2016-05-17 by Object of Contempt
In various articles and blogs I’ve read about abuse by invalidation. This has been a huge part of my experience, and is ongoing in a big way because I’m unable to leave my abuser at this time. Invalidation is a tactic that hurts the victim by way of frequently rejecting the victim, disallowing even the basic acceptance that people rely on for normal functioning. It involves questioning or denying the truth of their pain, experience, perception, memory, et cetera.
To be clear, I am not talking about having a difference of opinion, or even a heated disagreement. I’m talking about abuse, which entails a pattern of behavior that is injurious.
Invalidation is one of the most insidious ways to abuse a person. It causes a tremendous amount of strain and damage in the victim. I suspect this is largely because it can go on for so long without being detected. Outsiders rarely see it, or believe it has happened. It usually looks like people wrangling over specific petty issues, rather than a strategic tool to control the victim’s options, diminish dignity, and dismantle confidence. Plus, especially in marital relationships, there is a lot of cognitive dissonance — an unwillingness to believe that this person would (or even could) ever be so cold and cruel. (The person they appear to be, may be quite different from what is underneath. My wife appears very understated, meek, and mild, and no one doubts how genuine she is, except me. And, I didn’t for quite a long time.) Because the victim’s response to cruelty is likely to be greater than what the issue under discussion is worth on its own, outsiders will frequently blame the victim as being unreasonable. It is not hard to imagine abusers taking advantage of that dynamic.
Examples I commonly find in articles on the web tend to look similar to these:
- Don’t be so sensitive!
- Do you have to be such a drama queen?
- You’re the only one who cares.
- Do you think everyone else is wrong??
They must be useful examples because people respond and say how familiar it all sounds. That surprised me, though, because my experience with invalidation is different. Actually, there are numerous types and methods of validation. A web search will certainly dig some up for you. The ones I have listed below describe some of my experiences. Hopefully these examples will help those who are chronically invalidated, but don’t recognize it from the more common examples.
With my parents, invalidation followed about three different patterns, mostly.
- One was just a flat refusal of what I had said, accompanied frequently with an insult such as, “don’t be ridiculous!” or “now you’re just being assenine!”
- Another was just with facial expressions, especially if I were to tell about a difference I’d had with someone else. So, this usually meant they were only hearing my side, but determined to believe the person on the other side who wasn’t even there. They would roll their eyes at key moments, or do this contemptuous thing where they would sort of bow their heads while glaring “up” at me past their eyebrows.
- On occasion, my mom in particular would go the extra mile. She would just assume I was wrong, and then tear my spirit with “advice” like, “if you would just shut up and not talk so much, the kids at school might start to like you.” (I still remember the sting of that remark from when I was 6 years old.) In one moment, I was made to feel unacceptable to everyone at school.
With my wife, well, her methods were perfected by my in-laws. Their skill is unmatched. She has many methods, none of them are like the examples, though.
- She plays the stoic victim, and just does a sort of straight-faced pout with as few words as she can manage. She wants me to know that I’m wrong and mean for daring to tell her that (for example) her emotional withholding hurts me.
- She appears to listen to and understand what I’m saying, but is blowing off every word I say. This worked for a while because I was projecting good-will onto her (she wouldn’t ignore me, would she!?). She might say things to obstruct a clear conversation and add work to my burden, but overall she allows me to believe that she is tracking with me. Then next time the topic comes up, she will pretend as if she has no clue why I would think such a thing, or believe that she knows about it (let alone agrees). Subsequent go-rounds may entail different obstructions in order force me to do the work of building a new case. This method frequently shows up when the in-laws have trampled my boundaries yet again. The denial combined with running me in circles is powerful because it wears you down. It is hard to believe that the whole thing is just a covert-aggressive attack on your mind and spirit, and it can do a lot of damage.
- Stonewalling with no explanation. No pout, just the lifeless glare of utter contempt. It is basically a variation on the silent treatment. This is something that I thought was unique to my situation, but I’ve heard others tell about the glare too. This invalidates the whole person. It hurts.
- (Recent, and less common) Asking if I am okay with something, when she knows from recent events that it is offensive to me. Then, whether I defend the boundary calmly (usual response), express anger (safely with no danger, name-calling, insults), or refuse to engage in the game, my response is labeled as “unreasonable”. At that point she feels justified in doing the offensive, contemptuous thing because she has “tried so hard” to have a “reasonable discussion” with me, but “I refused”. This combines invalidation of my boundaries, pain, word, and self, along with the common passive-aggressive tactic of making the victim feel anger in retaliation. That is, I defended myself over a recent event, so she will retaliate by offending me, and likely repeat the original offense.
- Far and away the most common is D.A.R.V.O. This is a term that deserves its own post. It is a combination of tactics that is mostly used when the victim attempts to resolve problems with the abuser. It invalidates the victim by showing that they don’t even merit honest, direct communication. The letters stand for:
D — Deflect “I can’t believe you would even think that I would do that!”
A — Attack “Especially after you did this (probably unrelated) thing! You’re so mean to me!”
R.V.O. — Reverse Victim and Offender (Unless you are very skilled and extremely attentive, you are probably defending yourself against the attack by this point, rather than discussing the actual original problem.)
Many other mental and emotional abuse tactics are invalidating in addition to their main injury. Withholding affection, empathy, and sex, are all invalidating. By the time a person tries to address these problems, there may be nearly no energy or confidence left. And that is the point! Now in an emotionally destroyed state, the victim can’t cause many problems, and won’t be taken seriously by anyone he or she might approach for help.