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Stalking the Soul
By Marie-France Hirigoyen Turtle Point Press
Copyright © 2005Marie-France Hirigoyen
All right reserved.
in Private Life
Small acts of abuse are so common in daily life that they appear normal. The process begins with a lack of respect, a lie, or a simple manipulative act. We find it unacceptable only when we are affected. If the social group in which this behavior arises fails to react, the behavior evolves progressively to the next stage: distinctly abusive conduct with serious consequences for the psychological health of its victims. Not sure of being understood, victims of abuse keep quiet and suffer in silence.
This kind of moral destruction has always existed: in families, where it usually remains hidden, and in a business framework, where people put up with it during periods of full employment because, after all, the victims are free to resign at any time. In periods of unemployment, they cling desperately to their jobs, thereby injuring their physical and psychical health. Some have fought back and sued. Today, society has begun to ask questions as this phenomenon becomes more publicized.
Psychotherapeutic practitioners are frequently witness to life stories where the boundaries between outside, or environmental, and psychological realities blur. Thecommonality of suffering in these stories is striking: the experience each person believes to be unique is shared by many others.
The difficulty of clinical transcriptions lies in weighing the importance of every word, every intonation, and every allusion. The details, taken separately, seem harmless, but added together, they show a destructive process. The victim is swept along in this deadly game and will sometimes resort to an abusive mode of behavior because this kind of defense tactic can be used by anyone. This line of conduct can lead to wrongfully accusing the victim of becoming an accomplice to the abuser.
I have seen, in the course of my clinical practice, how the same abusive individuals tend to replicate destructive conduct in all areas of life: at work, in their marriage, with their children. It is this behavioral continuity that I would like to emphasize. There are individuals whose road through life is strewn with people they have wounded or irreparably damaged. This doesn't prevent them from fooling most people and from seeming to be totally adjusted social beings.
EMOTIONAL ABUSE IN COUPLES
Emotional abuse in couples is often denied or made light of by reducing it to a simple question of dominance. A psychoanalytical simplification of the phenomenon would consist in representing the partner as an accomplice to, or even responsible for, the abusive relationship. This denies the dimension of control in the equation that paralyzes the victim and prevents him or her from self-defense; it also denies the violence of these attacks and the far-reaching psychological consequences of abuse. Because the aggression is so subtle, leaving no tangible traces, witnesses tend to interpret as simple conflicts or "love-spats" what are in fact attempts to morally or even physically destroy another person. These efforts are sometimes successful.
I shall describe several couples at different stages in the evolution of emotional abuse. The unequal length of my case histories is due to the fact that this process takes place over a period of months, even years: as abusive relationships evolve, the victims first learn to mentally register what occurs, and later learn how to defend themselves and gather proof as evidence.
The impulse to emotionally abuse is set in motion when the "loved one" is somehow found lacking or the relationship is too symbiotic.
The most intimate other will become the subject of the greatest abuse because too much closeness can terrify the aggressor. A narcissistic individual imposes control on his partner in order to hold her back, while simultaneously fearing her closeness and invasiveness. In order to maintain complete power over her, she must be kept in a dependent or even proprietary relationship. The partner mired in doubt and guilt cannot react.
The unspoken message is "I don't love you," but it remains indirect and hidden so the other won't leave. The partner must stay put and be permanently frustrated; she must be prevented from thinking on her own and becoming aware of the process. In an interview, writer Patricia Highsmith describes it as follows: "Sometimes the people who attract us the most, or whom we love the most, spark our imagination as effectively as insulators on rubber."
The narcissistic abuser introduces the element of control to paralyze his partner by putting her in a situation of flux and uncertainty. Keeping her within limits and at a safe distance avoids commitment to a relationship he fears. By stifling and subjugating her, he forces her to submit to what he most dreads and must at all costs avoid: invasiveness by another person. Within normally functioning couples, even where elements of control exist, there should be a dynamic of mutually narcissistic reinforcement. There are cases where an individual seeks to theoretically extinguish his partner, thereby consolidating his dominant position. But in couples ruled by an abusive narcissist the relationship can be literally deadly: vilification and underhanded attacks are routine and systematic.
The too-tolerant partner makes this process possible. Such tolerance is often interpreted by psychoanalysts as being linked to the basically unconscious masochistic benefits that can be gained from the relationship. We shall see that this interpretation is only partial because in most cases the parties had previously shown no self-punishment tendencies, nor did such tendencies show up later. An incomplete analysis is dangerous because reinforcing the party's guilt completely prevents him or her from finding ways to escape the constricted situation.
The sources of this tolerance are most often found in a feeling of family loyalty that consists, for example, in reliving a parent's experience or in accepting the sacrificial role of compensating for the other's narcissism.
Benjamin and Annie met two years ago. Annie was then in a frustrating relationship with a married man. Benjamin is jealous of this man. He is in Love with Annie and begs her to break off the affair: he wants to marry her and have children. Annie breaks off easily and although she keeps her own apartment, she basically lives with Benjamin.
Benjamin now begins to change. He becomes distant and indifferent, tender only when he wants sex. Annie demands explanations but Benjamin denies any behavioral change. Not liking confrontation, she tries to seem upbeat. When she is irritable, he doesn't seem to understand or react.
Little by little she becomes depressed. Since the relationship doesn't improve and Annie is still stunned by Benjamin's rejection, he finally realizes that something has happened; he simply couldn't bear to see her depressed. She begins therapy to treat her depression, ostensibly the cause of their problems.
Annie and Benjamin are in the same business. She has much more experience. He often asks her advice but refuses to accept any criticism. "It's no use, I've had enough, I don't know what you're talking about!" Several times he's appropriated her ideas, while denying the fact that her knowledge has helped him. He never thanks her.
He blames the mistakes she notices on his secretary. She pretends to believe him in order to avoid a scene.
He shrouds his work schedule and life under a veil of secrecy. She learns by chance of Benjamin's promotion from friends congratulating him. He lies all the time, saying he's coming back from a business trip on such and such a train when the ticket he leaves tying around reads otherwise.
In public, he remains very distant. At a cocktail party one time, he comes toward her and shakes her hand, saying: "Mademoiselle X, who's in such and such a business" then turns on his heel and walks off, leaving her alone. When she later asks for explanations, he mumbles something about being too busy.
Even though she earns her own living, he objects to her spending money and doesn't want her to buy clothes. He makes her line her shoes up in a row like a little girl. He teases her in public about her jars of makeup in the bathroom: "I don't know why you need to put all that stuff on your face!"
Annie asks herself how she can show affection to a man who judges her in everything: her gestures, her words, her spending. He refuses to discuss their relationship, saying, "The word relationship' is old hat." He won't engage with her. A clown stops them in the street one day to show them a magic trick, and says to Benjamin, "Your wife, right?" Benjamin doesn't answer and tries to move on. Annie takes it to mean, "He couldn't answer because the subject is unthinkable. I'm not his wife, his fiancée, or his girlfriend. The subject is taboo because it's too oppressive." Whenever she wants to talk about "them" he says, "Do you realty think this is the moment to bring that up?"
Other subjects, like her desire for a child, are equally hurtful. When they see friends with children, she tries not to seem overly enthusiastic because it might make Benjamin think she wants a child. She acts neutral, as if it were unimportant.
Benjamin wants to control Annie. He wants her to be financially independent but submissive at the same time; if not, he agonizes and rejects her.
When she talks at dinner, he rolls his eyes. At first she says to herself, "What I just said must be idiotic!" and then she begins to progressively censor herself.
However, from the onset of therapy, even if it causes tension, she does not accept a priori criticism from him.
There are no discussions between them, only arguments when she's had enough, like the straw that breaks the camel's back. In these cases, she's the only one to become angry. Benjamin rooks surprised and says, "You're accusing me again. Naturally, for you, everything is my fault." She tries to explain: "I'm not saying it's your fault, I just want to talk about what's wrong!" He pretends not to understand and always succeeds in making her doubt herself and take the blame. Asking what's not working between them is like saying, "It's your fault." He doesn't want to hear, and ends the discussion or tries to slither out before she's even begun.
"I wish he'd say what he dislikes about me," Annie reasons. "Then, at least, we could have a discussion."
Little by little, they stop discussing politics because when she argues her points, he complains she isn't on his side. They also stop talking about Annie's business successes. Benjamin can't stand being in anyone's shadow. She's consciously aware of giving up her opinions and her individuality in order to keep the situation from going from bad to worse. This awareness motivates her to constantly try and make daily living bearable.
Sometimes she reacts and threatens to leave. He holds her back with double talk. "I want our relationship to continue ... I can't give you more right now." She is so crazy about him that she takes hope at the slightest sign of their drawing closer.
Annie knows the relationship is abnormal but, having lost all benchmarks, she feels obliged to protect Benjamin and excuse him no matter what. She also knows he won't change, taking the attitude that "either I adapt or I leave." Their sex life is no better because Benjamin doesn't feel like making love anymore. She sometimes raises the subject:
"We can't go on living like this."
"That's the way it is, I can't make love on demand."
"What can we do? What can I do?"
"There isn't a solution for everything. You want to regulate it all!"
When she draws near to give him a loving hug, he licks her nose. If she objects, he accuses her of definitely lacking a sense of humor.
What keeps Annie with him?
It would be simpler if Benjamin were an absolute monster, but he was once a tender lover. He acts like this because he's not well. He can change. She will therefore change him. She watches for the change. She hopes one day a thread will unwind and they'll finally be able to communicate.
She feels responsible for the change in Benjamin: He couldn't bear to see her depressed. She feels equally guilty for not being seductive enough (he had joked one time in front of friends about an unsexy outfit Annie was wearing) and for not being good enough to gratify Benjamin (he had alluded to the fact that she wasn't generous).
She tells herself that staying with Benjamin in an unsatisfying relationship is better than being alone. Benjamin once said to her, "If we separate I'll find someone right away but you, with your desire for being alone, will stay all alone." And she believes him. Even though she recognizes that she's more sociable than Benjamin, she imagines that alone and regretful, she'll be depressed.
She realizes, too, that her parents stayed together out of duty and have an unhappy marriage. There had always been violence at home, but because it was a family Where things remained unsaid, the violence was insidious.
Abusive violence appears in times of crisis when an individual with abusive defenses cannot assume responsibility for a difficult decision. The violence then becomes indirect, essentially as a form of disrespect for the other.
Monique and Luke have been married for thirty years. Luke has been having an affair for six months. He announces this to Monique, adding that he can't choose between the two women. He wants to stay married and continue the affair. Monique adamantly refuses. Her husband leaves.
Monique has been a complete wreck ever since. She cries all the time; she doesn't sleep and doesn't eat. She shows psychosomatic symptoms of anxiety: cold sweats, stomachaches, tachycardia. She is angry not at her husband, who makes her suffer, but at herself, for not being able to keep him. It would be easier for Monique to protect herself if she could feel anger toward her husband. But to feet anger, one must see the other as aggressive and violent, which would result in not wanting his return. It's easier when one is in a state of shock like Monique to deny the reality of the facts and to wait, even if waiting means suffering.
Luke asks Monique to see him regularly in order to maintain their bond; if she doesn't agree, he might leave forever. On the other hand, if she withdraws from him, he will forget her. When she acts depressed, he doesn't want to be with her. He even suggests to Monique, on the advice of his analyst, that she meet his friend so "word will get around."
He doesn't seem for a minute to have thought about his wife's suffering. He simply states that he's sick of her Lifeless behavior. By blaming his wife for not being able to stay with him, he avoids taking responsibility for the separation.
Refusing responsibility for marital failure is often the cause of setting abuse in motion. An individual with idealistic ideas about marriage carries on an apparently normal relationship with his partner until the day he has to choose between this relationship and a new one. Abuse will grow in proportion to yesterday's idealism. It is impossible to entirely accept responsibility for a failure of this kind. The partner is held responsible when love is withdrawn because she has committed an unnamed fault. The denial of love is acted upon although often verbally denied.
Recognizing this manipulative behavior leaves the victim in a state of terrible anxiety she cannot get rid of alone. At this stage, victims experience shame as well as anger: shame at not being loved, shame at having accepted humiliation, and shame at what they have submitted to and undergone.
In some cases, it is a question not of becoming abusive, but of manifesting a previously hidden emotionally abusive nature. This overt hate, now revealed, resembles a persecution complex. Role reversal takes place: the aggressor becomes the victimized one, although the real victim still feels the guilt. To make the situation credible, the other must be forced to behave unacceptably so that she can then be invalidated.
Both architects, Anna and Paul meet at work. Paul quickly decides to move in with Anna but keeps Ms distance emotionally and avoids commitment. He shuns terms of endearment and affectionate gestures in public, and makes fun of couples holding hands.
Paul has difficulty expressing anything personal. He appears to joke non-stop, making fun of everything. This strategy allows him to hide and to remain uninvolved. He is also a real misogynist. His attitude is "We can't live without them, but women are castrating, frivolous, and insufferable."
Anna interprets Paul's coldness as reserve, his rigidity as strength, and his innuendoes as knowledge. She believes that her love and the reassurance of their relationship will make him less hard.
They establish an implicit rule of little or no open intimacy. Anna accepts and justifies this rule, thereby legitimizing it. Because she wants a close relationship more than Paul does, it is up to her to make the necessary moves that will allow it to continue. Paul explains his hardness as resulting from a difficult childhood, but there's an air of mystery to the contradictory and partial information he provides: "Nobody took care of me when I was little. If my grandmother hadn't been there for me ..." "My father may not even be my real father."
Posing as a victim from the beginning, he makes Anna feel sorry for him and be more indulgent and caring than she might ordinarily. Because of her healing instincts, Anna is quickly seduced by this hurt little boy.
One of those people who "just know," Paul has radical opinions on every subject: politics, the future, who's foolish and who's not, how to act and how not to act. Most of the time, he conveys his infinite wisdom with a simple nod of the head or an unfinished sentence. He very skillfully provides a mirror for Anna's insecurities.
Anna is a doubter. Unsure of herself, she doesn't judge others but finds extenuating circumstances as reasons for their behavior. She always tries to shade her opinions, a habit that Paul calls "complicating your life." Little by little, Anna softens her harshness in front of Paul in order to conform to his expectations or to what she believes they might be. She tries not to be too insistent about things and tries to change her habits.
Their relationship is based on a pattern of "he knowsshe doubts." She finds it relaxing to depend on another person's certainties. He senses her compliance and readiness to accept his pronouncements.
Paul, from the start of their relationship, has always been extremely critical of Anna. He attacks with small, unsettling jabs, preferably in public, where it's difficult for her to react. When she tries to talk about it later, he coldly says that she bears grudges and makes mountains out of molehills. It usually starts with a fairly harmless but intimate fact that Paul, occasionally picking an ally from the group, exaggerates: "Don't you think Anna listens to music that's 'old hat'?" "I bet you didn't know she buys expensive creams to firm up her practically non-existent breasts." "She doesn't understand that, when any dodo can."
When they're going away with friends for the weekend, he'll point to Anna's bag, saying, "She thinks I'm a moving man. Why not take the bathtub?" If Anna protests with "What do you care? I'm carrying it myself!" Paul answers, "Sure, but if you're tired, I'll have to carry it or took like a boor. You don't need two changes of clothes and three tubes of lipstick."
Then he generalizes about female duplicity, which ultimately forces men to help out.
Embarrassing Anna is what really matters. She senses the hostility but isn't quite sure about her instincts because it's all said in such a bittersweet, half-joking way. The hostility isn't necessarily picked up on by the group, and Anna can't react without seeming humorless.
When someone has complimented Anna and she seems to have the upper hand, Paul is even more critical. Then she realizes that he's a bundle of complexes when it comes to her natural ease with people and her greater business success and earning power. After criticizing her, he will add, "That's not a reproach, it's a fact."
The emotional abuse appears when Paul decides to settle in with a young associate. His strategic ploys to destabilize Anna become more overt.
The first manifestation of abuse is a permanent bad mood, which Paul attributes to business and money problems. He arrives home before Anna most evenings, and settles down with a drink in front of the television set. When Anna comes in, he doesn't answer her greeting but asks, without turning his head, "What are we eating?" (a classic strategy to transfer one's bad mood onto the other person).
He never reproaches her directly. Instead, he'll casually toss out some seemingly innocuous remark in a hurt tone of voice that she'll have to think about Later. If Anna tries to clarify what he said, he slithers out of it and denies any aggressiveness on his part.
He starts calling her "old bag." When she objects, he changes the nickname to "fat old bag," saying, "You don't have to take it personally, since you're not fat!"
When she tries to explain how she suffers, it's as though she faces a blank wall. He gets stony and she persists, which makes him even harder. Invariably, she ends up losing her temper, and Paul can then point out that she's an aggressive shrew. She never steps back far enough to understand or diffuse the violence.
Unlike in most marital scenes, they don't really fight, which makes reconciliation impossible. Paul never raises his voice; he only displays an icy hostility that he subsequently denies if the matter is brought up. Frustrated by the Lack of dialogue, Anna loses her temper and yells. Then he mocks her anger with "Calm down, poor baby!" and she feels ridiculous.
Looks communicate the essence of their relationships: looks of hate from Paul and Looks of reproach and fear from Anna.
The only concrete fact is Paul's refusal to have sex. When she wants to discuss this, it's never the right moment. He's exhausted at night, rushed in the morning, and has things to do during the day. She decides to pin him down in a restaurant. Once there, she begins to talk about her hurt. Paul immediately interrupts her in a tone of icy fury: "I hope you're not going to make a scene in the restaurant, particularly about a subject like that. You really are completely out of control!"
Paul is beside himself when Anna starts to cry. "You are depressed and angry all the time," he tells her.
Later, Paul justifies himself another way: "How can I make love to you? You're a horror, and a castrating witch!"
Some time after that, he goes so far as to steal a business agenda she uses for her accounting records. Anna Looks for it and asks Paul if he has seen the book. No one else has been in the room where she is certain she left it. Paul answers that he hasn't seen it and that, furthermore, she should be neater. His look is so full of hatred that she is thunderstruck with fear. She realizes he has stolen it, but is too frightened by the violence that might erupt if she persists.
The worst of it is that she doesn't understand. She searches for reasons: Does he want to hurt her directly, knowing the trouble this would cause her? Is it jealousy? A need to verify that she works harder than he does? Or does he hope to find a mistake in the agenda that he can use against her?
She does recognize, without a doubt, that the act is malicious. It's such a terrible thought that she chases it away, refusing to believe it; her fear becomes physical anxiety whenever Paul Looks at her in the same hateful way.
Anna feels very clearly at this stage that Paul wants to utterly destroy her identity.
Instead of putting small doses of arsenic in her coffee, as they do in English murder mysteries, he is trying to break her psychologically.
Excerpted from Stalking the Soul by Marie-France Hirigoyen Copyright © 2005 by Marie-France Hirigoyen. Excerpted by permission.
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