Words Can Never Hurt Me …and Other Lies

Copyrighted by Lorna Tedder. Originally published in Life in the Third Degree.

What is it about me that attracts verbal abusers into my life? The good news is that I can spot them now—they speak the same language, same phrases, the exact same words and actions—but the bad news is that there are just so many verbal abusers in the world and they seem to gravitate in my direction. I guess I’m repeating the lesson until I’m sure I’ve gotten it and that I don’t take the abuse anymore.

Working Through Grief

When I was a little girl, Daddy used to punish my teenaged brothers for very minor and sometimes non-existent infractions—by doubling leather belts and breaking them on my brothers’ backs. Except for rare occasions, he never beat me physically, but instead he focused the brunt of verbal and emotional abuse on my mother and me.

I always knew Daddy was verbally abusive. Even when I was a child. The sheer decibel level of his tirades defined abuse.

But it’s because Daddy was so abusive that I didn’t recognize it in my own husband until almost a year ago when I read Patricia Evans’ The Verbally Abusive Relationship and emptied a yellow highlighter into the pages. I knew something was amiss, but I couldn’t name it. That’s because Daddy set the standard for verbal abuse, and my ex never matched the level of noise my father could muster. The man I married was quiet and covert and could kill with a look or a whisper. He never needed to shout.

I’d married a boy I thought was as different from my father as possible, but the difference was in the decibel level, not in the behaviors. At the end of my marriage, I’d already begun to do double-takes when my ex would snarl something at me.I recognized the words. It seemed he was channeling my father.

The convenient forgetting about things that were extremely important to me but unimportant to him. The subtle, cutting remark spoken so lightly that no one else could hear. The rage that he’d never heard of a certain event or problem or idea, even though I’d informed him in-depth no less than five times and the kids were saying, “Yes, Daddy, she’s told you that several times and we were there and you said it was good.”

The hit-and-run blow-ups on Mother’s Day and any other special day that would ruin the holiday for me and leave me startled and skittish for days afterward. The guilt-trips that I wasn’t friendly enough to him immediately after he’d yelled at me unexpectedly for absolutely nothing. The fact that I wasn’t allowed to be upset at him, regardless of his actions or hurtful words. The silent treatment, or the retreat into the TV world or Internet to shut me out. The withdrawal of affection and self when I didn’t agree with him. The comments that I must be confused or too sensitive or too emotional or not as smart as he is in these matters.

How it was my fault he left his keys elsewhere because I didn’t remind him, and where was whatever that he couldn’t find in the house because I should’ve known where it was even if I’d never seen it, and how I was spending more time talking one-on-one to our young teenager about matters troubling her than watching TV with him, and how if he spent eight hours straight watching JAG reruns on TV, it was my fault because he was waiting for me to finish the housework or homework or office work and watch it with him.

How he’d walk away without answering me. How I couldn’t simply believe something but had to justify it to him scientifically and with Powerpoint charts and a dissertation or my opinion wasn’t valid. How he would twist my words, take them out of context, turn them into something I hadn’t said.

All behaviors repeated so many times in so many years. The way I felt was always the same. Like he just wouldn’t listen to me. Like everything I did or wanted wasn’t important or important to him. Like he wasn’t concerned when I was hurt. Like I never knew when the scorpion would sting again. Like I had no idea what his mood would be when he walked through the door at the end of the day. I was a little afraid he’d actually hit me when he had a tantrum. Like maybe I didn’t really remember things right. Like maybe my reality wasn’t exactly as I’d thought. Like I was trapped and powerless. Like I couldn’t do anything right. Like I had to justify my right to exist, not to mention to be loved for who I was. Like I couldn’t make a right decision. Like I was a lousy wife and mother. Like just living was a disservice to my family and maybe everyone would be better off without someone as worthless as me.

Of course, I had to keep looking for what was missing in our relationship because I thought, somehow, that if only I could find it, I could fix it and life would be great. His wild mood swings made me suspect affairs and substance abuse, and it was a link to www.drirene.com where I stumbled upon not drug abuse indicators, but a checklist of verbal abuse tactics…and saw 24 behaviors out of a list of 27. I bought Patricia Evans’ book that night, read it the next day, and on the next day after that, I left my partner of 23 years.

I guess you could say I’ve been well-trained in knowing what to look for among verbal abusers. I often see it in my day job. It’s not so easy to spot in social or casual situations, but it seems to gleam in organizational behavior. Perhaps that’s because most abuse is quietly carried out within the home for no one else to see and everyone else to doubt, but in organizations, the façade can be kept up for only so long before the true nastiness seeps through.

Even though I know what it looks like, I’m still surprised to see business leaders publicly humiliate their employees and then shrug it off when they learn their intel was wrong. A former Colonel I worked for had a penchant for invading personal space—his nose one inch from mine—when he wanted to talk me out of something or try to intimidate me. These may be isolated incidences, but taken with other behaviors, patterns start to emerge.

But these verbal abusers don’t see themselves as such. Only about 1% of verbal abusers recognize it in themselves. Only about one-hundredth of 1% make a change, regardless of promises. It’s the nature of the beast, and it’s hard to change the nature of an abuser.

I’m sure the leader of my church didn’t see these behaviors in herself either. It would have done no good for me to tell her. She was the leader of the spiritual organization I was a part of, and though I’ve never really talked about why I left that church, it was because of her and not because of the people there whom I loved so much. When I received my Third Degree Elevation, the equivalent to graduating from seminary, a few days after my ex moved out, I had already received several inklings from Spirit that I was supposed to leave the church, though I so didn’t want to. I’d been given a specific mission that I was excited about and happy to share with the ministers. I never got the chance.

Still, I had no idea that I really was meant to leave the church until the morning after my graduation ceremony. Though not directed at me, I had already seen and heard our spiritual leader’s public humiliations, ridicule, withdrawal, eye-rolling, embarrassing yell-fests, putdowns, stripping away titles and honors, discounting of feelings, unpredictable mood swings, threats to throw out anyone who disagreed, righteous indignation, hurtful words. As with my husband, I excused them all away. She was under stress. She had so much responsibility. She was the spiritual leader of a large group and could do what she wanted in how she ran it. I could look the other way.

And then I didn’t look the other way. morning, before I gave our spiritual leader my answer on whether or not I’d stay with the church after completing my course of study, I looked at her and my former teacher while they talked and Spirit showed me something that shocked me. It was everything I needed to make my decision to stay or go, and that decision was made in that moment. I saw my teacher, a strong woman in every other light I’d ever seen her, become a cowering child. I watched from 15 feet away as they talked and witnessed the dynamics and knew suddenly what other people saw when they looked at my ex and me and didn’t understand how a strong woman like me could cower before him. And in that moment, I decided to leave that church. Because after everything I’d been through to leave one verbally abusive person, how could I stay with someone else who exhibited the same behaviors?

I never got the chance to explain myself to her or to share with her the spiritual mission I’d been shown. All I got to say was, “Spirit has made it very clear to me that I’m supposed to follow a different path—” My words were still hanging in the air when she spat back, “Well, fine! Have a nice life,” and turned on her heels and walked away. Just as I’d seen my ex do on more than one occasion. She cut me off at that point, and in a frighteningly cultish move, forbade anyone else I’d loved in the church from having any further contact with me. From what I’m told, she tried to rescind my Third Elevation, alleging I’d deceived her, but as she has often said, “Man cannot take back what Spirit has given.” I am grateful for the training I received there and I loved the people there, but I am a Third Degree High Priestess and clergy with or without her, and I’m not sure certain I would have been shown such a startling revelation were I not.’m grateful, too, for all she did for me, and especially for this last realization so that I knew what I could and could not abide and that I had the strength to leave behind what isn’t healthy for me. On a personal level, that’s probably a hard thing for her to accept, but on a soul level, it was truly a parting gift to me.

But then, this is the year for drastic culling, and I’ve just culled a business partner and friend of 12 years. In the last week, I’ve done those double-takes at too many of her phrases—the exact phrases I’ve heard from my ex and from verbally abusive colleagues. You’d think the actual words might be different among so many abusers, but they’re not. Vicki suggests it’s because certain phrases reliably elicit certain emotions. I agree, but it’s still uncanny. Almost as if it’s a private language. Or they’re trained from childhood to use certain phrases.

My ex used to tell me that if he needed to be called down on his bad behavior, all I had to do was say, “Honey, you moron, you’re wrong,” and he’d listen. This was his way of making me responsible for his behavior. I never called him a moron (not prior to the divorce anyway), but whenever I called him down on his behavior, it resulted only in explosions of temper, reminders of everything he’d done for me (including how he saved me from myself by marrying me), a re-writing of reality, and hurtful words. When my friend explicitly said she needed to be called down at times, I did…and felt the wrath of it, just as I had with my ex.

When I pointed out to my ex that he was verbally abusive, he tried to tell me that suggesting he was abusive was verbal abuse from me. Just as my friend did last night.

Whenever I told argued against inaccurate statements and assumptions my ex made or whenever his cutting words caused me to withdraw, he would reprimand me for not being “polite” to him or tell me that he had been “civil” to me but his attempts to be “polite” or “civil” to me weren’t working. Just as my friend did last night. Gods, I hate that word civil.

Whenever my ex lost his temper and destroyed every ounce of sunshine in my life, he would apologize it away as how he was having a rotten day but is all better now. Just as my friend did two days ago.

When my ex didn’t follow through on a promise or carry out a task as agreed to, it was suddenly not his responsibility or he wasn’t “in charge.” Just like my friend.

Things that were promised or agreed to early were forgotten or remembered differently. Just like with my friend, in spite of 700-plus emails between us on a business project.

He always wanted to debate, until I won a point, and then he’d walk away until he thought of another point and he’d come back for another dig. Just like with my friend.

When I used to beg my ex to understand how I felt, he kept going, having to have the last word, even to the detriment of my affections for him. Just like my friend, whose ego won’t let her listen for fear she’ll realize she’s gone too far.

But as much as it hurts to discover this side of someone I’ve known socially for more than a decade and always thought the world of, I suppose it’s good that I can see it, that I recognize the language and the gestures and know what it is. And know that I won’t put up with it anymore.

And I know, in this year of culling, that I’ve just crossed another friend off my list.