2016-10-14 by Object of Contempt
Stereotypes… they are so useful and frustrating at the same time. I confess that I frequently get frustrated with the descriptions of emotional abuse that I find on the Internet. It’s not that they are wrong, but that they are usually quite introductory in nature. The descriptions stick to the more basic facets of the problem to avoid overwhelming the reader. Additionally, describing covert emotional abuse is difficult in itself. It is hard to detect, and hard to convince the average person just how damaging it is. I’m not a psychologist, pastor or genius, but I’m going to try to describe it here myself.
Stereotypical descriptions of control in covert abuse are frustrating. No one should be exposed to the kind of micro-managing, monkey-on-your-back, boundary-crashing controller that is usually described. And make no mistake; there are plenty of them out there. However, there is another type of control that is every bit as contemptuous and injurious to victims.
This other kind of control is a matter of gate-keeping. Like projection gate-keeping is not completely wrong in and of itself. People who are good, decent, and kind to the core of their souls use gate-keeping to protect the people they care for. These people employ candor and respect to nurture another person.
I originally learned about gate-keeping 4,536 years ago in a college course, Cultural Anthropology 101 (and no, I’m not going to tell you how long ago it really was 😉 ). In that context a gate-keeper is a person who manages the “membership” of the group at hand. There may be a handful of them in a large group, but there may be only one. It is usually a rather subconscious sort of duty performed by a someone wh0 is not necessarily the leader of that group. I’ve most often seen gate-keeping described as a process in a large group. For our purposes, though, it’s important to realize that the same process can be used between just two people.
People who have authority, especially parents, often need to engage in gate-keeping. Good parents use it to teach which values and behaviors are acceptable. They also use it to keep their kids safe.
Clearly, a person of lousy character will be dangerous as a gate-keeper. Abusive gate-keepers cause misery for others by creating unreasonable boundaries, and by cruel enforcement tactics. In virtually every case I’ve seen, they stretch or steal authority. To be clear, abusive gate-keepers display a persistent pattern of behavior, but it is selective and targeted. It will not occur 100 percent of the time. They don’t try to control everyone, either. They may only feel the need to control one person.
Abusive gate-keepers will capitalize on bad or dangerous values. They also take advantage of naivete and unawareness. Children are naive by nature. Most cultural values are unspoken. Emotions can be difficult to describe and understand clearly. The opportunities to manipulate in that environment is huge
The goal is to create an environment that allows the gatekeeper to maintain a facade. He or she may want to give the appearance of holiness, humility, genius, beneficent authority… any number of things. In the end, though, it boils down to feeling admired for something they aren’t, and feeling safe from being discovered (among other things). When someone interferes with those efforts, the gate-keeper will manipulate and twist the way a value or emotion is understood or expressed. Often, they start well before that.
This tactic can effectively stop a victim from making any progress because it is so convincing. A victim with good-will assumes fairness on the gate-keeper’s part. The gate-keeper’s actions are not so obviously horrific that they can be called out. If the victim is a continual scapegoat, then he or she will be kept perpetually “dizzy”, unable to make too much trouble.
Enforcement of values and rules gets harsher the more the gate-keeper is afraid of losing control. A rule or value may or may not have been broken at all. The threat may be the abuser’s own failure which he or she will project on a scapegoat. Most of us have seen (or been) a person who innocently points out an inconsistency that turns out to be a landmine.
Because the gate-keeper desires to protect their facade above all, rage and contempt towards the “violator” may never be spoken. The abuser chooses painful tactics for retribution that keep the contempt, and control covert. The whole group/family may see the actions without realizing the cruelty in it. They may even help the abuser because they know the gate-keeper. He or she is an obviously good person.
Withholding basic emotional needs is a favorite control tactic for the most patient ones. Even the victim doesn’t usually catch that. Smear campaigns, gaslighting, invalidation, DARVO, selective competence, selective effectiveness, selective memory… this list of abusive tactics is long. They are popular because they are easy to hide even from immediate family members.
I can guarantee that this is not a problem that only men perpetrate on their wives and children. I stumbled from blog to blog, looking for answers to my problems without knowing the questions. In the process, I found two or three blogs addressing christian wives who struggle with sex. One type of problem has been labelled, “gate-keeping”. In this context they are referring to a wife who has very tight control on when and how sex happens. Readers may be hesitant to call that abusive, and it’s true that I don’t know all their circumstances. Some of them, however, truly show an astonishing lack of empathy for their husbands. Read this page if you want a clue as to how bad men are hurt by wives who are controlling their husbands’ ability to receive love. No one else can see it, so they get away with it.
Authority can be used to hide all sorts of things, but control isn’t really about authority. The covert tactics of gatekeeping are so hard to see sometimes, that good and beneficial authority can be completely destroyed before anyone realizes. That person’s efforts to regain a sense of dignity and operate normally will appear ridiculous to others, maybe even abusive, especially after the gate-keeper provides them with some “perspective”.
This kind of control is just as damaging as the stereotypical micromanaging sort. The manipulative and disingenuous tactics that accompany it can be devastating to anyone’s spirit. My description may not have made it sound quite so horrible, but those who go through it for extended periods know. It’s like being labelled an imbecile by one person for unknown reasons, and then realizing everyone believes it.
There don’t have to be any punches, any yelling, any nagging. Life is miserable when you are isolated, starved for basic respect and love, and you are made to believe that it is your own fault.