Bad Relationships: Change your Role and the Rules of Engagement

Many people engage in abusive behaviors, covert and overt, to get what they want. Whenever you appease, capitulate, ignore or simply stay in an abusive relationship, you reward and reinforce your partner’s abusive behavior.

An abusive personality will continue to rage, withdraw, name-call, degrade, shame, guilt-trip and other more subtle abuse tactics such as dirty looks, smirking and gaslighting as long as there aren’t any consequences for doing so. Even when there are consequences they’ll often continue to engage in destructive, abusive behaviors. It’s their nature; just like it’s a snake’s nature to strike at you with its fangs when you get too close.

Unhappy couples tend to engage in what psychologist John Gottman calls the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”: criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling. “They get stuck in negative, destructive patterns, have fewer positive interactions than happy couples and are unable to resolve problems.” These four behaviors are frequently how abusive personalities, particularly narcissists and borderlines, control and communicate with their partners.

When you tell someone that their behavior is hurtful and unacceptable, there are several possible outcomes. She or he can:

  1. Hear what you say, hold themselves accountable, respect your feelings and actively try to change. Translation: I love and respect you. I care about your feelings and will make every effort to change.
  2. Hear what you say, hold themselves accountable, respect your feelings, communicate which of your behaviors are contributing to the situation and you both actively try to change. Translation: I love and respect you. I care about your feelings and will make every effort to change.
  3. Acknowledge their hurtful behavior, but hey, you knew what they were like when you married them so get used to it and stop complaining. Translation: I don’t care about your needs and feelings. I won’t change.
  4. Acknowledge their hurtful behavior and then blame you for it. Translation: I’m not responsible for my actions. It’s your fault. You deserve it. I don’t care about your feelings. I won’t change.
  5. Acknowledge their hurtful behavior, make a lame apology while justifying their actions (blame you), repeat the same hurtful behavior over and over again as if you never talked about it and become angry if you don’t forgive them. Translation: What I want is more important. I don’t care about your feelings. I won’t change.
  6. Deny their hurtful behavior and accuse you of being the abusive one. Translation: I’m above reproach. You’re crazy. My needs and feelings are the only ones that matter. You need to adapt yourself to my silences and rages and pretend like nothing is wrong. I don’t care about your feelings. I won’t change.
  7. Minimize their hurtful behavior and accuse you of being oversensitive and unreasonable. “It’s not that bad. Don’t be such a baby. You’re so thin-skinned.” Translation: I’m not accountable. Your nose broke because it got in the way of my fist, so your nose should apologize to my fist. I don’t care about your feelings. I won’t change.

People persist in both positive and negative behaviors because there’s a payoff; a primary gain or secondary gain. They’re rewarded with pleasure, they avoid punishment or an unpleasant consequence, their beliefs are validated or they get to feel good about themselves. There’s always an emotional, psychological and/or physical stake—feeling good or avoiding feeling bad.

Scenarios 1 and 2 are the only mutually satisfying long-term relationship outcomes. Scenarios 3-7 are either “get out now” or “live a life of resignation” outcomes. This may seem black and white, but if someone won’t acknowledge their bad behavior, blames you for it or acknowledges it and refuses to do anything about it, you’re not in a mutual two-way relationship. You’re in an abusive, one-way relationship.

Staying in the relationship and engaging in the same pattern over and over again, telegraphs that the abuse is okay—even if you actively complain about it to your partner and specifically say “it’s not okay.” If you really weren’t okay with it, you’d communicate with your feet.

If you’re not ready to end the relationship just yet, you need to change the one person you can change: YOU. If you’ve told your partner how hurtful her/his behavior is and she/he refuses to acknowledge it and/or attacks you even more, you need to change how you react and respond to the hurtful and abusive behaviors.

A relationship is a “field.” Field theory was developed by Kurt Lewin, a Gestalt psychologist and founder of Social Psychology, in the 1940’s. “Field theory holds that behavior must be derived from a totality of coexisting facts. These coexisting facts make up a ‘dynamic field,’ which means that the state of any part of the field depends on every other part of it. Behavior depends on the present field rather than on the past or the future” (Wikipedia). In other words, a change in one part of the system creates a reaction or ripple effect throughout the entire the system, just like throwing a pebble into a pool of water.

Changing how you respond to your partner’s hurtful behaviors, will change how your partner responds to you. If you’re dating or married to an abusive personality, they’re unlikely to respond well to any changes you make. Abusive individuals make the rules and break the rules. Thus far it’s been your role to go along with her whims, tirades, and more subtle forms of abuse. Her hurtful and insensitive behaviors are designed to get a reaction from you. She wants to see pain flicker in your eyes. She wants to see you wince and become crestfallen. She wants you to sink down to her level and lash out in return so she can play the victim and portray you as the bad guy—never mind how much she provoked you.

Here are some possible primary and secondary gains for remaining in an abusive relationship:

  • Fear of being alone
  • Fear of losing money and assets
  • Fear of losing access to children and parental rights
  • Fear of being viewed as the “bad guy”
  • Fear of “failure”
  • Fear of the unknown
  • Need for approval
  • Need to be liked or loved
  • Need for acceptance
  • Need for affiliation or feeling like you “belong”
  • Reinforces your beliefs that you’re unlovable
  • Reinforces your beliefs that you have to be perfect to be worthy of love
  • Reinforces your beliefs that you have to work hard to earn love
  • Reinforces your beliefs that the people who love you are supposed to hurt you

These needs, fears and beliefs are what make it possible for your abusive spouse or partner to hurt you and keep hurting you. They prey upon these fears, needs and beliefs even if they’re not consciously aware of it. Many abusers, narcissists, borderlines, sociopaths and bullies are intuitive predators. They intuitively know what buttons to push to get a reaction. In order to change your role and the rules of your relationship, you need to rewire your “buttons.”

Since your abusive spouse or partner is unlikely to change their behavior, real change is up to you. Here are some alternative ways to respond to her abusive behaviors:

  • Practice emotional detachment.
  • Develop a blank, benign facial expression when you’re under attack, baited, ignored or made to feel stupid, wrong or bad.
  • Work on maintaining a non-defensive body posture.
  • Learn to modulate your voice so that it doesn’t betray any anxiety, agitation, fear, hurt or anger.
  • Meet her attacks, put-downs, smirks, eye rolls, hysterics, etc., with unblinking calm and firmly state, “These tactics of yours don’t work anymore. Let me know when you’re ready to respectfully discuss these issues one at a time” and then end the “discussion.”
  • Plan ahead and designate a place you can go if she won’t let the matter drop like your office, den, workshop or a friend’s house.
  • If she follows you and continues to try to get a reaction out of you, look at her as if you’re watching a toddler throw a tantrum and tell her you’re taking a timeout.

When you change your role in the relationship dynamic, your partner will probably begin to escalate her hurtful behaviors. Another tenet of field theory is that all systems fight to maintain homeostasis or the status quo. An abusive partner will use every weapon in her arsenal to keep you under her control. When you refuse to give her the reaction she wants she’ll frantically try pushing all of your buttons at once—kind of like when the TV remote control isn’t working and you push the power button repeatedly so you don’t have to get off the couch.

If you can maintain your cool, she’ll eventually give up and walk away in frustration or pout. She may even become physically aggressive when she realizes her typical verbal aggression isn’t working. Adopting the above behaviors and changing your role in the relationship is for your well-being; not hers.

Behaviors and beliefs are strongly related. When you change the way you behave, your beliefs and attitudes will change, too. You’ll grow out of your old familiar role of target/frustrated spouse/scapegoat-for-everything-wrong-in-her-life-and-every-bad-feeling-she-has and become a person who stands up for and respects himself. This is a significant piece of identity development that may very well cause you to outgrow abusive, one-sided relationships altogether—and that’s a good thing.

When she sees that these are lasting changes and she can’t control you anymore, she’ll accuse you of having changed, engage in projection and tell you that you’re being abusive and controlling and/or may actually end the relationship herself. She may enlist friends, family members and professional therapists or pastors to force you back into your old role in an effort to maintain the status quo.

Alternatively, she may withdraw entirely and become the sullen martyr. Nevertheless, her power over you will be gone because she won’t be able to manipulate you and your emotions like a puppet on a string anymore. Are you ready to change your role, the rules and the balance of power in your relationship?

Shrink4Men Coaching and Consultation Services:

Dr Tara J. Palmatier provides confidential, fee-for-service, consultation/coaching services to help both men and women work through their relationship issues via telephone and/or Skype chat. Her practice combines practical advice, support, reality testing and goal-oriented outcomes. Please visit the Shrink4Men Services page for professional inquiries.


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Photo credit:

Ripple effect by Tom Bunny on flickr.

  1. Mike
    February 16, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    Just out of curiousity, what if its ppmd? Or any of these disorders that nobody can really 100 percent pinpoint…I mean I’m not a professional and I’m trying not to make any excuses for her but lets use ppmd as an example. Let’s say its this. If so then she needs medical treatment right? I’m the person that posted that story above and yes this girl did share with me that she was diagnosed with ppmd and at that time I didn’t know what that meant, all I knew was that it was a worse type of pms, whatever that meant…but was I saw during maybe 2 weeks out of the month pretty much consistently was her going thru hell physically, emotionally and in every other way and later during our relationship she just kept to herself and kept quiet cause of me…I really felt bad for her but could’nt really do much…

    What I’m saying is…we are throwing these labels around and yes you might be dealing with an unstable person with a medical condition…so if lets say its ppmd, wouldnt you say to stay and help? support? through good times and bad? or just
    pick up and leave as I have? man….

    Yes, looking back I’ve pretty much went through whatever she went with her..and it sucked but if doesn’t make complete sense to me some of whats shared…I mean they can’t possible be crazy, bitch, etc., if they truely have a medical condition that needs treatment.? Yes ofcourse they should come forward with whatever the problem is pms, ppmd, obd, or whatever else….and a MAn should stand by through whatever, not only through good times…

    What if someone had a heart condition? would you wake up and just leave? No, you would get the treatment for your ‘loved’ one and help, be their for them and support…?

    So then whats the difference with this? why the stigmas? I don’t get it fully…
    but I see what you guys mean by some not changing and not even being aware of what they are doing, yet doing it so well from the sound of it…then maybe in that case you might want to do what you gotta do..but in my case now that I recall she did mention “ppmd”…is this a good sign?

    Yet she has showed some of the narcissistic stuff the borderliner biz…man this is confusing, to try and diagnose someone..I’m sure professionals have a hard time too?
    You think some might just guess? “Oh you seem kinda bi-polarish, a sprinkle of bpd, and a dash of npd, why not”

    I don’t know…I give up…its like your driving and you run into a ‘T’ and you do whatever, you flip a coin, rock scissor or whatever and go your way..not sure if
    your making the right decision…sucks when you still love someone…

    I really do feel bad for her, I can understand how bad things can get for some of these poor women with ppmd for example, now that I’ve done some research on it, her
    symptoms fit to the T with whats explained about ppmd and unfortunately some of the other disorders…

    I don’t think anyone is ‘evil’ or this and that…they have a medical condition and they need help and people probably, like myself, need to be education about all this early on in schools instead of teaching them histories based on lies, teach them about things that will really impact them as they grow…I dont know..

    The reason why they need helllp and shouldn’t be given up on is the fact from what you say yourself, that this is their condition, they won’t admit things, they man-ipulate, etc…so we should find a way to get through…I’m sure their is something
    within them that knows whats going on..and maybe that part needs to be slowly communicated with..their is no way that I can believe that people like this want to be like that..why would you want to live a miserable life and how can you be happy with that? no way! I don’t buy that..

    I know as an example that I was an example for this girl, and she did try hard to change, she made attempt to control her temper, to talk to me and communicate her feelings and she tried her best to control whatever was affecting her in a real way, hormones, whatever….I respected her for that..

    This person did come along way, she was praying, stopped drinking and smoking weed, and smoking, was doing yoga and the rest and trying to deal with her ppmd and whatever else..

    But, it did take over but again and got to the point that I felt I had to walk away, sadly.

    I just don’t think that things should be dealt with tooo harshly…I mean if it doesn’t work and you try and you try and it still doesn’t work then walk away like a man with your dignity in tact and move on…Don’t fear this and that, kids, blah blah

    moving on…

    take care

    • shrink4men
      February 16, 2010 at 4:32 pm


      First, I’m glad you’re out of that relationship. When you respond with violence to her emotional abuse, it’s a huge wake up moment. Violence from either partner in an intimate relationship is unacceptable. I understand women with these issues would try the patience of a saint, but when they push you to violence you have to get out.

      Second, I don’t think the diagnostic alphabet soup really matters—NPD, BPD, APD, PMDD. Abusive behavior is abusive behavior. Comparing personality disorders to cardiac disease is like comparing apples to oranges. Most bypass patients don’t abuse their loved ones. They have a medical condition for which they have to make behavioral changes in diet, exercise and end voluntary harmful behaviors like smoking in order to get well.

      Personality disorders are basically a 50-cent psychiatric label to describe people with bad characters. They need to be held accountable rather than getting passes for their bad behavior because they have a “mental illness.” Personality disorders aren’t really mental illnesses for that matter. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are mental illnesses in which individuals truly can’t control their symptomatology.

      Most narcissists and borderlines are fully capable of controlling their behaviors. For example, they behave one way at work and another at home. If they can treat their colleagues with respect and courtesy they are full well capable of doing so with their loved ones, but they choose not to, primarily because they feel safe in abusing their nearest and dearest. Granted, there are some BPDs, NPDs, etc. who act out all over the place, but these are extreme cases.

      You can’t do the work for these people. They have to do it themselves and many of them don’t want to because abusing others is how they maintain a feeling of control.

      Dr Tara

      • Jay
        April 21, 2010 at 5:00 pm

        Dr T,

        Mike raised a point in his post above that I (and probably many) have often wondered about – the relationship between these behaviours and PMS/PPMD. I guess part of the thinking goes that maybe if it is some kind of hormonal thing then maybe she can’t remember, doesn’t realize how she has been acting, and maybe I need to keep cutting the slack. Or, is this just me rationalizing the abuse away so I don’t have to confront the issue of leaving?

        • Mr. E
          April 21, 2010 at 6:05 pm

          Jay, let’s say that you’re a great person, but every month you have a few really awful, irritable days when you don’t feel well at all.

          Is it OK to take that out on other people? Especially if you know it’s coming?

          Wouldn’t you apologize – sincerely – and try your best not to act inappropriately again?

          Let’s say you didn’t know your behavior was impacting those around you. When you eventually got called on it, how would you react?

          If you really couldn’t keep it in check, wouldn’t you maybe acknowledge that you have a problem and see a doctor to get it regulated? Or would you flip out and tell the other person they just need to get used to it?

  2. Ron
    February 16, 2010 at 4:21 am

    shrink4men :Love the great Kate. TCM just aired the Dick Cavett interview a few days ago, which I watched. One of my fave Hepburn quotes of all time: “Drive on! We’ll sweep up the blood later.”

    Yeah, but Kate was a big time infidelity gal with Tracy.

    • shrink4men
      February 16, 2010 at 1:26 pm

      Yes, she had a long running relationship with Spencer Tracey who was married. However, that doesn’t diminish her as an actor nor does it make her any less of an interesting figure. From what I’ve read the Tracey’s didn’t have a happy marriage. They pretty much lived separate lives and he only stayed married out of guilt and Catholicism.

  3. mike
    February 15, 2010 at 10:54 pm

    Just one other, or few things…I’ve received more love from this cat of mine which she didn’t want around, though she a cat lover, then I’ve ever received from her..this cat know when I’m down and loves me…best of all, cats don’t talk too much..what is it? someone said, I guess they were trying to teach an animal to talk and the other said that maybe we, as humans, need to learn true silence from them..I like that…they don’t talk, yet they love..cats and dogs..

  4. mike
    February 15, 2010 at 10:37 pm

    Hello All,

    I’ve never posted anything, never received any sort of therapy..I’m a pretty passive guy who tries to get along with ones around, etc. Anyway, I met this chick through a friend who wanted to test her out (she was sort of involved with him) and test her faith lol…well I was a bit younger then and we were at the time on the net chatting, then phone and then we met. I knew that my friend had moved on and he mentioned that if I wanted to get with her, that I could…but later I found that he was not ok with it…anyway..maybe I’m giving to much detail so I’ll give you all the short version…

    first day we met, we drank and hung out…noticed she was definitely more aggressive then I, I think? We met more and more often, had some great times, going out partying, clubbing, smoking stuff lol…whatever. But now that I look back, I can put something together that didn’t seem odd at the time but now stand out.

    Within months of meeting, she wanted to get married, she would fight with me verbally, throw things, kick me out then when out call me back in (which i did), and the abusive behavior continued for some time not excluding the ‘good times’, which always involved drinks and weeds..Good times!

    Anyway, years past like this and it got to the point where she was threatening me with this point she had softened me up to the point where she had pretty well established control over me in certain respects, without me knowning.
    Manipulation, now that I look back, was played on me.

    Ofcourse, something within told me that this didn’t feel right? Because I had a relation with someone before this, a long term relation that I could judge by and by it didn’t resemble anything I had experienced before. Yet at the time, as I was stupid and young, I looked past most of it and I kind of found it exciting lol at the time…I almost felt that she really really really loved me as she expressed so violently..

    The day came that she had attempted to commit to the suicide, which I took action and forwarded to the authorities, she went to a crazy house for a bit, then came out not any better then when she walked in…most likely was carrying the anger of
    me putting her in and a retaliation followed I think as far as I could remember..but it was done smoothly with much sex, spending of money, verbally softening me again and the wham! “YOU MOTHA (&*(^%^*&%(_(*_**^*%(^%)&^)( HOW COULD U!”

    Mind you, I consider myself passive yet I can be extremely aggressive as I’ve learned through this relation if need be to defend myself. Verbally. And I can
    defenintely defend myself as I’ve practiced mixed martial arts and feel confident in confortation….BUT, with this woman, she’s a woman, and all that…but some
    of these women are not at all women…if you don’t act like a woman how can you
    claim to be one? Just a question?

    Anway, we parted ways for some years as things were getting worse, and I moved on and some time later I get a call from her friend that she has changed and mellow jello’d and that I need to give it a test…so I convince myself through her convincing and heck I give it another shot…and again the sex, good times, and abuse…

    So to make a long story short as I promised…we split after some time…

    Then she somehow hooks up with my family and they convince me that its a good time
    to get married and that everyone is a little crazy HuH? And that I’m not getting
    younger, that she has really changed…me “But I don’t think she will…I have feelings for her, yes…I enjoy her companionship, yes…but she crazy!?”

    After many of these episodes, I’d try throughout the relation to be there for her after her explosions…I would be the therapiest lol and we would talk for hours,,sometimes high on weed, and ofcourse the conversation would get past, certain things I’ve went through (sexual abuse), I mean I really opened up to
    this girl and shared things no one new! And in time even this was used against me lol…That maybe I was confused,,,Gay!

    Pretty much whatever dirt she could gather she’d use against me and then I would give her therapy free of charge, then she would kick me out only to call me back in, sex, weed, alcohol, and the whole pattern LET THE RACE BEGIN! woohooo….

    Mind you, I probably need to deal with something of my own past, and I’ve went to letting to of smoking, drinking, and the rest and became sort of spiritual lol..

    Long story short, we got married! and the drama really began…now families where
    involved and things became much more complicated…she wanted to have kids. She
    became pregnant, and miscarriage.

    The attitude never really stopped and since my wish was to have this stop after marriage (with the garantee of the family), something clicked within me and I became her~ if she gave it to me I gave it back ten fold, which stressed me out further, I’ve punched doors in, had no friends around, sort of distant from family,
    had my own little hell…yet ofcourse during all this we had good times, without
    the weed and alcohol….

    Years past, and things got so bad that I was showing signs of violence…I wrestled her down, mounted her and smacked her lightly around the head, and at this point
    she was showing signs of a red zone pit bull…and I kept pushing it….I’ve kicked her, and pushed her around, never with the intention of hurting her but I just wanted her to stop her verbal bs and change and yet she was actually changing me because when we were doing this I’ve noticed a part of her observing and caring on
    whats needed…example, we are both red zoning and in the middle of all this we are observing one anothers bs and in the midst I’ve noticed her crack a smile as
    though all this was an act to get me to react which she had accomplished..

    I had tried meditation, changing my diet from coffee to tea, working out…everything to take out of extra energy and be calm as cool around her, yet
    she could not get herself to stop pushing my buttons and at this point she
    finally made a dent and admitted that she had some issues, mainly that she
    did not suffer from pms…no no…but ppmd or whatever, which as I understand
    it is pms but on steroids…

    So I started therapy with her again but with the exception that if she was going
    through her ppmd mode which usually lasted a month, to give me a heads up, so that
    I can practice extra passions…I did this for awhile and she was trying hard to
    control herself and things were ok, I admit.

    And things started to become much more subtle, beautifully subtle, with demands and
    the expectations (thanks to your site…ofcourse I’m still wondering if im doing the right thing)…and the me jumping over things for her and the eggs shell and all……………..

    Finally recently with many involvments of the family (which I hated I’m a very private person) ‘to help us’…they knew her issues and never would admit and at times throw it at me ” what about you, are you perfect” me “no I’m far from perfect, but I don’t go out my way to hurt others, I mind my own biz and let others be, thats all im asking without anyones involvment..this is the least we can do, what was promised” them “well, hang in there, everyone fights and blah blah blah” me “but, that aint normal?” ….

    So, finally I decided to leave everything behind and disappear and thats been some months now with zero contact. And I’m starting to feel myself again, around few friends and family, bs.

    Then I ran into your site and I’ve been keeping touch with it just to make sure I don’t lose touch with what really is reality…

    And yes, she never took any responsiblity for her actions or words, and somehow twisted things so convincingly that I really thought maybe I was hearing and seeing things, but after time when your feelings become less and less important, you I think start seeing things clearly and being the kind of person I am, a forgiving person, heck hitler could ask for forgivness and I’d forgive…But I can never forget all this and I keep reminding myself of it, not to anger myself but a reality check…luckly I have a family that took her side cause she a girl but when they saw the light, they made sure to shine it on me also..WAKE UP KID!

    Thanks for listening and everything..

    It is difficult to move on like this but I think there are many good decent people out there and once I get out of my paranoia of doubting all women at the moment, then maybe we have hope…someone once said, Like attract like, so maybe I need to
    strengthen myself and become a productive, decent person myself, cause I aint perfect, so that I can attract similar things around me…


  5. KS
    February 8, 2010 at 6:35 am

    Metalman, as much as I feel your need to demonstrate your macho-ness, I think you should maybe go back to some of DR T’s articles – ‘unless you’ve been with one of “THESE” women, you’ll never know what’s all about. And I think most men that I’ve read their comments here dont seem clueless about being man enough. BPD/NPD is a serious illness – It has nothing to do with being man or macho of the victim but has to do with the perpetrator. And if you’ve followed Dr T’s article on early signs of these women you’d know that none of the “crap” shows while still dating. Much of it begins after you’ve been sucked in emotionally and that is where the difficulty of most men (even macho types) starts.

    • Recovering Alpha
      February 17, 2010 at 11:08 pm

      KS, metalman

      Regarding metalman’s — as I understand it — statement that men “DO” while women “TALK”; why is it there are so many great literary and oratory men in history? Men have shown throughout history a great ability to express themselves using words both written and spoken.

  6. RR
    February 7, 2010 at 10:05 pm

    Dr. Palmatier, thank you for such an informative article. Although your article was geared toward female abusers and their partners, as a 28-year-old woman who recently ended an abusive relationship, I identified nonetheless. I believe that men who are abused by female partners do have separate issues of their own, particularly stemming from the biased gender socialization within our culture, however, in the end abuse does not discriminate. Both males and females identify with the harrowing experience of abuse that results in diminished self-esteem, questionable sanity, and shattered souls.
    During my two year relationship, other than a few incidences during the “infatuation” phase, my ex consistently responded with reactions 3-7. I have # 8 and # 9 that can be added, thanks to my abusive ex (can’t say he never gave me anything, right?).
    # 8. May or may not have heard what you said, but responds with a comment that is vaguely related to your statement with the intent to throw you off balance and create a diversion. If you respond to his comment, get ready for a roller coaster of a ride! He will make paradoxical statements, ambiguous arguments, and/or reply to (which indicates reciprocity) your statements and questions by continuing his previous argument, as if the words that just escaped your lips evaporated, and therefore were never communicated. Translation: I don’t care about your feelings. I think your feelings are a joke, so I am going to have some fun by confusing the hell out of you until you are so dizzy that you are unable to determine what’s real and what’s not.
    #8. May or may not have heard what you said. Regardless, he starts displaying bizarre and inappropriate behaviors. He may remotely respond to you by engaging the nearest inanimate object, in this case a stuffed toy (a rottweiler). He speaks to the object, and the object may even respond back. As you stand there watching a 30-year-old man have a conversation with an object (who he treats with more respect than you), who gives a damn about why you were upset in the first place! You will probably start to notice your state of utter shock and speechlessness! What can you say while your jaw rests on the floor?!?! “Um, dear, I’ll just leave you and, uh, the doll to play.” Translation: Welcome to crazyville! A place for adults to escape and regress into childhood behaviors!
    I didn’t intend on making light of abusive behaviors, but sometimes laughing at some of the things I went through is the only way to…avoid sucking my thumb and joining him in crazyville!

    • Jay
      April 21, 2010 at 5:09 pm

      I have just been reading back through some of the comment threads and noted your #8. It rings true for me too. That growing sense of confusion and disbelief at the incoherent and disconnected response you get when you try to express your concerns. I think this is what people elsewhere on this blog have referred to as “crazymaking”. I find it useful to have a term for this behaviour and to recognize it as a distinct type of abnormal response. With a label it’s already less intimidating.

  7. Bob
    February 3, 2010 at 9:33 pm

    and yeah, I suggest that to her – let’s all go…she just says go with your kid I ‘ll do something else. It’s hard realizing that the person you fell in love with really doesn’t care all that much about how you feel – or your kid.

    • shrink4men
      February 16, 2010 at 3:43 pm

      Hi Bob,

      Perhaps your new girlfriend feels insecure about your daughter and her place in your affections. Alternatively, it can become tiresome and hurtful to be seen as the villainess who took her dad away. Teenagers can be dreadfully rude, sarcastic and judgmental.

      It sounds like your ex is the only mother figure your daughter has known and, even though she was crazy and abusive, your daughter remains loyal to her. She still lives with her, correct? If so, she may feel the need to attack and disparage your GF to keep her step-mother’s approval.

      Have you tried having a heart to heart with your daughter about this? If you haven’t already, you might want to explain that your GF had nothing to do with the divorce and everything to do with how you and your ex were getting along and that it was increasingly painful and unhealthy for you to stay in a relationship where you were picked on/devalued, etc. Your daughter may or may not be willing to acknowledge this now, but may later on when she’s an adult and has moved out from under your ex’s control.

      As for your GF, try to find out why she doesn’t want to join you and your daughter in visits/activities. She needs to know that having your daughter in your life isn’t a choice she can opt out of if she wants to have a long-term relationship with you. Try to find out where she’s coming from. Perhaps your daughter has said or done things to her that you’re not aware of—e.g., rude comments, smirks, eye rolling, etc. If so, you need to intervene with your daughter when this occurs and tell her it’s unacceptable for her to behave in such a disrespectful manner to one of your friends.

      I also encourage you to have specific dad-daughter outings and outings that include the three of you. It’s okay for your Gf not to participate in every activity and will also go a long way in helping your daughter to feel secure in her relationship with you. It will reinforce that your GF hasn’t stolen you away.

      In a perfect world, your daughter and your GF would become friends, but this may never happen as both have to be willing to do so. If your daughter can’t behave civilly toward your girlfriend and your girlfriend won’t exercise a little patience and understanding it and spend face time with her it definitely won’t happen.

      So talk with your GF about your expectations of her regarding your daughter and your GF’s expectations for you. For example, if your daughter behaves rudely you agree to intervene and set a boundary. This may go along way in resolving the current tension.

      Alternatively, if your GF refuses to deal with your daughter, you may need to reconsider the relationship.

      Kind Regards,
      Dr Tara

  8. Bob
    February 3, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    Metalman, she keeps telling me she wants a real man and to grow a set and guess what – what kind of way is that for a woman to talk to a man. So if she feels that way about me why is she with me in the first place. I don’t think she really wants that. Oh sure, she wants me to be hardass to my kid – but not to her. we’ll see. I’m going to make some changes in how I deal with her. When she says go see your kid, I’ll go do xyz while you’re gone – like going to an art show or something she KNOWS I ‘d want to do with her – I ‘ll say go have a good time. Why she wouldn’t just say ‘hey let’s invite your daughter to go to the art show with us’ I don’t understand at all.

  9. Bob
    February 3, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    I left my controlling wife after 12 years. She was arrested for shoplifting , refused to get help, badmouthed me to my daughter – my daughter, she’s a stepmom. Her real mom is a meth addict who left me for a woman when my daughter was 4. I left when I found what I thought was a real friend who became a lover. Now I feel like I’m just starting the cycle again. I ‘m told how I should dress, how I should act, how I should take out the garbage….and the worst part of all is she criticizes my daughter every chance she gets. I live with this woman now and my daughter who is now 17 and still lives with my ex because it’s more convenient for her because of where she lives, does not come around much anymore. My new G/F doesn’t want to make a real effort to be around her. It’s a hard situation because my daughter sees my G/F as the one who took me away, so I try to understand, but my new G/F sees the pain I feel and all she says is ‘ go see her yourself’. Yet I don’t feel safe doing that – I want my new G/F to be part of my life with my daughter, which I want to be the 3 of us when my house finally sells. I don’t know what’s right or wrong anymore….

  10. metalman
    February 3, 2010 at 7:23 pm

    There are abusive relationships in the world . . . but there are far more just plain old CRAPPY relationships in the world. As far as the abusive relationships; I can offer no help. Most of the ones I’ve witnessed are so mutually sick that I ran for fear of inhaling some form of life-threatening bacteria. As they say, the road to hell truly is paved with good intentions. And I don’t plan on going to hell anytime soon.

    As for the crappy relationships; since I’m a man, I’ll deal with them from a male perspective. If anyone wants a woman’s perspective, they should ask a woman.

    The problem with men in most of their crappy relationships is that these ‘men’ have no balls whatsoever. They have neither the spirit nor the cajones to stand up for themselves or what they believe in. They are so terribly afraid of making any female upset at them that they cringe at the thought of – GASP – crossing the GODDESS.

    Say, for example, a woman you’re dating dishes you a really bad (and undeserved) atttitude during a date. No reason, really. Maybe she had a bad day; maybe she’s PMS-ing. Maybe she had a fight with a friend. Most guys will suck it up and unconsciously shrink into themselves. But the guy with BALLS will calmly tell the woman (in this case a ‘girl’) in no uncertain terms to take a hike and come back when she has her problems sorted out. IN THOSE EXACT WORDS or something thereabouts.

    When a man puts up with uneccesary crap from a woman, he’s letting the woman know just how weak and worthless he is. The woman will have no respect for him, and she’ll continue to treat him like crap until she eventually dumps him in hopes of finding a real man. Unfortunately, since the woman in question is an immature twit, she won’t be able to find a real man, because real men like REAL WOMEN who can sort out their emotions and their problems without lashing out at others.

    Here’s some advice for men; if you are NOT willing to state your beliefs; if you are not willing to state your rules and what you are willing and not willing to put up with; if you are not ready, able, and determined draw a line and tell her that of she crosses it, she’s outta there PERMANENTLY and do not pass GO; no woman will EVER respect you. And if a woman does not respect you, she CANNOT love you.

    This is the truth of the matter. Has been, always will be. Forget what the weak-kneed, book hawking therapistas say. Forget the magazine drivel; forget the experts and the TV shows and the feminized media. If you come across as a WEAK male with no spine, she’ll chew you up and spit you out and move on to the next victim.

    And then there’s the whole ‘Communicating’ thing.


    REAL WOMEN not take out their emotional baggage or neuroses out on men; they don’t deluge men with their personal/work/etc problems via the contemporary female method of talking about something ad nauseum until a man glazes over into a babble-induced stupor. REAL WOMEN know that there is a such a thing as ‘Woman Talk,’ and that Woman Talk needs to be done with other WOMEN. Women figure out their problems verbally; men just DO STUFF. REAL WOMEN know this code without even knowing it, and they respect it – which is why REAL WOMEN tend to hang on to REAL MEN when they find them.

    Any man who agrees to listen to a woman’s endless verbal perusals about self/work/friends/ etc needs to give up his Man-Card, because he is in truth acting in the role of a WOMAN. Yes, a man should listen for a little while in order not to be a jerk, but only a little while. There is no constitutional law which states that a man MUST sit there quietly nodding his head in sympathy while a woman verbally works out her issues in the space of an entire afternoon. So ladies; you need to verbally work out a problem? Find another woman. Us men don’t liek to listen to the same thing over and over. Sooner or later, we’re going to start offering solutions. That’s the way we’re built. We’re not going to change, so cowgirl up deal with it.

  11. Mellaril
    February 2, 2010 at 3:04 pm

    If you want to see an NPD/BPD spin up quickly, look them in the eyes while they’re blaming you for something and calmly say, “Sorry, not taking the rap for this one.” It almost never failed to send my ex-girlfriend over the edge.

    • shrink4men
      February 2, 2010 at 4:12 pm

      Good one, Mellaril. Anything that challenges their control is perceived as a threat, so be prepared for anything in response to setting a boundary, including physical violence. If it has come to this, I urge you to consider why you’re remaining in this relationship. Why would you want to be with someone who becomes even nastier when you say, “hey, I’m not okay with you being mean to me”? This in and of itself should tell you that you’re not dealing with a normal person. When a person realizes that their behavior or words have hurt someone, a compassionate and rational human being feels remorse, sincerely apologizes and makes an effort to be more sensitive to the other person’s feelings. Not so with narcissists and borderlines. They usually amp up their original hurtful behaviors. They’re not good people. Period.

      • Mellaril
        February 2, 2010 at 6:10 pm

        At the time of that response, I didn’t know what I was involved with and ended up not staying in the relationship. We had a “perfect” relationship. I appear to have been a “parentified child” and she was a “professional victim.” I chronicled the relatship covering the course of 5 years and there weren’t a lot of wickets we missed. It’s an interesting read. At that time I was a Naval Officer assigned to a nuclear submarine. I wasn’t susceptible to direct intimidation or gaslighting. I could repeat her actions and conversations verbatim. Depending on my mood, I might shut her accusation down immediately or I might take her on. I kind of enjoyed the conflict. She wasn’t violent or prone to histronics. I got really good at backing her into corners but always allowed her enough room to escape. She would buiild up to a slow seethe when she began to realize I wasn’t going to let her win. Since we weren’t married at the time or living together, I’d leave when I had enough. It didn’t take long to realize it wasn’t a game with her. She meant it.

        As the relationship was winding down, albeit in a less than optimum way, she told me “I couldn’t control you.” I took it as a compliment.

  12. KS
    January 22, 2010 at 6:15 am

    I must also add, the No Contact rule is helping me a lot even when my daughter is involved. I am going through a situation similar to yours. She took my car and now she still believes that I have to finance all her spending (lazy ol’ npd!) and she’s trying to use my daughter to accomplish this. I feel sad at times but overall I feel that I have my dignity in tact and that’s making me stronger.

    Thanks Dr T.

  13. Ferdinand
    January 22, 2010 at 2:39 am

    I just want to chime in and say that I saw my wife this week in court for the first time since I left. When my lawyer described her threatening me she started to jump out of her chair in anger, looking around and hoping someone would put a stop to him.

    I did finally decide to settle, even though it means paying for the apartment that she locked me out of. Given the judge that we were assigned I would get the exact same outcome from her court – my attorney has a long history working in her court and knows what to expect. I decided to save myself the time and money. I feel wonderful!

    One thing I did at negotiations – my wife was sitting across from me but for all of my body language she was not in the room. I did not look at her, acknowledge her, or give any attention to her in any way. I came out of the encounter feeling great and hopeful for a future where she cannot harm me anymore.

    I am NOT happy that I have to give her back the handgun that I gifted her before the marriage, but the law is pretty clear on that as well. She also offered to sell me my grandmother’s engagement ring which I have no legal claim to because it is considered a gift as well. Tacky.

    I am a firm believer in the no contact rule . . . I think it worked really well in my case.

  14. Chem_geek
    January 19, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    shrink4men :You deserve better. You deserve to live an abuse free life and I hope you get there.

    Just saying that doesn’t make it true. There are two paths: loneliness and isolation, or, the relationship as it stands.

    • shrink4men
      January 19, 2010 at 5:01 pm

      Hi Chem-geek,

      There are 3 paths:

      1. The relationship as it stands.
      2. Loneliness and isolation if you end the relationship and don’t put any effort into working through the issues or circumstances that contributed to you entering into an abusive relationship.
      3. Recovery, healing, relief and the ability to find happiness in a healthy relationship or the ability to be happy on your own—which ever condition is right for you.

      Kind Regards,
      Dr Tara

      • Freedom
        January 20, 2010 at 12:41 am

        The loneliness and isolation lasts for as long as you let it last. i hate to sound crass here, but seriously, the boredom, isolation and loneliness just might be what got you this girl in the first place. there’s plenty of decent women out there. it doesn’t matter what gender you are, of course ya gotta pick thru the coal to find the diamond. but do you have a diamond now? nope…

        if you don’t do anything about your isolation and loneliness, then it’s just like doing nothing about a crappy relationship. there’s only so much talk you can do while doing nothing about it. it’s your life and your happiness… take responsibility for it, be an active participant in it… and you’ll be amazed at the awesome things you can find, the wonderful places you can go, and the amazing people you can meet. doing nothing gets ya nothing…

        • Freedom
          January 20, 2010 at 12:59 am

          let me try this on a more positive note, Chem_Geek…

          you were looking for a girl when you found this one. whose to say that the next girl you find isn’t a better match for you? if you are miserable in this current relationship, then good God, at least in theory, the next SHOULD be a better match for you (strictly from luck of the draw), assuming you don’t pick one just like the previous one, and assuming you get in touch with yourself and what you want and need from the next girl. if ya just pick the next girl that comes along, date out of boredom and loneliness (we’ve all done it), and don’t hold yourself to some standards and be honest with yourself about what you MUST or MUST NOT have in a relationship, then you just might continue to get what ya already have. boredom isn’t a bad thing. it’s gotta be better than abuse, right? single people get bored, get lonely. but just having someone around to have someone around – especially when it’s an unhealthy and destructive relationship – is not a better choice. sooner or later there’s no “fun” left in dysfunctional. the longer you stay in, the more damage it’s gonna cause. and perhaps by the time you do leave, then so much damage has been done that you are, indeed, damaged for a really long time. would you rather stay in a loveless, go-nowhere, damaging relationship, or would you rather do what you need to do for yourself, spend some time alone (it’ll do ya good if you use it correctly) and then venture forth a better man, not a bitter man.

  15. Hud
    January 19, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    Just to add a good story, my ex told me she wants no contact, so, I don’t contact her. Yet, during the Jets sweet win over the Chargers Sunday, as I am at the game, she texts me that I never liked Mark Sanchez because he is Mexican(she is Mexican, I am white). There were about 5 texts to me about this subject during the game. All I ever said about this kid was, we will see, if anyone knows the Jets QB history you understand. Point is, apparently not only have I been called selfish, unreliable and mean, I guess I am also racist. I tried many techniques, even some you suggested, not responding, walking away, moving out, seems like she always finds me as a reminder of all my faults. I feel bad for whatever is going on in her head, but, I should have seen long ago that there is nothing I can do, I used to say she yelled at me just because I woke up in the morning. Hah. Thanks for reading.

  16. 2curious2quit
    January 19, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    Apologies to all for going somewhat off topic.

    Dear S4M,
    My NPD wife is a devoted [by her definition] dog lover which seems consistent with the disorder. She actually reprimands the children [instead of the dog] when the dog hops onto a dining chair and removes food from the table because the child “didn’t push the chair up to the table preventing the dog’s maneuver each time the child departs the table”. Because her pooch never challenges any of her behaviors and unconditionally adores her, I wondered if there was a pet dynamic that NPD’s trended toward?

    My NPD is also a devoted [by her definition] christian. He religion isn’t very cerebral but, of course, she despises unbelievers. Even though the contradiction in her professed beliefs and her conduct is even apparent to her, she loves her “special” and “anointed” relationship with the big GUY. Is there a religion factor that NPDs tread toward?

    • shrink4men
      January 19, 2010 at 4:41 pm

      Hi 2curious2quit,

      I think NPD’s favor anyone or anything—a pet or a malleable, obedient, adoring child—who gives them unconditional, unending narcissistic supply.

      NPD’s who tend toward religion and quoting scripture, etc., usually do so as a control device. Some also use psychology in this way. They learn certain passages/terminology in order to justify their behavior and attack others. They also cloak themselves in the false authority of religion/psychology in order to avoid being held accountable. “Dr Clark said it’s healthy for me to express my feelings” after she rages for an hour about what a loser you are.

      Dr T

      • bunker dweller
        January 19, 2010 at 5:12 pm

        My wife quoted the Bible frequently–only after I left. It was a sort of fall-back position/ shield to keep me from leaving. Dr. T is right here, though, as it was the first time she ever started getting that religious. Before that point, she didn’t even attend church and refused to pray before meals.

        There was a sudden revival once I left. The abuser I had known morphed into a “holy-roller” with this new-found religious fury, as if God had revealed himself to her personally in some sort of vision. But again, if you’re a good and well-intentioned guy (as most of you are who got into one of these “rescue-type” relationships), you’ll be all programmed to see if she’s sincere and want to hang in there longer. Don’t do it. She’s only f*ing with your head (again). The sooner you get out the better. I don’t think God would want anyone to live an abused, crazy life.

  17. Joe
    January 17, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    Hi Dr T , have read all your articles which have given me strength

    Have you ever encountered OCPD ( not OCD) as my ex has the traits on this too.
    I can’t determine exactly what she has but do you know if OCPC falls into the BPD\NPD family?

    many thanks

  18. FranzFerdinand
    January 17, 2010 at 6:33 pm

    I will heartily second the notion that many women are taught that “I am allowed to feel anything that I want, and if it is my emotion then you must respect it.” At the same time, the range of acceptable emotions in men is severely circumscribed. I hashed this out with my STBWX many times, and it always came down to an emotion that she acknowledged was irrational and had no basis in reality or any attitude of mine, but because she felt it I had to accommodate her.

    I also want to say thanks again to Dr. Tara. If I hadn’t found this site a month before she went really wacko I would have stayed and suffered the consequences. Up until I read this site’s perspective I honestly thought that it was all my fault, and that all of her outbursts and cruelty were perfectly acceptable responses to my inability to keep the kitchen clean or make enough money.

    Oh – and to the guys out there dealing with this. One thing that I really wish that I had was the ability to record phone conversations at will. If you can get a Google Voice invitation I would recommend it – you can record at any time during the call and the recording will be stored online for you. It also saves text messages. This is an issue I am having now in my divorce – and thank goodness I saved those text messages from the week that I left.

  19. Freedom
    January 17, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    Misandry. wow… i haven’t heard that word in years. in fact, after typing it in, the spell check doesn’t even recognize the word. interesting, huh?

    I have a very broad-based theory on what you’ve said and i’d like to share it with you. again, i will readily admit that it is very general, and certainly doesn’t apply to everyone at every time. but i do think it has some merit.

    As boys, from the time we’re toddlers were told “big boys don’t cry”. so from a very young age, we have been taught to suppress our emotions, hide them, compartmentalize them, ignore them, fight ourselves not to express them or even feel them. the problem with this is two-fold. first, we still have these emotions, and yet we don’t have a clue what to do with them sometimes. we don’t know how to identify what it is we are feeling, nor what to do about it. they can make us uncomfortable, irritable, scared, vulnerable, and most of all “weak”. thru the passage of time the only “acceptable” emotion society has allowed us is anger (which is very strange and not very healthy in a societal and individual sense). we’re also told “boys will be boys”, and anger is a part of that (i didn’t make the rules, i don’t like the rules, and i don’t agree with the rules). so these emotions seem to get all caught up and built up and eventually come out as anger, though the actual emotion may have started off as something completely different. we are told to control our emotions, without being taught how to effectively, so we’re left with our own devices. so we filter our emotions thru a logical process (again i’m being VERY general here, and many times that logical process can be faulty), but when that process fails us, we’re stuck in a very difficult spot. many times, our own frustration at a lack of our own ability to control these emotions manifests itself into anger. we also feel left out in the cold because if we express our emotions in any other way, we’re labeled as wimps, or worse… weak. nobody wants to be around a weak man. and no man wants the label of weak. that’s where the anger comes in. and again, too many people seem to think that, as men, we’re not allowed to have these emotions, and that women have a monopoly on them. many of the nasty female posts on this site, are proof of that. it’s almost like we’re stealing those emotions from them, and, by golly, we didn’t ask for permission to have them. we struggle with them… and sometimes there’s very little can do about it other than suck it up and “be a man”. but then when we do that, we’re seen as cold-hearted.

    conversely, many women have been taught that they get pretty much any emotion they want. the problem with this is that many women are taught that you can have any emotion you want, be they’re not taught to take responsibility for those emotions, to filter them thru a logical process. what i mean by this is that if the girl suffers from poor body image (as an example) then she believes the man she is with must feel the same about her body as she does, when in fact the man may completely enjoy her body type. or if she feels ugly, then she thinks the man thinks she is ugly too, blaming him for a thought that he never had. many women have the mindset of “i feel it, therefore it must be so”, when it may be nothing more than their own emotions, their own insecurities, etc., being allowed to overwhelm them because they’ve not been taught how to rein them in and control them. as men, we’re often dumbfounded by the display of so much emotion over what seems to us as trivial. and it also explains the psychology field, now dominated by feminist women (misandry), says that if the woman feels something and acts upon that emotion (no matter how inappropriate), she is still beautiful even tho her actions upon those emotions may be very ugly. it’s almost a “partners in crime”, or, “i got your back, sister” mindset. the boundaries of honest emotion internally and unhealthy display of emotion externally for women have become very blurred. i have a family member in college right finishing her psychology degree, and what she is being taught is astounding and very gender biased.

    let me state for the third time that i am speaking very much in generalities, so please people, don’t pick it apart with one example. for anyone reading this, i’m not saying it applies to you, so don’t take it so personally. it’s an observation that i’ve gleaned thru many years of people watching, discussion and interaction. there’s plenty of holes in this theory and it’s far from perfect. but, again, i do think it has some merit.

    • Freedom
      January 17, 2010 at 5:54 pm

      and – unfortunately – it gives a quick and simple explanation of arguments. too many men think that if they can yell louder and display more anger, that they win the fight. whereas, too many women seem to think that if they express tears, or express extremes of emotions that they win the fight. and in all reality, when either gender expresses the extremes of what “we” seem to think is “right” way to express ourselves in times of trouble, we also feed the beast.

      funny thing is… i woke up in a good mood. sorry to come across so cynical.

    • Keith
      January 30, 2010 at 12:58 pm

      OMG You hit the nail on the head with that one ! So insightfull . I to was raised to hide or control my emotions and you really opened my eyes with that anger emotion and why it comes out that way ! Thankyou

  20. January 17, 2010 at 2:11 pm

    I just remembered something that seems pertinent here. I asked my zen teacher for advice during a troubled time with my ex. His advice was completely consistent with the kind of strategy we’ve been talking about here. One thing that stuck in my mind was this comment about emotional/verbal abuse:

    ‘just because someone gives you poisoned food, you don’t have to eat it’.

    In other words, the emotional abuse belongs to the other person – you don’t have to be offended, you don’t have to identify with it, take it onboard or react to it. It is about them.

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