The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Help for Victims of Abuse: Breaking Out of the Doormat Syndrome

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AUDIO VERSION: YouTube  Podbean

Suppose you want to play a game of catch with your friend Dean.  When you throw Dean the ball, he’s supposed to throw it back.  This is how catch works: it’s a simple game of two people throwing a ball back and forth to each other.  There’s nothing complicated about catch, but it still requires cooperation from both sides.  If Dean refuses to catch the ball you toss at him or if he refuses to throw it back, or if he just walks away to go have lunch somewhere, you will no longer have the option of playing catch with Dean because Dean just shut down the game. 

Just as two people must cooperate with each other in order to play a simple game of catch, two people must also cooperate with each other in order to maintain an abusive dynamic in their relationship.  The kind of abuse we’re talking about in this post is a two sided affair: it isn’t something one person can pull off all on his own.  Self-abuse is like playing a game of solitaire: you can do it all by yourself.  But if you want to abuse someone else, then you need to find someone who is willing to play along.

In this post, we’re talking to human doormats: folks who have a pattern of metaphorically lying down in the dirt and letting other humans walk all over them.  The purpose of this post is to help doormats who are tired of being walked on understand how they can stop being doormats.  As the doormat in your relationships, the first critical point you need to understand is that you are helping other humans abuse you.  Imagine how difficult it would be to step on a real doormat if the thing suddenly rose up onto one edge of itself and hopped away from you.  Human doormats are only getting walked on because they are choosing to remain in the dirt.  and refusing to stand up for themselves.  You must be willing to accept this principle before you’re going to make any progress in ending the abuse in your life.  The other alternative is to stagnate in a victim mentality.  Here is where you go on and on about what creeps your abusers are and you insist that you have no say in being abused because it’s all being forced upon you.  If you think like this, you’re going to remain abused your whole life.  The abuse you’re experiencing will likely escalate over time until you die of it.  You see, the world has an endless supply of abusers and they’re all on the hunt for people who want to cry about their lack of options in life.  Yet the truth is that there are always options.  Even when we don’t have physical options, we still have mental and spiritual ones.  So the whole “I’m just a victim of my circumstances” mentality is a total waste of time and one that will just prolong your suffering while you learn nothing useful from it.  Say no to the victim mentality.

Now as pride grinding as it can be to realize that you’re playing a big part in helping others abuse you, it’s also very good news, because it helps you realize that you have the ability to put an end to the abuse by refusing to cooperate.  Like Dean, you can choose to walk away, thereby forcing your abuser to find some other doormat who he can play his game with.  There will always be another doormat—the world has an endless supply of those as well.  You can’t stop people from wanting to abuse, and you can’t stop them from wanting to be abused.  All you can do is take responsibility for your own life and your own choices.

DEFINING ABUSE

Now before you can stop being abused, you have to have a clear understanding of what abuse is.  While abuse can take on many different forms, it always comes down to an issue of power.  Imagine two drinking glasses sitting on a table, each one half full of water.  The two glasses represent the two people in a human relationship.  The liquid in the glasses represents the power in that relationship.  Every human relationship on the planet contains these three elements: two glasses and some liquid.  There’s no such thing as a relationship without power.  Certainly one of the partners in the relationship can be without power if the other partner is hogging all of the power.  But the power will always be there.

Now let’s go back to our glass analogy.  Right now, both glasses are half full of water.  Take one glass and pour most of its water into the other glass.  Now look at the difference between them: one glass is almost all full while the other has barely any water in it.  As the doormat, you’re the glass with hardly any water in it.  Your abuser is the glass with most of the water.  But wait—how did your abuser get all of your water?  Did he suck it out of you?  No, you poured it into him.  This is how it works in abusive relationships: the doormat gives away the power.  The abuser essentially says, “Give me your power,” and the doormat says, “Okay, here you go.”

Now abuse isn’t just about having the majority of the power: it’s about misusing power.  Little Todd is only six years old.  In the area of physical strength, Todd’s father is much more powerful than Todd is.  But simply having more power in some area doesn’t make Todd’s father an abuser.  Todd’s father only becomes abusive when he misuses his power.  When Todd starts to run into the street in front of oncoming traffic, Todd’s father uses his superior physical strength to yank Todd back. Was that abuse?  No, Todd’s father is protecting him.  Abuse is when Todd is minding his own business at home and Todd’s father suddenly bursts into the room and starts beating on him.  So you see, excessive power isn’t the problem—it’s how the power is being used.

What happens with doormats is that they not only give too much of their power away, they then just eat it while their abusers mistreat them.  Someone can misuse any amount of power.  When you pass a stranger on the street, that person doesn’t even have a relationship with you yet so there isn’t any power to be negotiated.  Power only enters the equation once two humans begin to relate to each other.  The longer the relationship continues, the more power there is.  Suppose that stranger on the street stops to talk to you. The moment he does this, he is starting a relationship with you.  Get out two more glasses and set them on the table.  Those glasses represent your relationship to this stranger.  Before he stops to talk with you, you don’t have a relationship, so there is no power: the glasses are empty. But once he stops to talk to you, a few drops of water suddenly appear in each of your glasses.  Now suppose he says to you, “I just have to say: you’re the ugliest person I’ve seen in my entire life.”  There is hardly any power in this very new relationship, and yet this stranger just used the few drops he had to try and harm you.  That’s abuse.  Abuse is about misusing power.

DEFENDING AGAINST ABUSE

Abusers are folks who look for opportunities to misuse the power they have in their relationships with other people.  Because you have limited control over other people, you can’t prevent abusers from trying to harm you.  Take that random stranger who insulted you on a public street. You had no idea what that guy was planning to say to you when you stopped to talk with him. You were trying to be friendly.  He was trying to tear you down. Encounters like this are an inevitable part of life: there are a lot of people in the world who go around trying to harm everyone they come across.  While you can’t totally avoid these people, you can certainly minimize how many opportunities they have to harm you by minimizing your contact with them.  For example, the guy on the street caught you by surprise.  But your friend Marsha has a long history of insulting you every time you hang out with her.  Once you see a pattern of another human trying to use their power to hurt you, you need to start exercising your options to not see that person all the time.  When Marsha asks you to go to lunch, you need to turn her down. When she calls you, you need to send her to voicemail.  When you run into her on the street, you need to tell her that you no longer consider her to be your friend.  Marsha isn’t going to disappear from the planet just because you want to end the relationship, but you can certainly minimize your exposure to her by making smart choices.

We all misuse power in life.  We’re all guilty of intentionally hurting others with our words or actions.  But chronic abusers are folks who feel a very strong need to abuse.  Because of this, they can’t afford to waste a bunch of time on people who aren’t willing to play their game.  Let’s use Ron as an example here.  Ron is a teenager who feels an intense need to beat up other kids.  In order to satisfy his need, Ron needs to get his hands on other kids so he can start wailing on them.  As a kid in Ron’s neighborhood, you have choices.  When Ron starts running towards you, you can run away and make him have to work to get his hands on you, or you can stand there and be easy prey.  If you run, then while Ron’s chasing you, he’s going to come across other kids who are too afraid to run. Since Ron’s end goal is to beat on someone, it’s in his own best interest to stop chasing you once easier prey becomes available.

Now in real life, things get more complicated than this.  Many abusers want victims who have very specific qualities.  In these cases, abusers function like a trout fisherman who is fishing in a stream with many different kinds of fish in it.  Even though other fish are within reach, the fisherman has his heart set on catching trout, so he’ll ignore other fish who he could easily catch in order to get his preferred prey.  When you’re getting targeted by this kind of focused abuser, you won’t be able to shake him off your trail just by playing hard to get.  In these cases, you’ll have to use more aggressive defensive strategies.  But the good news is that any abuser can be successfully driven back if you understand some basic psychological principles.  We’re now going to discuss four key principles that can break you out of doormat mode.

PRINCIPLE #1: START KEEPING YOUR POWER

In every relationship in your life, you have a certain amount of power.  There are two basic things you can do with the power that you have: you can either keep it or you can give it away.  You give your power away by doing what someone wants you to do.  You keep your power by refusing to do what someone else wants.  As a doormat, you give your power away far too often.  So the first change you need to make is to start keeping your power.

Think about the way that human militaries work.  It’s all about rank.  Ranks signify power.  But what does it mean to have power?  It means you have an easier time of getting your way than someone else does.  Let’s use the American army as an example here.  In the American army system of ranks, a cadet is outranked by a captain, and a captain is outranked by a general.  Joe is a cadet in the army.  Joe hates mopping floors.  But when Captain Ryan orders Joe to mop floors, Joe is supposed to obey simply because Ryan outranks him.  For armies to function, lower ranking soldiers have to accept the idea that they don’t have the option of refusing to obey those who outrank them.  And because one captain gets to boss around everyone who is beneath his rank, suddenly that captain finds himself enjoying a lot of power.  When he wants something, he just has to find some lower ranking soldier to give an order to.  In his relationships with lower ranking soldiers, the captain has most of the power because he can get his way most of the time.

Captain Ryan knows that Cadet Joe hates mopping floors.  But Captain Ryan is an abuser, and abusers love to misuse their power to make others miserable.  So even though the floors in the huge army mess hall are already clean, Captain Ryan orders Joe to mop them again just to make Joe miserable.  Joe feels like he has no choice but to give Ryan what he wants.  Joe has accepted the army mentality that lower ranking soldiers don’t get to keep power in their relationships with higher ranking officers.

Now one day Joe is mopping floors when General George comes in.  General George looks around and decides that the floors are clean enough, so he tells Joe to stop mopping.  George wants Joe to go run an errand for him.  Because George outranks Joe, Joe once again feels like he has to obey.  So what is Ryan going to say when he finds out that George has released Joe from mopping duty?  Ryan is going to be annoyed.  Ryan likes making Joe miserable, but because George outranks Ryan, George has the power to block Ryan from abusing Joe.  This is how things are supposed to work in human militaries: everyone accepts the system of ranks and the lower ranking you are, the less power you have and the more people there are who can boss you around.

Now even though you’re not in the army, as a doormat, you are going through life with a rank mentality. You’re viewing yourself as having the lowest possible rank while you’re viewing everyone else as outranking you.  Then you decide that because they outrank you, you have no choice but to do whatever they tell you to do.  And yet this system of ranks only exists in your imagination.  In real life, you’re not some low ranking soldier and your spouse, parents, friends, siblings and coworkers are not your commanding officers.

Imagine the chaos that would happen if soldiers in an army all decided to ignore the rank system.  When Ryan orders Joe to go mop floors, Joe ignores him.  What is this going to do to Ryan’s power?  It’s going to reduce it.  Captain Ryan is only powerful because everyone underneath him is obeying his orders.  As soon as Ryan stops getting his way all of the time, he’s going to stop feeling powerful, and his title of captain will become pretty meaningless.  In the same way, when you start refusing to do everything that your abusers tell you to do, you end up drastically reducing their power over you.  Let’s take Mary, whose abusive boyfriend Adam always ends up smacking her around whenever they get together.  Every Friday night is “date night” for these two.  At some point on Friday afternoon, Mary gets a call from Adam, and he announces when she’s supposed to arrive at his house for their date.  So far Mary has been obeying Adam’s orders every week, and as a result, she’s been quite miserable.  Well, now Mary is fed up with being a doormat.  So when Adam calls her on Friday afternoon and tells her to be at his house by 6 pm, Mary doesn’t show up.  Instead, she goes out to see a movie by herself so she won’t be home when Adam comes looking for her.  Just by not doing what Adam wants, Mary is reducing Adam’s power over her.

Then there is Tiffany.  Tiffany is a doormat who always agrees to give money to anyone who asks her for a handout.  The problem is that no one ever pays Tiffany back.  When Tiffany finally grows tired of financing everyone’s good times, she starts saying “no” when people ask her for money.  She isn’t asking for people to pay back the money they’ve already borrowed.  She’s just refusing to give anyone any more, and by doing so, she is reducing the power other people have over her.

Then there is Jack. Jack is an architect.  Jack’s abusive father Vince is also an architect.  Vince is always demanding to see the plans for Jack’s current projects.  When Jack brings out the papers, Vince spends hours criticizing Jack’s calculations and designs and telling him how stupid and flawed his work is.  This is how it’s been between Jack and Vince for their entire relationship: Vince is always finding fault with his son, and Jack is making this very easy to do by constantly supplying Vince with new ammo.  Well, Jack finally gets fed up with being a doormat, so the next time Vince asks to see the plans that Jack is working on, Jack refuses to cooperate.  When Vince comes over  to Jack’s house and knocks on the door, Jack pretends he’s not home.  The demand to see the plans, the knock on the door: these are all ways that Vince is ordering Jack to give Vince more things to pick on Jack about.  So Jack starts saying no.  He refuses to keep supplying his father with fresh material to critique, and in doing so, he starts reducing Vince’s power over him.

Then there is Phil.  Phil is married to an abusive woman named June.  Phil grew up watching his father physically abuse his mother and sisters.  Phil was so upset by this that he’s decided he is never going to use physical force on a woman.  This is a critical way that Phil keeps himself separate from his father in his mind, because Phil never wants to be anything like his old man.  Well, June knows all about Phil’s personal standards and she’s been using them against him for years. Phil is so paranoid about being like his father that he won’t physically defend himself against a woman, even when she’s physically assaulting him.  Whenever June wants Phil to do something that he doesn’t want to do, she just starts screaming at him and throwing things.  If more force is needed, she starts hitting him.  At first, it took a while for Phil to give in.  But after years of June assaulting him, he now gives in very fast  just to keep peace in the home and to protect himself from further injury.  Meanwhile, June is making Phil very miserable by always making him do things that he doesn’t want to do.  He never gets to hang out with his buddies from work because June is always dragging him to her tiresome social events.  He can’t ever buy anything he wants, because she’s spending all of the money he makes on her own frivolous things.  Phil gets no respect in the home and he has no power in his relationship with June.  Everything is done her way all of the time and Phil remains totally miserable until one day he finally decides that he’s had enough of June’s tyranny.  Since he knows that June will escalate her force as long as she has physical access to him, he decides that he has to stop giving her the opportunity to assault him.  So he asks a coworker if he can stay with him while he looks for an apartment that he can move into.  Phil’s coworker agrees and one day Phil just doesn’t come home.  When June calls him, he tells her that he’s not coming home anymore because he’s done putting up with her abuse.  Like Mary, Phil is removing himself from his abuser’s reach.  He’s not asking June to change, he’s just taking himself out of her firing range, and by doing so he’s reducing her power over him.

So how do abusers respond when their victims stop giving them power?  Abusers panic.  Chronic abusers need to abuse, and they aren’t going to react well to you suddenly changing the dance on them.  They’re going to want to restore the old dynamic as quickly as possible.  The most effective way for them to do this is to try and punish you for stepping out of line.  The method of punishment they choose will depend on your personal history with them.  If you’ve tried to stand up to an abuser before only to end up backing down again, then your abuser will use the same methods on you that worked in the past.  If those past methods don’t work, they’ll try something new.  As soon as you stop giving your power away by always doing what your abuser wants, it’s like you’re throwing a handful of nails into a car engine that’s running: something is going to get stuck and the whole machine is going to start malfunctioning.

When Mary fails to show up for her Friday night beating, Adam goes to her house looking for her.  When she’s not home, he tries to call her. When she doesn’t answer, he starts to panic about his loss of control. So he parks by her house and waits for her to come home, determined to let her have it for not obeying him.

When Tiffany refuses to pay off her sister Donna’s gambling debt, Donna panics. Tiffany has always paid off Donna’s debts in the past.  Donna is addicted to gambling and she needs Tiffany to help her satisfy her addiction. So Donna starts whipping up a dramatic story about how she has mobsters after her who are threatening to do her bodily harm if she doesn’t pay off her debts.  She says that if anything happens to her, Tiffany will be morally responsible. She says that Tiffany owes it to her to help her, because after all, they’re sisters.  This kind of emotional manipulation has worked in the past, so Donna is hoping it will work again.

When Jack refuses to show his father the plans for his latest building, and when he then refuses to let Vince into his house, Vince panics.  Vince can’t afford to let Jack out from under his thumb, so Vince calls Jack and leaves a long, insulting message on Jack’s cell phone.  The next day, Vince shows up at Jack’s office and gets in his face as Jack is leaving the building for lunch.  As Vince unloads a barrage of insults, he’s hoping to prevent Jack from experiencing any freedom from Vince’s constant criticism so that Jack will realize that trying to escape from Vince is an impossible dream.

When June finds out that Phil is staying at a friend’s house, she panics.  This is the first time Phil has made such a drastic move.  June has to be careful.  No one knows how she beats on Phil, and she doesn’t want anyone to find out.  So she turns on her best charm and is super sweet to the coworker who Phil is staying with in order to discredit any bad things Phil might be saying about her.  Her plan is to wait until Phil moves to an apartment where she can catch him alone and really let him have it.  She’s confident that if she dramatically steps up her abuse, she can get him back in line.

Because abusers need to abuse, they will fight to keep you where they want you.  And yet their need to abuse you is something you can use to your advantage, because the longer you stall them, the more desperate they’ll get.  Abusers want you to think that they are towers of strength—it’s part of their act.  And yet the truth is that they are often dealing with deep core wounds and very fragile self-images.  Their fragile state means that they can’t afford to pour a bunch of resources into maintaining relationships which aren’t benefiting them in some way. Once you realize that they are working with very limited resources, you can force them to either cut ties with you or improve their treatment of you simply by using stalling tactics. But the critical point here is that you stall long enough to force your abuser to make a major change in strategy.  If instead you cave in and go back to doormat mode, your abuser will see your whole breakaway as a bluff which they can topple simply by outwaiting you.

It’s rather like the American style of parenting in which a parent says to the child “I’m going to count to 10 and you’d better do what I say.”  While the parent tells himself that he’s laying down the law, all he’s doing is telling the child that he can keep screwing around until his father gets to the number 9.  Parents who use these counting methods are usually intimidated by having to dole out discipline.  Counting to 10 is a very weak way to try and express power.  The number is way too high, and it’s even worse when parents slow down the pace of their counting as the numbers climb.  Such behavior only reinforces the child’s belief that the parent is easy to push around, and by the time the child saunters back over to the parent’s side just after the final number is given, the child has clearly won the battle and the parent has given up a lot of power.

As soon as you start stalling your abuser by not doing what he want, a game of counting begins. A critical point for you to realize is that your abuser can only afford to count to a certain number.  Because you don’t know what that number is, it’s easy to think your abuser can wait forever to take you down.  But no, he can’t.  Your abuser has limited resources and there is an urgent need to get you back in line.  Maybe your abuser can afford to wait till 20.  Maybe he can afford to wait till 50.  Whatever the critical number is, you need to stall long enough for your abuser to reach it, because only then will he be forced to rethink his strategy with you.  If you’re dealing with someone who can hold out until 50 and you cave in at 45, then the next time you try to stand up for yourself, your abuser will be all the more determined to hold out as long as possible.

The first time you stand up to your abuser in some major way is going to be the most shocking and upsetting for them.  How you handle that first round will go a long way towards making future rounds easier or harder.  But even if you blow it on the first round, you mustn’t give up.  All it means is that you’ll have to hold out longer the next time.  But if you are determined enough, you will end up holding out long enough to force your abuser to reach that critical number, and then they’ll have to face the fact that they can no longer afford to keep spending so many resources trying to get you back in line.  At this point, they’ll have two basic choices: sever the relationship and look for easier prey, or improve their treatment of you.  Which option they go for depends on what their underlying motivations are for abusing you.  Meanwhile, you can encourage the second option by applying a second key principle.

PRINCIPLE #2: START DEMANDING POWER

Doormats are chronic power rejecters.  Not only are you too quick to give away your power, but you also tend to reject power that is offered to you and you are very intimidated by the concept of demanding power.  Yet if you’re ever going to get an abuser to turn into a friend, then you have to start demanding power in the relationship.

To be healthy, all human relationships must have a balance of power.  That means that both partners take turns in getting what they want from the other person.  In his relationship with his wife Lucy, Evan wants a lot of sex.  Lucy wants a lot of emotional affirmation.  Lucy shouldn’t just give Evan sex when he’s refusing to ever say anything nice to her.  At the same time, Evan shouldn’t be showering Lucy with compliments while she leaves him strung out in the bedroom.  For this marriage to be healthy, both partners need to work together to see that everyone is getting their way some of the time.  By affirming his wife emotionally, Evan motivates her to want to give him sex.  By giving Evan sex, Lucy motivates him to want to give her emotional affirmation.  This loop of positive reinforcement works as long as the power is being shared.  But once someone starts hoarding power and demanding his or her way all of the time, the other partner is going to grow resentful and start looking for ways to misuse the power that they have.  Because she’s feeling hurt by Evan’s comments during the day, Lucy gets even by mocking his sexual performance. Because he feels wounded by her mockery, Evan takes more potshots at her during the day.  We can encourage each other to keep cycling in negative or positive patterns depending on how we manage power.

When you’re a doormat, you are prone to pushing power away from you in all of your relationships, both serious and casual.  The longer someone tries to relate to you, the more you encourage them to abuse you by never insisting that you get your way in the relationship.  What you’re getting your way about isn’t nearly as important as the fact that you are taking a turn at being in the power position.  Having too much power brings out the worst in people.  Being forced to respect the needs of someone else brings out the best.  So when you never insist on having your way, you’re not just setting yourself up for abuse, you’re also dragging down the person you’re relating to by encouraging them to disrespect you.  It’s quite possible that some of the people who are taking advantage of you today would be willing to treat you better if you started insisting on it.  But as long as you’re going to be so easy to walk on, people are going to have a hard time finding the motivation to give you the respect you deserve as their fellow human being.

Now earlier we used the analogy of a fisherman to illustrate how some abusers are very particular about the kinds of victims they’re looking for.  The more bonded your abuser is to you, the more aggressively he will respond to your attempts to change the power structure of the relationship.  But the flipside is that an abuser who is emotionally attached to you is also more likely to turn into a friend.  Let’s use some examples to see how this works.

Peter is a serial rapist.  Peter dates women for the sole purpose of conquering them in some violent way.  Peter does not emotionally bond to his victims.  They’re like so much trash to him.  Peter only bonds to men in his life.  He cares about his male relationships, but not his female ones.  Now if you end up being girlfriend #49 for Peter, then as soon as you start standing up to him in the relationship, he’ll ditch you.  Peter is not the kind of abuser you can flip into a friend.  This isn’t true for all rapists.  Every abuser has a specific set of motivations and goals that they are focused on.  Some goals leave room for the abuser to find it beneficial to treat you nicer, some don’t.  In Peter’s case, he will need to make progress with his underlying hatred of women before any woman will have a chance of flipping him into a friend.  For now, Peter’s hatred of the entire female gender is so intense that he is totally unreceptive to bonding with a woman.

But then there is Ramon.  Ramon has a history of molesting kids.  Because his own daughter Dana was so readily accessible, Ramon molested her for years.  Now Dana is an adult, and she’s decided that she’s done eating her father’s abuse.  So she is starting to stand up to him, draw boundaries, and demand respect.  This is a huge change for Ramon, but because Dana is his only daughter, he feels bonded to her. She is not just a convenient victim to him.  That’s certainly been one of her values to him, but there have been others as well.  Ramon’s complex view of Dana causes him to not want to lose all connection with her. So when Dana starts making demands for respect, Ramon starts struggling to meet them. It’s very difficult for him, because he has a long history of abusing Dana in every area.  But because she is very important to him and he wants to keep the relationship, he is willing to adjust his behavior rather than lose her forever.

From where you’re sitting, you can look around and see a bunch of people in your life who are currently mistreating you.  Because you can’t see into any of their minds, you don’t understand what their various motivations are, and that means you don’t know which of your current abusers can be flipped into positive friends, and which can’t.  Demanding power is the way that you put the option for a positive dynamic on the table for your abusers to consider.  Let’s now use our previous doormat scenarios to see what demanding power looks like in real life.

Mary is currently stalling her abusive boyfriend Adam.  Can Adam be flipped into a friend or should Mary cut him out of her life entirely?  To find out, Mary needs to start testing Adam’s response to the option of treating her better.  When she finds out that he’s camping out at her house, she stays at a friend’s place instead.  Then she calls Adam and tells him that she’s done putting up with his abuse.  She tells him that unless he starts treating her with respect, he’s going to be out of her life.  Then she lays down her first demand: she tells Adam not to contact her for a whole week.  She says that if he doesn’t back off and stop hounding her, she’ll totally cut ties with him.  Adam now has a choice to make.  He can try to keep hounding Mary and risk her taking legal action, or he can wait a week and see what she’ll do next.

While Mary is giving Adam ultimatums, Tiffany tells her gambling sister Donna that the bank of Tiffany is permanently closed.  Tiffany says, “I love you as a sister, but from now on, no money is going to change hands between us.  I’d still like a relationship with you, and if you’re interested, I’d like to meet for coffee tomorrow.  But if you ask me for money when we get together, I’m leaving.”  Donna is shocked at the dramatic change in the stand her sister is taking.  Tiffany has always been such an easy pushover.  Donna agrees to coffee, but she’s already planning how she’ll try to pressure Tiffany for money when they’re together.  Donna doesn’t believe for one minute that Tiffany will be able to hold the boundaries she’s drawing.

Then there is Jack.  When Jack’s father Vince verbally assaults Jack at Jack’s work, Jack gets in his car and drives away.  Then he sends his father a text message that says he’s done being criticized, and if Vince wants a relationship with him, he’ll have to clean up his act.  Vince immediately fires back a barrage of insults which Jack does not respond to.  It’s going to take a lot more than one text message for Vince to be convinced that his dynamic with Jack is going to have to change.

Lastly, there’s Phil.  While June sets to work charming Phil’s coworker, Phil opens up a separate bank account that is in his name only and he starts sending his paychecks there instead of to the joint account.  Phil also gets an apartment for himself.  Next he has his lawyer send June the paperwork for a legal separation.  June is shocked and scared by this series of events.  She never expected Phil to stand up for himself like this.  She starts to think about how different her life will be if Phil really leaves her and she starts to consider small changes that she wouldn’t mind making in order to win him back.  What’s bothering Phil the most—the hitting?  The screaming?  Perhaps if June can get him to talk, they can negotiate new terms that she can deal with. But when she calls him, Phil says that he won’t even be open to discussing reconciliation unless she first signs the separation papers.  Phil has made his first demand, now it’s up to June to decide how she’s going to respond.

As our four friends start making demands for power, they’re all as panicked as their abusers.  As violent as Adam can be, Mary is very bonded to him and doesn’t want to lose him.  Tiffany feels terribly guilty about not helping her sister out of danger from mobsters.  Jack is afraid of his father cutting him off.  Phil really wants to save his marriage.  While the principles of correcting power dynamics are very simple, trying to put them into practice in real life is often intensely upsetting.  To avoid the emotional storm that comes with reclaiming power, doormats often choose to remain doormats, and they settle for a life of misery.  You really don’t want to go down that road.  You can press through the storm, and it will pass.  Remember that your abusers have their own problems, and they can’t hold out forever.  The longer you stall and the more demands you make, the more desperate they become.  After the initial freak out subsides, you’re going to start seeing some dramatic changes in their behavior.  They will either drop you or they’ll start showing you a nice side of themselves that you didn’t know existed.  It’s when they’re first going spastic on you that things are the scariest, but the more stubborn you are about keeping your power and insisting that your demands be met, the faster you’ll get through the first stage. Meanwhile, there are things you can do to help your new bluff of strength be more convincing, and this brings us to our third principle…

PRINCIPLE #3: BE WILLING TO LOSE THE RELATIONSHIP

Abusers are notorious bluffers.  They work hard to hide their vulnerabilities and convince you that they are far more confident and strong than they actually are.  They’re usually very afraid of losing power because, ironically, they’re afraid of being abused themselves.  Despite their confident facades, abusers often feel extremely vulnerable to being dominated by another abuser, and the more bonded they are to you, the more of a threat you are to them.  A good example here is Brian.  Brian is a very sensitive man who desperately wants to be approved of by others.  You wouldn’t know it to look at him, because Brian is a very rude, condescending, abrasive loudmouth who is constantly insulting the people in his life.  But what Brian is constantly dishing out is the thing he feels most threatened by: harsh criticism.  This is a common pattern among abusers: they hurt others in the way that they are most afraid of being hurt themselves.  It’s like Peter, our serial rapist.  Peter’s deep hatred of women is a response to the fact that his mother and sisters violently abused him when he was growing up.  As Peter goes around violently assaulting women, he’s doing to them what he’s terrified of having happen to him.  If a woman were to ever turn the tables on Peter and trap him in some helpless position, he would melt into a puddle of terror.  So even though Peter acts like a ruthless, fearless, immoral animal in bedrooms, the truth is that he is extremely terrified of being physically dominated by a woman.  It’s the same with Brian.  The way Brian dishes out the stinging criticism and condescending remarks makes him seem impervious to being hurt himself. But in reality, Brian is crushed whenever someone gets up the courage to insult him back.  Naturally, Brian’s family is left bearing the brunt of his insults.  But whenever one of them fires back some insult, Brian is internally reeling with pain which he frantically tries to hide by shouting all the louder.

Constant bluffing is a critical way that abusers maintain their power over others.  But once you realize how much of their act is just an act, it will boost your confidence and help you hold your ground.  The more extreme your abuser’s responses are, the more threatened you’re making them feel.  Rather than focus on how intimidating their new threats sound, you need to focus on the fact that those threats are suddenly being made.  As your abuser scrambles to come up with bigger, better ammo, he’s telling you that you’re gaining ground.  You’re forcing him to change positions.  You’re making him feel a loss of power.  This is a good thing in power hoarding situations: the hoarder must be forced to relinquish power if the relationship is ever going to become functional.

Now because you’re so squeamish about demanding power, your bluff is going to be pretty easy to see through at first—especially when your abuser has so much experience in bluff management.  Bluffers are good at spotting other bluffers, which is why your abuser probably won’t take your early attempts to gain power seriously.  To strengthen your bluff and speed up the rate of change, you need to be in the right mental place, and that means embracing certain perspectives.  First, this is a battle you can win.  Your abuser needs a certain amount of cooperation from you before he can grind you down into certain positions.  By refusing to cooperate, you can limit the power he has over you.  The second key thing to bear in mind is that your abuser is far more fragile and vulnerable than he seems.  The third key is a tough one, but it’s critical for succeeding at these kinds of battles.  You must be willing to lose the relationship.

“It’s better to be mistreated than to be alone.”  This is a very common mentality among humans.  It’s the primary reason that people don’t break up with each other once a romantic relationship goes south.  “We can still be friends,” people say.  But no, you really can’t.  It’s rare for failed romantic relationships to evolve into healthy friendships, and if you’re going to have any chance at getting there, you must first make a clean break with each other.  You need to go through a period in which there is no communication so that both of you can fully process the loss, grieve for what will never be, and separate your identities from one another.  When you skip this stage and keep in contact with each other, you keep on hoping for what will never happen, you keep making failed attempts to “make it work,” and you get yanked all over the emotional map while you watch your ex getting new relationships.  When we don’t fully mourn what has been lost, we end up obsessing over that thing—whether it’s a house, a job, a child, a pet, a spouse, or a friend.  While we’re obsessing, we lay ourselves open to endless torment over what ifs.

In the case of abusive relationships, the common trap is believing that your abuser will suddenly morph into a nicer person once they get their fill of abusing you. And yet the need to abuse isn’t like hunger—you can’t make it go away by getting a certain quantity.  Abusers abuse as a coping method for other issues.  The problem is that abusing people as a means of managing your own pain is like slopping cold mud onto a burning wound to cool it down.  The dirty mud only worsens the infection, and abusing you is only exacerbating your abuser’s core issues.  The longer your abuser mistreats you, the more upset he feels, and the more he needs his coping methods.  So by not standing up to your abuser, you’re only encouraging him to stay stuck where he’s at.

Threatening to terminate the relationship is an ultimatum which many abusers use to keep their protesting victims in line.  This works especially well in parent-child and romantic dynamics—relationships in which there is the presence of a complex bond.  In romantic relationships, it’s common for the doormat to feel financially dependent on the abuser.  In parent-child relationships, the doormat often feels an intense need for parental approval.  Once you start threatening to change the dance on your abusers, they will try to leverage any advantage they can find.  But if you have already accepted the possibility of entirely losing the relationship, you will have a much easier time holding your ground.

What’s going on in the privacy of your own mind greatly affects how you handle tense conversations.  Once your abusers pick up on the fact that they’ve become expendable to you, it will force them to commit to a course of action: either by cutting you off, or by trying to meet your new demands for respect.

PRINCIPLE #4: START ADDRESSING CORE MOTIVATIONS

This last principle is critical for helping you not fall back into a doormat position in future relationships.  Rather than chalk up your dysfunctional behavior to something like “low self-esteem,” you need to realize that your reasons for eating abuse are much more complex than this.  Often in adult relationships, the doormat is subconsciously seeking out situations in which he can experience abuse.  But wait—why would we want to set ourselves up to be injured?  There are a lot of psychological reasons for doing this.  One of the most common is to cope with past abuse.

When we’re being abused as children, we not only have limited choices, we are also lacking the maturity we need to recognize and use what choices we do have.  Once the damage is done, we often carry unprocessed wounds into adulthood, where we then seek out ways to cope.  One very common coping method is to try and stay acclimated to abuse which we secretly believe will never stop.  It works like this: Rex grows up getting beat on by his father.  Rex comes to believe that he’ll always be beat on in life—that he has no option to ever escape this kind of abuse.  Once Rex accepts this belief, it becomes very logical for him to maintain his stamina for handling this kind of abuse.  In this way, he’s thinking like the fireman who says, “Because my job requires a lot of heavy lifting, I’d better stay on it with weight lifting exercise so my muscles don’t grow flabby.”  Only in Rex’s case, it’s not working out at the gym that will help him.  He needs to practice being abused.  So Rex seeks out an abuser. He gets with Jill—a woman with a violent temper who is quick to beat on him when she gets mad.  Even though Jill is half of Rex’s size and someone who he could easily throw across a room, he just lets her wail on him without defending himself.  On a subconscious level, Rex actually wants to be abused—he feels it is critical to his long term survival. On a conscious level, Rex hates being abused: it’s painful and scary.  This kind of psychological dilemma is what we call trauma rehearsal and it causes victims of abuse to seek out more abuse as adults.

Another common mentality is that of trauma reversal: in this scenario, victims seek out someone who reminds them of their past abuser, then they engage with that person for the purpose of trying to symbolically fix their past relationships.  Tina is a good example here.  Growing up, Tina’s father always verbally tore her down.  Naturally Tina wanted his approval, and she tried to earn it by groveling, but her father would never affirm her.  As an adult, Tina finds herself intensely attracted to Mark: a man who is just as critical and harsh as her father was.  Subconsciously, Tina sees Mark as a symbol of her father, and by getting Mark’s approval, she’s really trying to win the approval of her father.  So Tina endlessly grovels while Mark endlessly abuses.  They don’t make any progress: it’s a totally dysfunctional relationship that’s dragging everyone down.  Yet even though Mark is always knifing her, Tina feels compelled to keep trying to get him to approve of her.  It’s really not about Mark: it’s about trying to fix her relationship with her father.  Until Tina realizes that this is what she’s doing, then merely getting free of Mark probably won’t stop her doormat tendencies.  She’ll just go out and find another guy who is just like Mark, thus falling back into the same dysfunctional pattern.

Humans are complex creatures and they have complex reasons for what they do.  Asking God to help you understand what your underlying motivations are for eating abuse is a critical step in the healing process.  You need to deal with root causes—not just fix surface symptoms—and that means you need to be willing to face some upsetting truths about yourself.

We all get wounded in life.  We all have insecurities and fears that we’re lugging around and trying not to think about because they make us feel vulnerable and threatened.  Real healing requires a willingness to stop focusing on what’s wrong with everyone else and start dealing with your own problems.  God is the One you need to walk you through this process, because He’s the only One who fully understands you.

Because God is big on dealing with root issues, when we go to Him for help, we get real help, and we also learn some very encouraging truths, such as how empathetic God is towards us.  God loves both abusers and doormats.  He understands people who are “messed up.”  He doesn’t find any of our behaviors mystifying, nor does He see any of our problems as unsolvable.  With God, there is always hope, and if you really want to break out of your doormat tendencies, He can get you there.

FURTHER READING:
The Element of Power in Human Relationships
Improving Your Social Skills: The Principles of Coercion & Power
The Purpose of Dysfunction: Understanding Why God Messed You Up
Rejecting Labels of Inferiority: Help for Victims of Abuse
Recovering from Abuse: Forgiveness vs. Reconciliation
Understanding Your Passive Response to Assault: A Lack of Resistance Does Not Indicate Cowardice or Enjoyment
Understanding Your Reaction to Sexual Assault: Triggers & Pleasure

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