Friday, May 4, 2012

On emotional abuse (from an advice column).

Q. Dear Carolyn: I’m not sure if I’m being overly sensitive and/or nitpicky here: My boyfriend occasionally says hurtful things to me, such as “You’re not attractive when you’re anxious” and, “You just aren’t very [bleep]able sometimes.” I’m in great shape and don’t dress like a total shlub either.

I don’t believe he sets out to hurt my feelings. But I’ve told him that his bluntness is harsh and that I’m a sensitive person, and he agreed to soften his tone and reassured me he didn’t mean to hurt me. Recently he told me I have all “court cards” — I just don’t play them right; I don’t let him chase me enough (seven months in?). I feel like I disappoint him a lot. That I’m not sexy or charming enough sometimes, and not emotionally cool enough, either.

He compliments me frequently as well, telling me I’m talented/beautiful/smart, but he often follows such compliments with a comment like “It’s surprising that you’re not more accomplished than you are,” which leaves me feeling like a disappointment once again. He’ll apologize if I bring it up, but then I feel silly and insecure for reacting the way I do (which sometimes includes tears). How to toughen up and develop a thicker skin? I want to be the strong, confident woman he says is the most attractive kind of woman.


A. How sexy/charming/ accomplished/confident/strong/emotionally cool/talented/beautiful/smart/[bleep]able is he? Don’t ask him this, ask yourself why it isn’t your first thought when he puts you down.

Why? Because the only card you appear to have played badly is the “take care of yourself” card.

You’re just being yourself. If that self is a mix of talent, some self-doubt, beauty, smarts, anxiety flare-ups, forthrightness in love, sensitivity, accomplishments and failures, then so be it; they’re all you, and you sound complete, human, fine.

If you disagree, then by all means try to identify things you can realistically improve, in your own opinion and for your own sake.

If he’s not fine with the way you are? Then, by all means, let him go find the . . . ah, what is it . . . the “strong, confident woman he says is the most attractive kind.”

Taking his words at face value, I can argue it this way: If you aren’t that strong, confident woman, then why is he with you? And if you are that, then why is he pestering you to change?

If it’s in between — he’s attracted to your “potential” to become this woman — then I’ll address the rest to you: How’s that working for you? Are you feeling spruced and polished now? Great about yourself? Do you like being the poor, inferior project?

Taking his words at irony value, I can argue that his big push to get the woman he wants is producing the exact opposite result: The more he tries to correct you, the more you doubt yourself, and the less confident you become.

And so, now: Taking his words at danger value, I ask you to recognize it’s actually a weakened mate, not a strengthened one, that he hopes to achieve here.

And, meanwhile, anyone lacking that kind of reflexive confident cool — as in, most people — will take his rough criticism to heart. And second-guess herself, and work extra hard for those now precious scraps of praise, instead of dumping him in response to the smackdowns . . . and this is starting to sound more like the person he feels safe with. Worn down, insecure, running on his power. Also known as emotionally abused.

Yet these rough critics are the ones who need a mirror. It’s not that you couldn’t use some confidence-building, say (you could), or that anxiety is wildly attractive (it’s not). It’s that any truth to his words is a red herring.

The real issue is that he’s using your insecurities to control you. People are unique, but abuse is boilerplate: Seduce someone with charm, introduce doubt with repeated I-just-want-the-best-for-you criticism, keep the person from leaving by offering well-timed apologies and praise, repeat. He may really believe he’s helping you achieve his stated ideal, and that you both want that, but you’re actually satisfying his need as-is, by begging for his scraps.

From here, your flaws look like the usual stuff, the kind people struggle with personally, and accept/embrace/forgive in each other — and eventually themselves — daily, in millions of ways in millions of mostly functional homes.

His flaw, on the other hand, appears to work as a toxic substance on you, and your relationship is suffused with it. You want a thicker skin for dealing with the world, not for protecting your heart from someone who professes to care about you.

-- Carolyn Hax 

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