There’s a subtle type of emotional abuse that it could take you years to uncover: Taking the truth and twisting it around. It’s not a bold-faced lie. It’s a little lie, a subtle and surprising twist — and that’s why it shakes the ground under your feet. It’s a small lie.

Supposing in your lifetime that literally 456 people have told you that you are pretty. Yes, the first two were your parents. But there were 454 others that were less biased in your favor. In fact, to help defray the costs of college while you went for a degree in biochemistry, you did a little modeling. It was fun and you made a few dollars.

Now, just supposing you happen to be married to someone who, in a moment of anger because of something you didn’t even do, decides to say to you: “And you’re not so good looking, either.”

Small Lies Are Worse Than Out-and-Out Lying

You’re devastated. Not because you care so much about looks but because the attack is so gratuitous—and so off the mark. It’s this last piece, the part about being off the mark that I’m classifying as the worst of the emotional abuse. You see, we know that the ground is under our feet and the sky is up because over years and years we have taken these two things as given. There are lots of givens in our lives, things we wouldn’t dream of questioning. After all, “everyone says so” and “that’s the way it is.” Things like mom is sweet and dad is distant or uncle Ned is outrageous and aunt Emily is a bit in space. We see evidence of these things every time we deal with mom, dad, uncle Ned or aunt Emily so it reconfirms our givens. Like the “fact” that you are pretty. It’s just a fact, not an ego boost.

But now someone is turning the world upside down by saying you’re not.

Isn’t “up” really up? Isn’t “down” really down?

To have the truths of your existence called so casually into question is disconcerting and frightening. It’s frightening because it de-stabilizes you; you don’t know what strange and unexpected thing will happen next. There was a play made on in 1938 this called Gaslight and from it came another term for this sort of emotional and mental abuse called gaslighting.

This is subtle emotional abuse. The “subtle” part is what makes it vicious: It could take years to catch onto. That’s because the attacks could have a grain of truth to them. After all, even if hordes of people have told you you’re beautiful, your partner—if she or he is in a really nasty mood—can come back with, “Well that was five years ago.”

And the reality is that even if hordes of people have praised you, you never really did count how many people did that. It isn’t possible that you know for sure that 454 people besides your parents have told you this “truth.” So between the grain of truth that is potentially in the attack—even if it isn’t at all the case in actuality—and the fact that you often don’t have hard evidence to support what you thought was true, the attacks slowly corrode not only your sense of self, but your sense of reality. This is scary business.

Whether you’ve been unexpectedly told that you’re not thrifty, organized, punctual, friendly, pleasant, smart, or anything else you assumed to be true of yourself, the result is the same: It undermines your clarity on exactly who you are and it undermines your sense of reality.

It may be a little easier to not allow it to throw you in some cases than others. In the case we’re discussing, not only have many people told you you’re pretty but you’ve had the “objective” opinion of modeling companies. Nevertheless, even if you were to make the retort, “See what being married to you has done!” you still would not be able to get this point out of your mind. It would place that tiny speck of doubt right there where it would infect all your other opinions and “givens.” The tiniest possibility that there is truth in the twisted version of truth leads you to feel insecure about everything, and eventually, your confidence is gone.

An added difficulty is that you cannot argue with someone who makes statements like this.  Such statements are derived from a logic of their own that the person who makes them fully needs to believe. The need to believe them is so powerful that there is no logic, no amount of argument or debate that you can give that will unseat the conviction in his (or her) heart that this twisted truth is the truth.

If your spouse wanted to, she or he could also claim that you’re not as smart as you think even if you won the Nobel Prize in Biochemistry.

Now, let’s for the moment assume that you are very strong-minded and this antic has not unbalanced your equilibrium one bit. Or perhaps you had a few years of therapy and this helped enormously. So you decide that it’s high time your spouse stops this. You tell him or her to stop and your partner will have ten reasons to logically demonstrate why what they are saying is, indeed, the reality. Furthermore, they are telling you for your own good. “The truth hurts,” he or she may say, and you’re suddenly so confused you’re thinking, “Yeah, maybe that’s why it hurts.”

No. That’s not it. It hurts because it’s not true. It hurts because it upends your view of reality that you’ve had for a lifetime.

Why would someone do this? And more importantly, how in the world do you cope with it? Stay tuned for the next blog post.

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