In the previous post, Small Lies Are Emotional Abuse, I described the devastation to the psyche when someone twists around who you think you are. It is emotional abuse; it is mental abuse, and the fact that the process is subtle makes it more, not less, devastating.

Why would someone need to do this? Why would someone be so attached to a distortion like this? I can think of two similar possibilities:

Strong Belief In a False “Reality” Creates [False] Security

1. This individual grew up in a home where reality was distorted. He or she didn’t have outside sources of information to figure out how the world sees things. When I was researching my dissertation, someone said that he grew up in a home without a dining room table. The family watched TV at dinnertime, sitting on chairs facing the set. He thought that was how everyone did it.

2. This individual grew up in a home where there was very little conversation about feelings or perspectives of others so there was no way to get outside opinions on whether his perspectives were on target.

In either case, the person must figure out how the world works without much help from those who’ve been there. That’s a scary place. Tiptoeing on a tightrope, the person feels very insecure. What can give him or her some sense of security? – clinging tenaciously to his ideas! The very act of shedding doubt creates the desired security. This, by the way, explains why people with paranoia cling to their mistaken realities; it also explains suicide bombers and other people on the fringes of reality.

When you come across a person who won’t see another person’s position, that’s an insecure individual.

Dealing with such a person is fraught with frustration. As soon as you contradict the individual with the crazy belief system, his or her (I’ll switch his and her going forward) defenses go up. Remember, this person needs to be convinced of his brand of reality in order to know which end is up. The fact that, in the process, you now have become confused and uncertain is not his problem. In fact, because he had limited reality checking growing up, he is not even aware that he has totally upended your sense of clarity. He lacks the empathy to be able to do so.

Here’s the interesting and equally challenging part: This person may be in other areas very nice. She wants your best. She believes she’s telling you a truth you need to hear. The world may see her as charming and kind because she has picked up enough to see what is “done” some of the time. This, in fact, describes Ted Bundy, a serial killer who worked at a Seattle suicide hot line crisis center and whose co-workers saw him only as “kind, solicitous, and empathetic”*

So what do you do if your spouse tells you these horrible “truths” and yet is nice at other times? Does the nice part mean the twisted part isn’t twisted and you were wrong all the time? Does the twisting of truth mean the person isn’t really nice? How do you handle it?

Here are the steps I would suggest:

1. Do some reality testing.

In order to know what a more objective person would say about your reality, it would help to talk to others. However, don’t just go to friends who will support you. You can go to forums online or blogs (such as this one) and post a question for other readers to answer. There are many blogs that deal with relationships out there. You can also speak to a clergy-person or a therapist. It would not hurt to ask your spouse’s family for their input. Often, the “other side” is surprisingly sympathetic to the child-in-law.

2. Reaffirm yourself.

Part of the problem is that your sense of self-worth has been totally eroded. This needs to be restored, regardless of the truth that has or hasn’t been twisted. Here’s what I mean: If you were, let’s say, a biochemist, but not particularly apt at piano, and your parents gave you piano lessons but you just didn’t take to it, then, if your partner said you weren’t particularly good, your reaction should be, “Yeah, you can say that!” It wouldn’t or shouldn’t bother you. When in the days I was building up my therapy practice, it didn’t take off and my husband asked why not, I said I just wasn’t a great entrepreneur. I didn’t take it personally because it’s not the part of myself I valued.

The woman in the scenario needs to repeat affirmations that are true. If several people say she’s pretty, then she’s pretty. Period. If they say she’s smart, she’s smart. She needs to remind herself of these – and other – truths in her life every day, many times a day. Only then will she build up support within herself for who she really is. Every person should have a list of self-truths that no one can shatter.

3. Have “the talk.”

The partner in this scenario needs to be told that no matter how much he is hurting or feels under attack, in no way is he permitted to attack back. If he claims that’s just not fair, “the talk” includes the following statement – and this is critical – “In all our years together, have I ever willfully hurt you?” Of course, the answer is “no.” Then you follow by saying, “Any time you think I’m attacking, that’s just not correct. I would never do that. You must stop yourself from attacking back. Later, when you’re calm, you can ask me what I meant because it felt like an attack and then we can talk about it.”

Of all the things I’ve written, this above concept is key to turning your marriage around for many, many people. It seems simple, but it’s huge. Let me know how it goes.

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* see Ann Rule’s book, The Stranger Beside Me, and the Wikipedia entry on Ted Bundy, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ted_Bundy

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