Psychology

How Verbal Abuse Relates to Control Issues



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Verbal abuse is becoming more obvious every day. It is not that the abuse is necessarily on the increase, but that education programs that have allowed more people to recognize abuse when it is being done. Any abuse is about domination and control by one party, with subjugation and loss of control by another.

It is important to consider both aspects, as the individual who has been brought up to tolerate abuse, or who is being abused may carry on the subjugated behavior and beliefs about reality, even when not in the presence of the abuser. Worse, the victim may become an abuser themselves, believing that this is the way of the world.

This is because one of the factors in verbal abuse and other forms of abuse is the need for the abuser to convince their victim that they control reality, the truth, and the very definitions of right and wrong. The victims can actually see the abuser as right and themselves as wrong or deserving of the abuse...simply because they accepted the false descriptions of "reality". This is then the ultimate in control: being able to control the individual even when the abuser is not around.

"Emotional abuse is like brain washing in that it systematically wears away at the victim’s self-confidence, sense of self-worth, trust in their own perceptions, and self-concept." 1

It is significant that emotional and verbal abuse is a form of "brain washing", which requires that the victim has feelings of no other options in life, or no resources for escape. In such an environment, the victim eventually comes to believe what the abuser is saying, and becomes supportive and conciliatory as the only option. 

In many cases, the victim eventually goes on to more abusive relationships because they are fully invested in the belief systems that have been incorporated into their thought process and self statements.

It follows that the abusers look for those who would be vulnerable to their goals, since a stronger person would let them "have it" at the first inappropriate insult or criticism. But, there has to be some promised and doled out outcome, such as a marriage that is successful on the surface, a regular paycheck, or some leadership into more interesting or higher forms of life to lure the victim into thinking that handing over control is a superior choice, or has some form of payoff in comparison to their current situation.

The mechanisms of verbal abuse are telling. There is aggression, denying and minimizing behavior and speech. 

Agression: "One upsmanship" that gets straight to the point and puts the abuser in a dominant position is an example of an aggressive mechanism. The process is to judge or invalidate the victim in some way, which destroys the equality of the relationship. Equality in relationships is needed for a healthy adult endeavor. The other aggressive form is to assume a "parent/child" attitude or way of speaking. This form is considered to be common to all verbally abusive relationships.

The first efforts at these forms have to be tests of the recipient, because a normal person would stand up to the behavior as soon as it happens and would probably cut off the relationship if it persists. In that sense, we begin to see that abusers have "two sides", and will treat the victim in one way, while behaving entirely differently with others.

Often the agressive form takes on more subtle aspects that appear to be "helping" or "caring". These behaviors include criticizing, prying aggressively into facts without really taking them in, and "offering" ways to do things better or to solve problems.  The truth is that the abusers are actually demeaning and undermining.

Combined with behavior that "sells" the abuser as the one who knows the most and who can solve all of the problems, the more sophisticated and subtle aggressive forms can be convincing to more sophisticated adults, or the absolute word to a younger child. In the initial stages of a relationship, agressive methods are controlling methods and their success depends on the victim's willingness or requirement to cede control to the abuser.

Denying is the second form. This has three components: invalidating, withholding and countering. By invalidating the abuser wears down the other by denying the truth or reality. Money was never borrowed. The abuser did not do the damage or make the comment. The persistent and stubborn denial is eventually accepted because the abuser persistently establishes control over dysfunctional or problematic situations simply by refusing to do anything else.

Withholding is the classic "silent treatment". The "Parent" type who sits on the other end of a phone conversation and says nothing for an uncomfortably long period when told "no" to a demand will attempt establish control by that punishing tactic.

Countering is a tactic that is designed to take away the difference and equality between the two independent individuals: abuser and victim. A steady, stubborn refusal to accept any opposing or different viewpoint means that the victim is not seen as an independent entity, but as a sub component of the abuser. Taking away an individuals sense of independent identity is an ultimate control mechanism.

Minimizing is the final category of verbal abuse. It has three components of minimizing, trivializing and denying. The victim is led, through repeated minimizing to doubt their own value and abilities in life. Minimizing can be less extreme and is widely used in politics or racial and gender equity abuse situations.

Mostly, minimizing is used to invalidate the victim's negative response to bad or bullying behavior by claiming oversensitivity, having a wrong perception of the facts, or exaggerating the facts. This is a control mechanism that negates all ability to see the behavior as wrong.

Trivializing is a major control mechanism as it takes away the victim's right to be heard as an expert on their own job, life or experience. Any accomplishments or statements are demeaned or downgraded as "not that important". In time, the victim can come to perceive their accomplishments and even lives as unimportant in relationship to their spouse, older siblings, or more aggressive co workers.

Reference:

1. University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign Counseling Center, "Emotional Abuse", 2007

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