Q: I've been reading your website on relational agression and think that it is great! I understand that the information presented is about kids in school. However, I am an adult woman and wonder if you can help me. I've been in a relationship that confuses me. He is a really super person, most of the time. But sometimes he says things that make me wonder if I'm sane! For instance, if he says something that hurts my feelings and I bring it to his attention, he tells me that I'm "too sensitive." Other times he acts like he's mad at me and I don't know why, and when I ask him what's wrong he tells me that I am desperate for his approval and that I act needy by always wanting answers. It goes around and around in circles and eventually I drop it because he goes on and on, trying to convince me that I want attention, his approval, etc. Most of the time I don't know what he is talking about!
What really upsets me is he will put me down in front of my family and friends, under the guise of "helping me." It is always embarrassing and hurtful. But he says if it is hurtful then there must be truth to it. Sometimes, he says that he's "just joking." But I end up feeling hurt and depressed. No matter what, I feel drained, stressed, and increasingly unhappy. Is this relational aggression?
A: In a sense, yes, it is relational aggression. Relational Aggression is a severe form of bullying, bullying in the psychological/emotional sense. Some people are masters of it.
However, there is another form of psychological/emotional abuse called "gaslighting." In gaslighting (taken from the 1940's movie, where a husband tries to drive his young wife mad by convincing her that she is mad, "just like her mother"), the gaslighter tries to make his vicitm (most victims are female) feel as if she is crazy. He manipulates her to doubt reality. He will twist her words around and then accuse of her saying things that she never said, never thought. He uses threats (of leaving her, cutting off finances, turning others against her, tells her that no one will believe her, and so on) manipulation, put downs, "jokes," and will minimize his behavior by telling her that she is too sensitive, needy, etc.
Most victims of gaslighters (psychological abusers) tend to be nice, sensitive, kind hearted, quick to forgive, and has a giving nature. Those are the very things that make her vulnerable to psychological abuse. Psychological abuse can leave life long emotional scars. The person targeted can be prone to clinical depression, drug and/or alcohol abuse, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, thoughts of suicide, and, in some cases, suicide completion. Psychological abuse is very serious. Many victims say that they would prefer physical abuse over psychological abuse. Physical wounds usually heal completely, or nearly so. Emotional scars can last forever.
The abuser is usually a very insecure person. He has a need to put others down in an attempt to make himself feel better. He must be seen as right at all times. To disagree with an abuser is a no-no. He will make you pay, and pay.
To understand more about the dynamics of gaslighting, and how to break free of the psychological abuse, I urge you to find a copy of The Gaslight Effect, by Dr. Robin Stern. In her book, Dr. Stern gives case studies of some of her patients who were victims of gaslighting. You'll understand the dynamics of this form of abuse, and you will learn how to take care of you. And how to get out of the relationship if you so choose. You cannot change the abusive person. You can only change how you react to him. Whether that is learning how to deal with him if you choose to stay, or leaving completely. I'm sure that The Gaslight Effect will help you a great deal.
I'd also recommend that you talk to a therapist or trusted friend. Confiding in someone will relieve you of an enormous pressure. Don't keep it secret. Secrets only hurt; they never help. The abuse can, and probably will, get worse over time. Psychological/emotional abuse can literally make you crazy. It can destroy your physical and mental health.
Copyright 2007 Julie P. Clark, all rights reserved.
Gaslighting and Relational Aggression are forms of psychological abuse.