.  Sometimes a possessive abuser may even try to bring a partner’s self-esteem down in order to prevent them from having the strength and courage to leave—caging a lover with their very cruelty.

So, let’s dedicate today to good self-esteem and to compassion for those who fear that they are inadequate or unlovable—growing, healing and caring in the service of all our collective children.

Namaste, Bruce


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3 Responses to “A bullet-proof vest for the soul: psychological abuse in relationships”

  1. Lindsey Says:

    Oh, Bruce, this is so right and I needed to hear it today. It is so hard to remember, in the heat of the moment, that meanness comes from the OTHER person’s lack, their insecurities and fears … I am realizing slowly that almost everything that goes on in relationships is about the other person and not about us – we are all projecting onto each other all the time.

  2. Khim Says:

    Male or Female — Mother and/or Father. Love and accept love. Who amongst us who brought children into this world were not hoping for better? The idea that better is possible is what keeps the human spirit going. I’ve said this before and I mean it. You, Bruce, have met your calling. Thank you for so gently bringing us all along. Love to you and yours.

  3. tb Says:

    “Keep in mind that people who feel good about themselves are generally kind. ”

    so true.

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