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.

The Many Faces of Hate

§  To wear the mask of a stranger is to see merely unimportant specks on the rim of the mask’s limited vision.  §

While a young woman, I had a coworker—let’s call her Angela–who endured troubling memories of her paternal grandmother. At the time I knew Angela, I’d just begun re-establishing a close relationship with my own paternal grandmother; years of family squabbles had kept us apart. So I was shocked to hear of the treatment this likeable woman had received from her grandmother.

Angela explained that Grandmother absolutely despised Angela’s mother—had hated her from the very day Mom and Dad began dating. It’s been 40-odd years since our conversation, but I still recall the troubled expression on Angela’s face as she told me that her mother and father tried countless times to heal the sorry situation. Sadly, nothing had ever worked.

But Grandmother’s hatred extended to, when they arrived, the children of the marriage. She never put aside her contempt for her daughter-in-law for the sake of her grandchildren, who were, after all, her son’s children. No, in ways both overt and subtle, Grandmother made certain that those youngsters knew that they did not measure up to her other grandchildren.  Her favored offspring were not “contaminated” by a birth relationship to the despised daughter-in-law.

Angela recounted Grandmother’s worst insult, which centered on the kids’ school photos. One wall of Grandmother’s house displayed her grandchildren’s school pictures.  But the photos of Angela and her siblings were not flaunted among the rest. Instead, they were hung in the bathroom, facing the toilet.

Hearing the ache and indignation in Angela’s voice as she described this stinging memory, I felt heartsick on her behalf. To be the victim of such spite and cruelty from a person who should have loved her unconditionally—well, it stunned me.

The memory of that conversation has never left me. Many times after our discussion I daydreamed, inventing scenarios to bring resolution and revenge to my coworker’s bitter experience: Of all the Grandmother’s children, only the marriage of  her son and despised daughter-in-law thrived. The marriages of all her other children failed, and bitter divorces meant that she was separated from her favorite grandchildren.   Or:  Mean Grandmother lived out her final days quite alone and helpless in a substandard nursing home, visited by no one except the despised daughter-in-law.  Or, best of all:   Those other, favored grandkids all grew up to be ungrateful little wastrels who scammed Grandmother for money, became drug addicts and alcoholics, and were jailed for multiple crimes. Meanwhile, Angela and her siblings lived quietly successful, happy lives, but obviously never bothered with the Mean Grandmother who had treated them so badly.

That’s not the way life works, of course. Mean Grandmother probably wound down her life warmly surrounded by the love and attention of the children, in-laws and grandkids she preferred, smugly self-satisfied with her contemptible treatment of her reviled daughter-in-law and unloved grandchildren.

Hatred can wear so many faces! It can be disguised as the face of a grandparent or an in-law; someone who should be both loving and beloved, but is instead malevolent. It can wear the face of an abusive spouse or parent, or even a job supervisor.  It can focus on skin color, or ethnic origin. It can manifest as religious or even generational intolerance. It can be masked in passive aggression, calling itself teasing when it is in fact intentional torment and insults.

Or it can wear the face of a total stranger.

This last really struck me, and is the reason I recalled my former coworker’s sad little tale, as I sat one recent morning watching a video examining the causes and motives behind the many mass shootings of recent times. Unlike the malicious Grandmother, these cases so often involve total strangers who go on a rampage, wounding and murdering innocents with whom they have absolutely no connection. Is it easier, I wondered, to do so? To harm those with whom a person has absolutely no relationship? To wear the mask of a stranger, and see, not other human beings with lives and loves of their own, but merely unimportant specks on the rim of the mask’s limited vision? Is exterminating unknown strangers guilt-free?

Or does it all—murdering strangers or murdering the spirit of those who should be loved ones—come with consequence?

I have no answers. I only know that I clicked off that video, and sat, remembering Angela’s long-lasting emotional wounds. Then I sighed and selected some financial work I needed to do on my computer. But as I tapped the mouse, I noticed in surprise that my face was wet, and that tears had splashed onto my keyboard.

I had not even realized that I was crying.