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.

Barbie Shoes

§  Somehow this poor abused specimen of high fashion survived all the heckling and proudly wore her ridiculous shoes to her sister’s wedding.  §

One of my favorite ways of wasting time used to be reading a Lifestyle news section that scoured the Net to find and share entries from interesting personal blogs. They were occasionally thought-provoking; sometimes frightening; often utter baloney; and frequently downright flabbergasting in their complete idiocy. I enjoyed reading them immensely.

In those innocent days (about two decades ago), one could even publicly comment at the end of these shared posts. Although I rarely did so, I clearly remember one of the few posts to which I ever replied.

The young woman who’d written the post was bitterly upset over the treatment she’d received from her family and friends when she and her husband travelled from New York, returning to her rural childhood home so that she could serve as bridesmaid at her sister’s upcoming wedding. This was during the Sex and the City era, when conspicuous consumption of insanely-expensive, foot-breakingly tall high heels was a huge fashion trend. Young Woman had received just such a pair of heels as a gift during the previous holiday season. She’d proudly packed them to wear at her sister’s wedding…to the absolute hilarity of her family.

Now, long before reading this post, I had personally given up wearing anything higher than kitten heels. Pain and then pregnancy had convinced me that wrecking my feet for the sake of fashion was perhaps not one of my brighter behaviors. But this young woman was obviously years from making that rational decision, and so wasn’t taking well her family’s jibes about her overpriced, overly-tall shoes. Worse yet, it seems, they underestimated the price of the shoes (the cost of which could probably have fed a family of four in a Third World nation for two years or more). No, she kvetched, they didn’t even recognize the value of the shoes, and their teasing went beyond good-natured banter; it was abuse.

To add to her distress, when she and her husband had to drop by the hometown Super Big Evil Mart, he was stared at by locals who just didn’t recognize the style and fashion of a great V-neck sweater. More abuse! This particular gripe set me to snickering as I recalled a class reunion and one couple who had returned from New York to our Midwestern city. They stood out as polished and sophisticated, both in dress and mannerisms, from our classmates; and, yes, they received a few stares just for that reason. People tend to gawp at anything unaccustomed or different; it’s simply human nature. But Young Woman obviously hadn’t lived long enough yet to grasp that fact.

Still, somehow this poor abused specimen of high fashion survived all the heckling and proudly wore her ridiculous shoes to her sister’s wedding. She even persuaded the photographer to completely re-arrange the planned family photos to account for her suddenly-taller stature. As I read her pathetic plaints, though, I couldn’t help but recall the lyrics of the very old Lonnie Donegan song, Putting on the Style.  “Putting on the agony, putting on the style/that’s what all the young folks are doing all the while…” This gal was truly obsessed with putting on the style, whatever agony she might have to endure both in her own feet and from the “emotional abuse” she was dealt.

As her bellyaching little post wound down, though, I came to her final paragraphs, which described a comment made to her at the reception by the wedding planner. Describing said wedding planner in extremely unflattering terms that mocked her hairstyle and appearance, Young Woman nevertheless proudly recounted the planner’s compliment to her at the close of the day, “You really rocked those shoes!”

Wait a damn minute…. This Young Woman had wasted perhaps 800 words’ worth of my time with her moans, groans, complaints and kvetches about how much abuse she’d endured—and the one person, the one person in this entire scenario who compliments her, she herself abuses with belittling remarks about appearance? The word irony came strongly to mind…

There was, of course, a photo of her “ruby slippers” attached to this post. Glancing at them, I wondered how much Young Woman would someday need to pay a podiatrist  to repair the wrecked bones, muscles and tendons of her feet. Then I scrolled through the comments, most of which admired the shoes, while a few sympathized with Young Woman for the terrible mistreatment she’d endured. Others were scathing in their responses to her pathos.  None, though, mentioned her ironic insults of the kind wedding planner.

I simply couldn’t resist. Pressing the Reply button, I left, as I said, one of the very few comments I ever added to one of these entertaining Lifestyle posts. It was brief, pointed and pithy:

“Nice shoes, Barbie. But you really need to get over yourself.”