Responding to Abusers

Dialoguing with an abuser takes care and knowledge.  It’s a difficult, narrow path and is not always effective.  But for those of you who must deal with an abuser, there are some things you can do to make things better for you.  Most of this information is for dealing with emotional and or verbal abusers.  Please remember that the best way to deal with a physical or sexual abuser is to get away from this person and, when appropriate, notify the authorities.

The first thing to remember is that sometimes it’s better to choose to do nothing at first.  What I mean by that is that you don’t have to make a decision about how to respond to the abuser the moment a demand is made.  I know this sounds easy, but if you’ve ever faced an abuser you will know how difficult this can be.  Use time buying statements as soon as a demand is made and continue to repeat them if the abuser pressures you to make an immediate decision.  Some good responses are: “I don’t know right now.  I need some time to think it through.”  “I’m not willing to make a decision now.”  “I’m not sure how I feel about what you’re asking.  I need some time to think about it before we discuss it.”  One of the things abusers use is to make others feel pressure in that there’s no time to lose.  It’s easy to get caught up in the drama, but usually the urgency is only in the mind of the abuser. 

This may confuse the abuser, especially if you’ve never tried this before.  Statements such as:  “This is not a power struggle,”  “This is not about my trying to control you,”  “This is about my needing more time to think about this”  can help clarify your motives.  This will give you a chance to figure out your own thoughts, priorities, and feelings.  If, after using these statements you are still feeling pressured and anxious, simply excuse yourself and go to another room.  You can claim you need a drink of water or to use the restroom, but buy the time you need.  Abuse can make you feel intense, pressured, and frantic.  This taking a step back helps calm this.

Now that you have bought the time, begin to consider the real situation.  What did the other person want?  Was the demand made respectfully, impatiently, lovingly, etc.?  What did the abuser do when you made the request for time?  What are your thoughts?   Some common lies we tell ourselves when dealing with abusers are:  it’s ok to give more than I get; if I love someone, I’m responsible for their happiness; if I do what I want, the other person will see me as selfish.  Figure out what you are thinking and ask yourself, “Is this the truth?”
Once you’ve bought the time and considered the truth of the situation, you will be more ready to consider entering into a dialogue.  The first thing to remember is that it’s important to use non-defensive communication.  One of the ways abusers manipulate others is to put them on the defensive.  It’s tempting to argue against their descriptions of us; try to read their minds; attempt to buy their approval in the hopes that they’ll no longer be upset; and explain, contradict, apologize, and try to get them to see things from our point of view. 

Some core phrases for non-defensive communication are as follows:
• I’m sorry you’re upset.
• I can understand how you might see it that way.
• That’s interesting.
• Really?
• Yelling/threatening\crying etc. is not going to work anymore and it doesn’t resolve anything.
• Let’s talk when you’re feeling calmer.

To respond non-defensively to specific types of abuse is somewhat more difficult but possible.

To respond to threats and catastrophic predictions:
• That’s your choice.
• I hope you won’t do that, but I’ve made my decision.
• I know you’re very angry right now.  When you’ve had a chance to think things through, maybe you’ll change your mind.
• Why don’t we talk about this again when you’re less upset.
• I’m sorry you’re upset.

To respond to name calling, labeling, and negative judgments:
• You’re entitled to your opinion.
• I’m sure that’s how it looks to you.
• That could be.
• You may be right.
• I need to think about this some more.
• I’m sorry you’re upset.

To respond to the demands for explanations when asked for a rationale for your decision.  (It’s important not to fall into this trap.  Stay focused on your purpose – presenting the decision)
• There are no bad guys here.  We just want different things.
• I’m not willing to take more than 50% of the responsibility.
• I know how upset/angry you are, but it’s not negotiable.
• We see things differently.
• I’m sure you see it that way.
• I’m sorry you’re upset.

To respond to sulking and pouting:
• Remember that you are dealing with someone who feels inadequate and powerless and are afraid of your ability to hurt them.
• Confront them when they’re more able to hear what you have to say.
• Reassure them that they can tell you what’ they’re angry about and you’ll listen without retaliation.
• Use tact and diplomacy.
• Don’t be afraid to tell them that their behavior is upsetting to you.
• Stay focused on the issue.
• Expect to be attacked when you express a grievance, because they experience your assertive behavior as an attack.
• Accept the fact that you will have to make the first move.
• Let some things slide.

Another good technique is to attempt to enlist the abuser as an ally.  Sometimes if you approach the abuser with curiosity and a willingness to learn, the tone of the conversation can change quickly.  Some good questions which help direct the conversation in this way are:
• Can you help me understand why this is so important to you?
• Can you suggest some solutions?
• Can you help me understand why you’re so upset/angry?
When attempting this technique, it’s important to really listen to the answers and look for the solutions which might be offered in this way, 

Another technique is the use of humor.  Using humor carefully can make your point and place everyone involved in a more relaxed state.  Humor can be healing.  This needs to be carefully weighed out though before use as it can also make the situation worse for someone who’s mentally unstable, paranoid, or hostile.

Remember that these are skills that take time and practice to learn.  It also requires you to develop a good dose of courage.  Make a commitment to no longer allow fear, obligation, or guilt to affect your decisions.  Hang in there and learn to respect yourself.  Until you respect yourself, it’s difficult to expect others to do so.

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6 thoughts on “Responding to Abusers

  1. madame says:

    Thank you for that post.
    I think I’ll print it out and pass it on to a good friend of mine.

  2. Charis says:

    This is very good, however it raises more questions. In a way- it makes me feel as if I am the abuser because I am the only one in our marriage who ever expresses any emotion, who ever raises my voice, etc. My husband is completely quiet, and even lowers his voice to a whisper at times when we are in conflict. He considers himself “gentle and quiet” and says “a gentle answer turns away wrath”. Its not his tone of voice that is the problem (in fact it irritates me, I would PREFER if he got upset, angry); its what he says with his quiet voice that is the problem. He says hurtful wounding things, and then when I (or one of my children) get upset and angry and wind up saying something mean, and have to apologize (because 2 wrongs don’t make a right) he acts all patronizing along the lines of “you finally saw the light about what a horrid sinful unreasonable person you have been. I am so gracious. I will accept assigning you the blame for this wrong horrible behavior and I will forgive you” (Like an emperor with no clothes.) Its not just me and my perception. My 16 yod said she HATES apologizing to him because he just rubs it in. He doesn’t take responsibility for provoking us to wrath.

    On a rare honest occasion, he has admitted that he deliberately says and does things to wound me (to which I react with overboard anger). I know I am responsible for my own reactions-it is difficult for me to explain how the digs are like a dagger to my spirit and I don’t feel like I have any control to stop the hurt and I get angry- and then I am “abusive”. 😦

    A therapist told me that it is part of his addiction cycle to provoke me to anger so that he can justify and excuse his addictive behaviors “she drove me to drink, use porn, etc….” Knowing that does not seem to help me stop reacting to his provocation. If one thing stops working, he ratchets up the provocation. I have tried recovery program – like Al-Anon- but somehow the ability to detach eludes me and I can’t understand why?

  3. Sandy says:

    “A therapist told me that it is part of his addiction cycle to provoke me to anger so that he can justify and excuse his addictive behaviors “she drove me to drink, use porn, etc….” Knowing that does not seem to help me stop reacting to his provocation. If one thing stops working, he ratchets up the provocation. I have tried recovery program – like Al-Anon- but somehow the ability to detach eludes me and I can’t understand why?”

    I wonder, Charis, if it’s because you struggle with how you view yourself and what type of person you see your self as.

    I’ve mentioned Cloud and Townsend to you before but have remembered another book called “Dealing with the Crazymakers in your life” by Dr. David Hawkins. It’s an easy read but would reinforce what you know and might offer a few more practical tips.

    “The Complete Serach for Significance” (Not the little workbook) by Robert McGhee as well as his “Search for Freedom” may also be of some help to you.

    Stay in therapy if you’re able and hang in there. I’ll continue praying for you as promised.

  4. Jennifer says:

    This hits home on so many levels.

  5. Sandy says:

    I will be in prayer for you Jennifer.

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