2016-05-07 by Object of Contempt
I have dealt with a couple “styles” of emotional abuse since I was a boy. Abuse is almost always a matter of control. Now, one of the functions of culture is to provide for a certain level of control over groups. Unfortunately, some cultural values and behaviors play right into the strengths of abusers.
In this post I want to address a set of specific cultural beliefs which I will condense into the statement: “You can only control your own emotions.” This statement is mostly true, but it has grown and split into a set of beliefs that don’t match scripture or reality. People in normal relationships gloss over them and see no problem presumably because their relationships are based on good will. When an abuser refers to these he purpose is usually to evade responsibility for how emotions were either used, withheld, or attacked.
(Some of this seems so rudimentary as to be insulting the intelligence of the reader to explain it. However, it is often the obvious things that are twisted by abusers.)
The following list shows some of the ways I’ve heard people express this concept.
- A person can only control his/her own emotions.
- Therefore I can’t make anyone else feel love, happiness, etc..
- Therefore I can’t be the cause of their emotions.
- Therefore I can never be guilty if they aren’t happy.
- Therefore their unhappiness is their own fault.
- Therefore they must want to be unhappy.
- Therefore, Since I can’t “make them happy,” their happiness isn’t my responsibility at all.
- Therefore it is also wrong of them to expect me to provide for their happiness.
Most of us have probably heard something like these statements before. I tend to see the first statement as being mostly true, with the rest of them being falsely inferred from it. Regardless, seeing how they compare to reality and scripture will hopefully make us stronger when facing an abuser who throws these concepts at us.
“Controlling the emotions” is often a cloudy concept at best. It is common knowledge that people are often unable to control their own emotions, even when it is important and/or would bring relief. When we say we can only control our own emotions, we are really combining two thoughts. First is the basic truth that a person’s emotions generally answer to his or her own will before anything else. Second is the fact that the effort to control another person’s feelings is offensive.
But, this is not the end of the story. Sometimes we need people to come into our personal, emotional space — such as when a someone is mourning. We really cannot force a person to be happy. However, we can impact a person’s emotions successfully. For reasons that might be right or wrong, that person may refuse to feel any happiness. Efforts to impact another person’s mourning spirit may fail completely, but the effort to try for their sake isn’t controlling or wrong… it’s important!
As an example of successfully making someone happy, let’s consider the Prodigal Son. When the son was returning on the road home, didn’t he “make” his father happy? Yes he did! Did he command or coerce his father to feel that happiness? No, he was far off and hadn’t even spoken to him yet! The father was overjoyed by his son’s return, and even his elder son’s envy didn’t derail his joy. Now, some may say that the father was the one who decided to be happy, that the son had nothing to do with it. However,the father was not happy before his son returned, and he was happy afterward.
Although it is generally possible to make a willing person happy, some negative emotions can actually be forced upon an unwilling recipient. It doesn’t have to be malicious or abusive, but it can be. I’m going to leave out examples of this. Abuse victims know that negative emotions have been forced on them, and don’t need examples. This is, in fact, what passive-aggressive people do as a way of life. They force anger and frustration on people so that they can “punish”, while they avoid expressing their own anger.
Why can negative emotions be forced on a person, but happiness and positive emotions can’t? Let’s think in more physical terms for a moment. Trying to make our mourner above happy is like trying to heal broken bone or a cut. There is a need for time because that’s the way healing works, and our will to heal immediately is irrelevant. On the other hand, a malicious person can exert his or her will and cause a cut or a broken bone in a matter of seconds.
Can we make a person love us or force them to feel happy against their will? No. And while we shouldn’t try to coerce them, we should show good-will and care about their happiness. In marriage, this is imperative. A spouse who isn’t looking for ways to bring happiness to the other is allowing the marriage to deteriorate at best.
Can an abuser make a victim feel certain emotions? Yes. This is the essence of emotional abuse. It should be obvious, but many refuse to see it. Abusers definitely cause the victim’s unhappiness and depression against the victim’s will. The abuser, given enough time will crush the spirit of the victim. This is wrong, sinful, and the abuser absolutely carries the guilt even if they dodge the responsibility. The abuser will want to focus on their inability to make their unwilling victim happy, but that is a deflection — an instance of DARVO.
A spouse with good-will who says, “that hurt!” and is saddened by an act or words, should be listened to. The real sign of abuse isn’t that a particular incident is handled poorly. An abuser will have a pattern of dismissing the victim’s pain, denying having done the injurious deed, etc.. In a healthy relationship, the one that caused the hurt will want to apologize clearly and fully because reconciliation is desired. They want to be a major source of blessing, happiness, even pleasure in their spouse’s life. This is what a good spouse does.
At the risk of being redundant… Is anyone responsible for another person’s happiness? Well, speaking in terms of marriage… it is more accurate to say that a person is responsible to care about their spouse’s happiness. It should be an on-going goal to bring blessing and happiness! Think of the wedding vows. Think of the Song of Solomon. Not caring about a spouse’s happiness shows a lack of good-will. The love that was promised in the vow is missing, and someone is being defrauded.