How Manipulation Prevents Problem-Solving
by Mindy, a Hotline Advocate
Here at The Hotline, there are a few common questions we get from victims and survivors regarding how to communicate in their abusive relationships. For example: “How can I talk to my partner to make them understand?”, “What can I do to stop the arguments?”, or “How can I defend myself?” These are all valid questions, and within the framework of a healthy relationship there are possible answers and solutions to those questions. However, these things aren’t likely possible in an abusive relationship, and here’s why:
We know that abuse is a choice that one partner makes in order to have power and control over the other person. It can be hard to accept that your relationship isn’t healthy, and it may be even harder to acknowledge that your partner is abusive and is choosing to hurt you. It’s normal to look for solutions or ways to address the behavior because you want to fix the relationship. You’ve invested a lot in this relationship (love, time, energy, etc.) so you don’t want to give that up. However, you also know that the way things are right now isn’t right, healthy, or what you signed up for. So, its reasonable that you’re looking for tools on how to communicate with your abusive partner to make them understand that what they are doing is harmful and not okay. The frustrating truth about this is that because abuse is a choice, your partner already knows that their actions are harmful and controlling. Their behavior is like that by design, because they’ve identified what behaviors will get them a desired response, thus they continue to rely on those behaviors. Abuse isn’t something that you- the person experiencing it- can fix or solve, because while abusive behavior is problematic to a relationship, abuse isn’t a relationship problem, it’s an individual’s choice. For that reason, you might often feel like arguments are never solved, that your words get twisted and used against you, or that there’s just nothing you can say to feel understood. This is because your partner does not have the same goals that you have. While you want to focus on solving problems or getting your concerns heard, an abusive partner wants to gain more power and control in the relationship. Unfortunately, it’s often just not possible to try to make healthy relationship choices when your partner is choosing to behave abusively towards you.
As advocates, we often try to explain why arguing with an abusive person feels so frustrating and confusing, and it’s because an abusive person’s remarks and claims aren’t coming from a rational or truthful place. An example that can help illustrate this is imagining you and your partner looking at the color of the sky. You could spend all day trying to explain that they sky is blue, and an abusive partner would keep saying “Nope, you’re crazy. The sky is obviously green, what’s wrong with you?” Remember, abuse is about control, which means that abusive people use irrational demands and accusations to control the dialogue in the relationship and prevent you from feeling heard or understood. There’s often no way to have a constructive, productive conversation because abusive partners aren’t coming from a place that allows that to happen. This is also an effective manipulation tactic that allows the abusive partner to displace blame and responsibility in order to make their behaviors the fault of someone or something besides themselves. All of this means that there is rarely anything you can say or do that will prevent an argument from starting or escalating. In that moment, the abuser has already decided that they are going to use this opportunity to be manipulative or hurtful.
Lastly, let’s talk about defenses. To start, there’s a big difference between setting up emotional defenses versus defending yourself. When you’re in an abusive relationship, you often feel exhausted, broken down, or like you’re just trying to keep your head above water while this negative presence is pulling you down. When it comes to protecting yourself, sometimes it can be helpful to consider options you wouldn’t choose in a healthy and safe situation, because this is about prioritizing your safety above all else. While you can’t control your partner’s abusive actions and choices, you can control how you take care of yourself while in that harmful situation. This is why we recommend setting up emotional “defenses” that can help protect you and help you combat the negative effects of the relationship–things like positive affirmations, self-care, building a support system with friends or family, or getting ongoing help through therapy or support groups.
That being said, we know that self-preservation in the face of something unfair happening to you doesn’t always feel like enough. We often have the urge to stand up for ourselves when someone is hurting us, or we want to show them exactly how much their actions hurt by us responding in kind. While those feelings are understandable (and fighting back when in danger can sometimes be a reflex), safe self-defense is often not possible in an abusive relationship. However, there are strategies you can use to protect yourself during an assault, like calling the police if you think it’s safe to do so. Again, abuse is all about power and control and if you try to stick up for yourself, an abusive partner will likely escalate in order to stop that momentum and maintain control, rather than giving you space to feel heard or understood. This escalation can come in the form of emotional manipulation or gaslighting, or in the form of continued or more severe violence.
Due to the safety risk, if you are still in an abusive relationship, we never recommend confronting an abusive partner. At the same time, we know though that feeling heard is important. Some possible symbolic ways to confront your partner could include: burning or burying things that remind you of the abuse, acting out the confrontation with someone you trust like a good friend or a counselor, or writing a letter but not giving it to your partner. Important: If you don’t destroy the letter, make sure to keep it in a safe space where your partner won’t find it. Your safety is what’s most valuable, so we always encourage you to trust your instincts, and it’s important to understand that being with a partner who chooses to behave abusively means it’s highly unlikely that you will truly be heard by your partner.
An abusive relationship is an incredibly difficult thing to go through, and because of the reasons we’ve discussed in this blog post, the simple but difficult answer is that there is likely not a strategy that you can use to safely talk to your abuser to get them to stop being abusive, or to get them to understand/validate your feelings. We know that may be difficult to hear, but that doesn’t mean that you don’t have options.
If you’d like to discuss some options for safety or make a plan of action to leave the relationship, please reach out to our hotline (1-800-799-7233) or chat with us here on the website. We’re here for you 24/7.