The Subtlety of Verbal Abuse

Verbal abusers are sly…

I was once in a relationship with a man who suffered from misophonia (also called selective sound sensitivity syndrome). I lightly apply the term “suffered” to his personal experience with the disorder. Although the condition undoubtedly caused him distress, it was the people around him who truly suffered. As an individual who had never learned the value of self-control in any aspect of his life, his misophonia was simply one more excuse for him to demonstrate uncontrolled and abusive behavior.

That comment may seem harsh, but is supported by countless events I experienced in his company, of which examples abound. Passengers in his car quickly learned that to gasp at a near-miss with another auto was reason for him bellow, not at the other driver, but at his fellow traveler. The give-and-take of normal conversation would send him stomping off to sulk in some quiet corner, demanding that the other person cease speaking. Those unfortunate enough to sneeze in his presence learned that the result was not “Bless you!”, but invective hurled at the miscreant.

I finally divined the hard truth that lurked behind his diagnosis of misophonia: he used the condition, applying it as a way to rage other people, and most often at women. Natural noise, I came to understand, even the most irritating dissonance, had very little effect upon Mr. Misophonia. The racket of annual cicadas, for instance, did not faze him. Disagreeable mechanical sounds, scraping or clattering, never bothered him. The voice of any male person he admired did not annoy him, yet he reviled women’s voices, and the sound of children’s laughter made him visibly quiver with distaste. Yet the crash of items that he threw in anger did not discommode him.

After three years in his presence I came to understand that much of his claim to suffering misophonia was no more than a method for exerting power over the people in his life. The disorder provided him an easy escape from either exercising control over his own behavior or apologizing for inappropriate conduct. Misophonia simply compounded his unremitting attacks of verbal abuse.

That it took me three years to reach this conclusion isn’t really surprising. Countless scholarly articles discuss the subtlety of emotional/verbal abuse; how it snakes, constrictor-like, about its victims, gradually divesting them of all sense of self-worth or even the will to defend themselves. It’s my belief that most of us who have, as adults, found ourselves enmeshed in a relationship with an emotional abuser also have a background containing some form of trauma, often from a very early age when we had few resources with which to defend ourselves. Our sense of dignity has already been deeply wounded.

Verbal abusers play upon that victimhood. They are sly. They have an uncanny ability to determine, using non-verbal clues, those among their acquaintance who feel that their very existence is taking up too much space in the room. With that knowledge in hand, it’s a quick leap to deep, penetrating conversations: discussions which falsely indicate a sense of interest in the other person, but which unveil someone’s personal triggers and touch buttons. Then begins the cunning work of further undermining that individual’s already-shaky sense of self-worth. Verbal abusers easily breach someone’s defenses, breaking down barriers that would have been firmly placed in a healthier, normal ego. Verbal abusers are both shrewd and skilled in their malevolence.

And often, like Mr. Misophonia, they exploit actual problems or illness to further manipulate their victims: “Pity poor me, I have this disease, this difficulty, this impediment, and I cannot help or amend the behavior that accompanies it. Because of this, I bear no responsibility for my conduct. YOU are the problem, for you lack empathy and understanding. YOU must work harder to support me in my struggles.”

Looking back from the distance of years, I’m a bit amazed that I was somehow able to wrest myself from this destructive relationship and re-establish myself as a whole person. Perhaps some spark of soul, some deeply-rooted hint of self-esteem finally rose up in me, rejecting his attempts to paralyze me into a vision of worthlessness. More likely, though, my enlightenment began when, helpfully educating myself about misophonia in an attempt to be supportive, I realized that there were sufferers who spent nearly their every waking moment exerting enormous self-discipline to control their painful reactions to sound triggers, trying to prevent outbursts that would distress the people around them.

My abuser, I realized, had never done that. Rather, he gloried in the effect his flaring temper had to quell and subdue the people in his orbit. He was less a misophonic, I came to understand, than a manipulator. A subtle, malicious manipulator. With that knowledge came the ability to remove myself at last from that terribly unhealthy relationship.

There are genuine misophonics who suffer dreadfully from a poorly-understood medical condition. But my abuser was not one of them.

If this essay appealed to you, you might also enjoy “The Day the Vacuum Cleaner Rose Up to Smite Me”, from October 27, 2017. Scroll down to the Archives link to locate it.

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