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Doc@DrIrene.com

Ending My Abusiveness

 Interactive Board:  Your ALT-Text here Ending My Abusiveness

"It's never too late to be what you should have been." - George Elliot

February 28, 2004

Dear Dr. Irene,

A girl I love very much has just ended our relationship because I emotionally and verbally abused her. I'm very sorry...This came as a big shock to me because until she mentioned it, I had no idea I was even doing it! Having read your abuser pages, that does not seem to be uncommon. Unfortunately not. Your thoughts and behavior seem normal to you, but your partner may not agree.

I'm 27 and she is 21. Neither of us has ever been married. Over a period of 4 months, we became very serious.

A little background on my childhood. While I love my mother, she has a short fuse and often yells at me (even now I’m an adult!), and I think I grew up “learning” this trait You did. Our parents are our strongest teachers. If you want to look it up on the net, look under "modeling". I got along well with my father, who left all disciplinary issues to my mother, but he died of cancer when I was 20. Again, I'm sorry.

I guess I overlap from the verbal abuser to the controlling caregiver. I think of myself as affectionate, caring and romantic And I'm sure you are! and hope I convey some of those feelings to my partner. But when things don’t go my way, my ugly side appears. Yeah, that's the part you need to get under your control. I get angry when she doesn’t do something for me or doesn’t return my affections in the way I expect, feeling I’m giving more than I’m getting in the relationship. Keeping score in your head. "Unfairness" is considered the underpinning of anger. If you ASSUME that something is unfair, you will get angry.

Take our first argument. I asked her to do something that would have taken a minute to do. She didn’t want to do it, we argued for well over that minute, and I got angry. Just like Dana and Bob in your example, I felt I was the one slighted, even though I had no right to demand she do anything for me. Correct. It's a boundary violation to make such assumptions/demands. You ASSUMED you were slighted because you are in the bad habit of automatically looking through unfairness-tinted glasses. You could have also ASSUMED that she was feeling ill, that she was tired, etc. Had you ASSUMED she didn't want to do the minute thing because she was ill, you would have probably been more understanding. Assumptions/expectations are very important and often create the feelings we have. I should have realised that I could only ask her to do it, and if she didn’t want to, that was her prerogative. Right. As it turns out, she only refused my request because she wanted to spend more time with me before I had to go out, a loving gesture that was totally lost on me. Wow... See what a mess ASSUMPTIONS can get you into?

My behaviour has raised several red flags as listed by Anne on your website, including – expecting her to drop what she’s doing to accommodate me, using guilt trips, begging and pleading with her to do something she felt uncomfortable doing, severe over-reaction to situations, accusing her of being uncooperative, calling her names, yelling at her and lecturing her. Wow, that’s a long list! And that’s only the ones I’ve acknowledged myself doing, there may quite possibly be others I’m not even aware I’m doing. The ones that are most typically missed are communications like tone of voice and nonverbal body language like eye rolling, etc. So, since your poor behavior gets you into hot water repeatedly, the first thing you have to do when you are having these strong feelings - is nothing. Literally. If you do nothing, you won't behave badly.

It never takes me long to get over being angry Excellent!!! - the problem is that I always viewed my yelling as my way of “letting off steam” and part of a normal argument that all couples in relationships have. Right, unfortunately "letting off steam" is common behavior, though it tends not to be constructive behavior. In your case, it is certainly destructive. "Letting off steam" was "normal" family behavior for you, witness your mom. There are much more constructive ways to deal with anger. Anger is nothing more than an emotion - a signal that you need to pay attention to something. It makes no sense to "vent." It makes more sense to calm down, examine the situation, and then decide how to handle it.

You'll need to determine if your assumptions/expectations are reasonable or unreasonable, rational or irrational, adaptive or maladaptive, call it what you want. Unreasonable expectations often include boundary violations, where you are on the look out for a particular response. When that response is not forthcoming, you feel disappointed/hurt/angry. Then you act out angrily. Instead, ask yourself: "Is my anger reasonable or unreasonable? Am I (violating her boundaries by) trying to get her to behave in a particular way - so I can feel better?" (Control.)

 Example: "She should have known what I wanted." Really? Is she a mind reader? She can't know unless you tell her. Even if you tell her what you wanted, she may not have wanted to give it, which, as you are already realizing, is fine and perfectly reasonable. Being controlling tries to manipulate her into giving you the response you want. Being healthy accepts the response she gives without making more out if it than you need to.

Example: "I took her to a fine dinner, but she didn't really act very appreciative." Well, if you were thinking that she would have cancelled her plans to be with you the following evening because you treated her to a great evening, you are likely to be disappointed and feel used/angry - and unreasonably so! The controlling thinking is a set-up for failure in the long run. It is your expectations which need adjustment, not her reaction. But let's take this one one step further:

Keep score and convince yourself that she is not as "committed" to the relationship as you are. Ugh! See how this type of misinterpretation of events will do nothing but make you miserable?

Keep in mind that just because your partner was not doing for/thinking of you at the time you became upset, that does not mean she does not care for you or do for/think of you. It just means she wasn't doing that at that particular time - which is fine. Most individuals who see things the way you do tend to grossly underestimate or miss what the partner does indeed do for you.

Healthy, non-controlling thinking goes something like, "Well, it would have been nice if she had  cancelled her plans so she could be with me the next evening, but it's not a problem. I know she really enjoyed dinner, and a night off gives me a chance to get some chores done." Notice, that this thinking example involves little or no insecurity on your part. Insecurity is often the unspoken factor in control, and is just another one of those irrational beasts that you have to conquer.  I never realised what emotional damage I was causing to my partner, and to our relationship. Yes - to your partner - and to yourSelf. This is really selling yourSelf short!

I feel so sorry that I have let both of us down, and have expressed my desire to try to change for the better, but her best friend, who has been the victim of emotional and verbal abuse herself, points out that the cycle of abuse is tension build-up -> confrontation -> apologies/remorse -> relaxation -> repeat, and she has no reason to believe I’ll change, because this is exactly what her ex-boyfriend said and did to her. You are not her friend's ex-boyfriend. But you do have to watch getting comfortable should you get back together or enter into a new relationship. It's a royal pain to have to constantly be cognizant of the self, dealing with your implicit assumptions, expectations and underlying insecurities!

Once the pressure is off and the relationship is back to OK, most abusive types tend to ease up on themselves. Unless they are in treatment, abusive types who are trying to win back the object of their affection simply control their behavior. They shut their mouths and stuff their feelings. They do not typically examine the irrationality of their thoughts, the very source of their angry and controlling behavior. So little is accomplished. After a while of holding it all back, they become overwhelmed with the old stuff and can hold back no more.

This is the second time I have abused her. I have asked her to give me one more chance, but I don’t expect her to. After all, why should she? It’s happened before and she’s right in being concerned that it may happen again. Nobody should have to live through that even once, let alone three times. It’s not too hard to see why she’s had enough. However, whether we get back together or not, I want to tackle this problem, not just for her and for me, but for anybody else I may become involved with, before I abuse anyone else. Don't do it for anybody else you become involved with; tackle it for YOU! Your life will work better when you deal with it. You gave Faith advice in a previous forum regarding her boyfriend Gregg, which I found could apply to me too – The minute - no the second - you let up, he will revert more and more to his yukky ways. Right. The target individual will have to continually set firm boundaries, which is a good thing to do anyway. Unless the abusive one is dealing with his or her issues, the moment the threat is gone, the good behavior will begin to disappear.

I don’t want to revert! I want to change – permanently! Good. You can make these changes. "You can't ever let your guard down. Not with him, not with anybody!" Does this mean she shouldn’t see him any more because he can’t be trusted not to revert? Not necessarily. Theirs appeared to me to be an extreme case given the tone of the writer. There is no hard and fast rule; no two cases are alike. Plus, your excellent motivation is an asset.

I have prayed to God to help me, but I know that He can’t help me unless I make the effort to do something to help myself too! Right. God helps those who help themselves. What can I do to stop this happening again?  Thanks for listening,  Andrew.

Dear Andrew, good for you! You owe yourself no less, and I'm very happy to listen. You've already gotten a good start. Excellent self-reflection, and no self-bashing. Good for you! These strengths will help you very much, so will your relatively young age and high motivation.

The very best thing to do is to find a good therapist who works cognitive-behaviorally with anger issues.

Meanwhile, become very mindful of the assumptions you make in a relationship. Hyper-awareness is your friend. Notice that your assumptions consistently tend to be around the imbalance between what you think you give and what you ASSUME she gives. You are constantly on the active lookout for how she is not tending to you. Well, seek and ye shall find! Like looking at the world through a pair of extremely dark glasses or a 2 inch wide tube, you see only a small part of the picture. You miss the color or the periphery when you are emotional. 

Notice the tie to an underlying insecurity, the control piece. If she did this and that, that would prove that she really cares about me as much as I care about her. Actually, it wouldn't prove anything. It would however confirm your expectations and you would feel less vulnerable. One more thing on control: the more an individual relies on control to dampen insecurity, the more insecurity takes hold of them, the more controlling they become over time. Bad show, isn't it?

It would likely help your self-awareness if you jot down your thinking when you're having it. There are many formats for doing this is anger management and cognitive therapy work books. Simplistically, take a sheet of paper and divide it into 3 columns. Label one column "Emotion" the next "Current Thinking" and the last "More Adaptive Thinking."

Each time you feel riled up, jot down the feeling you're having (anger, insecurity, etc.). Just one or two words under the "Emotions" column. This column isn't important. You already know what it feels like to feel badly all too well. Move to the "Current Thinking" Column. Use as much space as you need to write down your thoughts - all the assumptions and expectations about what's going on and what the other person is doing. These thoughts, which you will review later, are often untrue, but are making you feel miserable! 

At the same time that you are paying attention to the thinking behind your feelings, do everything in your power to control your angry behavior. -It's very important to make a clear distinction between the EMOTION of anger and angry BEHAVIOR. 

To avoid acting out destructively, excuse yourself. Take a walk or do other exercise if you can. Exercising is likely to reduce your anger more quickly than not. Once you are calm, go back to the sheet of paper. Go to the third column, "More Adaptive Thinking" and ask yourself if any other interpretation can account for the events. Ask your partner what she was doing/thinking. Ask a friend or two. Jot down the alternative thinking. This is the thinking you are learning and will eventually replace the thinking that gets you into trubble. Once again, you are better off doing this under the guidance of a therapist. Minimally pick up a self-help book.

The goal over time is for you to learn to not only control your angry outbursts, but to change the underlying thinking. It is this thinking, so skewed in the direction of unfairness/insecurity/etc. that is creating your angry feelings. Replace the maladaptive thinking with more adaptive thinking and there will be less likelihood of repeating these self-defeating patterns.

Keep in mind that just because your partner was not doing for/thinking of you at the time you became upset, that does not mean she does not care for you or do for/think of you. It just means she wasn't doing that at that particular time - which is fine. Most individuals who see things the way you do tend to grossly underestimate or miss what the partner does indeed do for you.

Some selections to get you started:

bullet The Anger Control Workbook by McKay & Rogers et al
bullet When Anger Hurts: Quieting the Storm Within, by McKay and Rogers.
bullet :60 Second Anger Management : Quick tips to handle explosive feelings  by Michael Hershorn
bulletEllis  et al.'s How to Control Your Anger Before it Controls You 
bulletEllis and Lange's How To Keep People From Pushing Your Buttons,

As you get up and running, feel free to talk about some of the thinking that's going on now for you, and I'll help you reframe it. Of course, you may also discuss anything else that relates to this stuff. I'll be on your board in about a week to reply to your questions. Good luck to you! Dr. Irene

Gang: Any comments for Andrew? Please press "Submit" just once.

I just want to read the posts.