Sally was on high alert. Her husband called earlier in the day to let her know that he lost a large account at work. While he seemed flip about it then, she was preparing herself for a meltdown later that night. In anticipation of his arrival, she got the kids ready for bed, fed them, helped them with their homework, and let them watch a movie upstairs. She frantically straightened up the house, made dinner for just them, and put her phone on silent so they won’t be interrupted. Then she waited.
He came home in a good mood. Kissed her and the kids made small talk and then went to change his clothes. Sally was shocked by his calm behavior and began to rest. But then the smoke alarm went off and she realized that dinner was burning in the oven. She leaped into action taking out the burned meal, turning on the exhaust fan, and opening the windows. As the alarm went off, she breathed a sigh of relief. It seemed she had avoided another crisis.
Minutes later, he came downstairs in a storm yelling about the alarm and calling her a “f..ing idoit”. “Why can’t you do anything right? I had the worst day of my life and you can’t even take care of things at home. You have it so f..ing easy and here I am having to clean up after your mess. You’re useless,” he said as he grabbed the burnt dinner and smashed it on the tile floor. “See what you made me do,” he added, “Get the f… out of here. I’ll just do it all myself.” Devastated, Sally left the kitchen crying.
Stress is a trigger for abusive people. And unfortunately, only the abuser can decide (either consciously or subconsciously) which stressor is going to set them off. No matter how hard Sally tried to mitigate the stresses, one little accident was enough to unleash a day’s worth of pent-up anger. Stresses like having too many decisions to make in a day, a disappointing outcome at work, frustrations from traffic, demands for attention from others, or even an eye roll can trigger an abusive pattern.
These 9 items are typical reactions when an abusive person is stressed. When they are pushed into survival mode, they attack. While others might flee, faint, or freeze, abusers fight. These reactions can be seen at home, work, or even out with friends. Some are done with more subtlety while others are outrightly aggressive.
- Intimidation. There are many ways to frighten someone into doing what an abusive person wants. Making threatening statements such as promises to do harm are more aggressive. Staring at a person or giving them the “Don’t mess with me” look is subtle but equally effective.
- Destruction. Damaging property is a passive-aggressive way of letting another person know that if they don’t comply, they will be met with the same aggression. Destroying a person’s ability to get help such as damaging a cell phone is a serious threat. Tearing up pictures or breaking a treasured article is a milder offense.
- Isolation. An effective way to create dependency in an abusive relationship is to cut the victim off from family and friends. Some abusers lie about what the victim has done to further isolate them from others and align themselves with the victim’s family. Others intensify the abuse by keeping the victim physically away from anyone they don’t approve of. They often say, “It’s me or them.”
- Degradation. Humiliating a person by sharing secrets, exposing vulnerabilities, or treating with disregard are examples of degrading acts. An abusive person often shames their victim to keep them in compliance. In more severe cases, degrading acts cruelly establish the abuser as dominate and the victim as subservient.
- Gaslight. Intentionally trying to make another person feel like they are going crazy when they are not is gaslighting. A mild form of this is just calling the other person crazy. While a more severe form is committing someone to a mental institute against their will especially when they are not a real threat to themselves or others.
- SIlence. The silent treatment is an effective way to control another person without saying a word. By remaining silent even when being questioned, it keeps the other person guessing and generates confusion. Some don’t talk for days while others can go for months or even years. Others give one-word answers to questions that clearly require more information.
- Manipulation. Controlling behavior done skillfully to maneuver a person into doing something they don’t want to do is manipulation. Convincing someone to take responsibility for something they did not do is a mild example. Intentionally deceiving a person and taking advantage of them for money, power, or influence is a more severe example.
- Name calling. Sally’s husband used name calling is a way to disarm her. His mild forms including calling her an idiot or stupid. His more intense words combined cussing with other demeaning remarks. In front of others, he often put her down hiding behind his sarcastic remarks to remind her of how he really felt about her.
- Rage. Ranting and raving mixed with a wave of intense anger is rage. It can be done more quietly but the intensity, facial expressions, and steam is unmistakable. There is little another person can do to settle someone down when they are raging. More severe forms include mixing the rage with physical violence, threatening remarks, or blocking an exit.
It took Sally a while to realize that the abusive environment she was in was not good for her or her kids. Eventually, she left, healed from the abuse, and moved on with her life. Identifying the abusive patterns was the first step in realization for her.