Thursday, 10 January 2013

The Hidden Scars

Today I wanted to write something fun, but alas all I can think of is verbal abuse. Alas.

Well, verbal abuse and the Gok Wan series here in Britain called "Style Secrets." In this new season, he is giving not just style but flirtation tips to Britain's 15 million "singletons." Well, a few of Britain's singletons, anyway. I had never watched a show of his until yesterday, and I must say I was charmed. He radiates affection for women-in-general, greeting yesterday's singleton with "Hello, my darling; nice to meet you."

I loved that. Hello, my DARLING; nice to meet you. Ah, if only we all spoke to everyone as if he or she was our darling. Perhaps we will in heaven. I think it would be earthly heaven to have my style and personality worked over by Gok Wan for four weeks. "Hello, my darling. Come in at once and try on these skirts."

What a contrast to--well, not everyday life because B.A. is a very kindly, sunny-tempered man--but to relationships in which I was snarled at for being too this, or not enough that, and a failure in this and having bad taste in that. Et cetera. Et cetera. The nadir, of course, was my first marriage (now annulled) from which, almost 20 years later, I have not recovered. Sarcastic remarks (B.A. never makes sarcastic remarks) leave me in floods of tears.

Apparently the effects of verbal abuse normally last longer than those of physical abuse, although I suppose that would depend on the physical abuse. The old saying "Sticks and stones will hurt my bones, but names will never hurt me" is, unfortunately, untrue. Most of us know that a relationship with a man is toxic and should be ended ASAP if he hits us, but when to end a relationship in which he just insults or belittles us is less clear. I used to wish my ex would hit me, so I would have a good excuse to go. (N.B. He never did.)

It is even more unclear if you grow up being verbally abused by one or both of your parents. If your parents constantly tell you how awful you are, how dumb, how lazy, how useless, how bad at this, how clumsy at that, than verbal abuse is going to seem normal and no more than you deserve. The same may be true if you are very unlucky with your schoolteachers and coaches. The evil teachers do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.

Well, there is not much you can do when you are a child, for unless you are unusually confident and mature for your age, you are not going to have the gumption to tell your parents where to get off, or even to tell them that Mrs Thing at school makes you cry. Even if you parents ask you if Mrs Thing is mean to you, you might cover for her out of fear or Stockholm Syndrome. After all, Mrs Thing has made it clear that it is all your fault that she says what she says.

However, when you grow up, there is something you can do. First of all, if verbal abuse has left you a timid, self-hating shell of a human being, you can go to a cognitive therapist. A good cognitive therapist will teach you how to replace the nasty voice in your head with a nice voice.

Second, you can teach yourself to get out of verbally abusive relationships. There was a prof at my American grad school who made me cry, and when I told a fellow student, he told me that this prof made everyone cry. The prof had made him cry. I was thirty-five years old then, and although nobody around seemed to realize this, I knew that this was not normal or good.

Third, you can educate yourself about verbal abuse, not only so that you do not slide into one verbally abusive relationship after another, but so that you do not become habitually verbally abusive yourself. Verbal abuse is one very effective way to control people, so it is very tempting to those who long to control people. Here is a professional web page on verbal abuse. It is a bit limited in that it deals only with "domestic" abuse. Obviously, there are many more verbally abusive relationships than "domestic" ones.

My advice is to have "no tolerance" policy towards verbal abuse because, as I like to remind you, some scars do not heal. I am no longer terrified of the adult bullies of my childhood (who are very old or dead anyway), but I am still terrified of my ex. Sarcastic remarks by strangers feel like paper cuts, and those by friends or acquaintances make me cry. And that's just the beginning of it: I have just erased a woeful paragraph of neuroses caused by incredibly influential but sadly damaging teachers. The fact that your poor Auntie can barely dial a telephone number without getting the order of the numbers wrong is not your poor Auntie's fault.


Sarah said...

I was bullied as a teenager, and some things really never leave you. The truth is, I never realized how scarred it had left me until I found myself, as an adult, surrounded by nice people who loved me.

When I came here to Germany, I was introduced to lots of people (friends of my original friends here) who all seemed to really like me and want to be my friend and, as we got to know each other, care for me. And that was really hard to accept. In group situations, I would find myself clinging to my older friend (I always found it easier to get along with older people, as as a teenager, your peers can be ruthless, and I got a lot of my approval from teachers) who noticed my being somewhat withdrawn, and he kind of gave me a harsh speech about having to LET myself be included and LET myself believe I was wanted and not keep letting past things keep people who really care about me at a distance.

Verbal abuse leaves lots and lots of scares. This is just one of them, but this one I'm getting a handle on, I think.

Anon today said...

Do you think that men who are verbally abusive are attracted to certain kinds of women? What can we do to stop our vulnerability and softness showing to the likes of them without losing our softness? Does that even make sense? It does in my head, I just can't get it down in words.

Seraphic said...

I do not think that verbally abusive men are necessarily attracted to one kind of woman or another. I think they are verbally abusive to whomever they have any power over or to whomever sticks around enough to get abused. Girls who internalize their anger rather than shout are more likely to stick around, I imagine.

One of the great myths is that "strong women" don't get verbally abused or battered, etc., etc., but the fact is that "strong women" get sucked into such relationships all the time, possibly because they underestimate the power of words.

There does seem to be a type of man who goes after "strong women" to take them down a peg (i.e. belittle them in an attempt to make himself feel better, especially if he feels envious of their success).

Seraphic said...

This does not answer your question, of course. If you find yourself in verbally abusive relationships again and again, it is time to seek therapy or at very least to find and read books on verbal abuse. I was going to say "and being assertive" but as I said, all kinds of strong, assertive women get sucked in.

The important thing is to know what acceptable boundaries are, to firmly police them, and to give up the dodgy joys of feeling like a martyr.

Anonymous said...

Seraphic (or others),

I know this is a 'blog about long-term relationships, and that verbal abuse in shorter relationships may not be as big a deal. But wd you say something about how to handle/ how to heal from being verbally abused by a supe at work? I've been dealing with that for the past 4 years, and trying to find ways to let go of the scars it seems to leave.

(Usually use my name here, but signing off as Anonymous this time...)

MaryJane said...

Anonymous, being verbally abused in ANY kind of relationship, long-term, short-term, or whatever, is a really awful thing! Follow Auntie Seraphic's advice about verbal abuse regardless of who is doing it or for how long. (I'll say a prayer for you, too b/c obviously it is a lot easier to dish out advice than to actually do things.)

Seraphic said...

Anonymous, this is not a blog about long-term relationships but about living a happier Single life. Meanwhile, four years sounds like a long-term relationship to me!

I don't know what your job circumstances are, whether you have a union, or whether your supervisor can replace you more easily than a stapler, but what I would do is request a meeting with the supervisor to talk to her/him about the way she/he speaks to you, using concrete example, and explaining that this is having a deleterious effect on your work. The whole point of being at work (as far as the superv. is concerned) IS your work, and your superv. should be interested in HELPING you, not hindering you in your work.

If the supervisor doesn't change his or her abusive behaviour, you may want to take this to an arbitor, either your boss's supervisor, or a union rep, or some guidance person (e.g. at a college).

There is no excuse for verbally abusive behaviour. Some managers are terse and abrupt and come off as rude without meaning to give offense. But if your supervisor is abusive, then this is seriously unjust and you have a grievance.

Anonymous said...

Auntie Seraphic-
My own experience is with my dad and brother. I can't begin to explain the horror of being objectified and abused by the men who are supposed to protect you. I have loads of memories which I'm still healing from, and it was not until recent that my mom said "enough." It also wasn't until I was older that I realized what I had experienced in my childhood was not healthy. My mom was definitely one of those "strong women." Emotional abuse is easy to write off and the scars are definitely invisible unless they manifest themselves in some physical way.

Sunnysaffer said...

I dated a man who would constantly pick me out about how I spoke, my accent, the phrases I used that he just hated, my tone which was just too harsh for him because he was soooo sensitive etc., etc. In the end I was terrified of speaking at all and could not relax. I became so afraid of upsetting him (which inevitable I did on a regular basis) and then I would blame myself for using a phrase he hated, or for sounding too harsh, or for coming across as if I was telling him what to do.

I am still amazed that I stuck around for so long trying to please him. I am a very sensible woman usually and as you say would have headed for the hills at the first sign of any physical abuse. Some men are master manipulators and the effects of being under their spell can leave scars that are very hard to heal. I still have a somewhat warped view of myself as a result of his words and have to work very hard at replacing his lies with the truth.

Seraphic said...

Girls, I very sorry these things happened to you.

Urszula said...

I used to think that being attracted to - and staying with -verbally abusive men was something only happened only to women lacking confidence, and I would never understand my friends who stayed in such relationships when obviously they deserved better.

But then I myself dated a verbal abuser - and was almost wheedled by him into marriage - and only when I realized how difficult it was for me myself to break the relationship off did I start to understand my friends.

I've wondered since why it is so easy - for women especially - to fall victim to such men. It doesn't seem to have anything to do with the woman's professional success or family background. It seems to me there is always a man who uncannily knows which specific vulnerability to exploit in a woman.

Part of it may be, I think, the fact that we are inculcated with obedience from an early age. While I agree that we should defer to authority when younger, I feel maybe there is too much emphasis on Catholic girls being 'meek and mild'. This may teach us to second guess our natural instincts way into adulthood.

Alisha said...

Totally, completely agree with Urszula's last paragraph. I honestly think we should give young women specific role playing training on how to respond to (verbally or otherwise), abuse and also to recognize it from the beginning and to practise voicing it. Silence is a deadly trap...we are very conditioned to smoothing things over - even potential conflicts that have not happened. I'm fairly confrontational and I find myself doing this, unless I am the one with more authority.