Ask Dr. Debra
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Dear Dr. Debra,
My boyfriend says such awful things to me
sometimes. But if I confront him about it, he turns it around and
somehow I end up being the one who apologizes. Or if I'm upset with
him for any other reason, he still manages to shift the blame back
to me. I'm going crazy. What should I do differently?
Dear Ms. Crazy,
The first thing you should do is ask yourself why you remain in a
relationship with someone who is verbally abusive, crazy-making, and
unwilling to take responsibility for his hurtful words and actions.
You may tell me that when he's not being like this, he's a wonderful
guy, and you hope he's going to change. It probably won't happen.
Men like this may go days, weeks, or even months without being
abusive; however, the pattern remains. And the longer you are in the
relationship, the more the abuse increases—unless he chooses to seek
My standard rule for anyone who is subject to criticism or verbal
abuse being hurled at them by anyone is to leave the room, or
disengage from the phone conversation. If you are not in the
abuser's presence, he cannot continue to say hurtful things to you.
If he follows and continues to be mean or hurtful, grab your car
keys and leave the house. If you've hung up on him and he calls
back, don't take the call.
However, this isn't behavior that you just spring on him. Before the
pattern plays out again, warn him of what you will do the next time
he is mean or belittling. Let him know that if you leave, you will
return after a few hours, or you will call, and at that point you
will be willing to discuss the situation further, but only if he
is willing to be reasonable. If he continues in the abuse, you
will once again leave or hang up. This way, he knows the future
consequences of his actions.
The warning probably won't be enough. You will have to act the next
time he becomes difficult. If you don't, you will only teach him
that you are "weak" and utter empty threats.
Now for the twisting behavior. Men use twisting behavior to stay in
control and get what they want—you to back down. When that happens,
you become defensive. You're flustered and put in the position of
trying to explain yourself. A few more twists from him, and he wins.
You're apologizing or trying to take care of his feelings instead of
him taking care of yours. Often you end up doing what he wants,
rather than what you wanted when you began the conversation.
A controlling, twisting example would look like this.
You and your boyfriend are supposed to go out. You're excited about
the evening and make an effort to look your best. He comes in the
door and, instead of giving you the compliment you expect, he
critically looks you up and down.
He says: "You're going to wear that? What are you trying to do,
strut your stuff?"
(At this point you should IMMEDIATELY cancel your date and ask him
to leave. But you don't, so things continue.)
"No, I'm just trying to look nice for you. I thought you'd like this
"Every man in the bar is going to think you're a slut. They'll watch
you and want to get in your pants."
"Don't call me a slut."
"I didn't call you a slut. I said other men will think
you're a slut."
"Don't talk that way. You're hurting my feelings."
"Well how do you think I feel? My girl the object of other
men's attentions. Do you think I like how that makes me feel? You're
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to. I just wanted us to have a nice
"Then go put something decent on so we can have a nice night."
You then go change into another outfit.
Here are four steps to handle a twister.
1. Avoid getting caught in his trap. The minute he turns what
you are saying back at you, and you start to explain, you're caught.
You become confused because you don't quite realize that you've lost
your center. You vaguely feel you're in the trap, but you don't know
how to get out. Your efforts to defend yourself and explain your
feelings only make the situation worse.
2. Calmly say, "I'm not going to let you twist the meaning of my
words." Don't explain or defend yourself. Another thing you can
say is, "Right now we are talking about how I feel and what I need
from you. We can discuss how you feel after we've settled this."
Another alternative is to say, "I don't appreciate the implications
of what you are saying."
3. Stick to your original point. In a calm manner, repeat the
sentence several times. Every time he tries to get you off the point
by twisting or attacking, go back to your point.
4. If you can't find a resolution to the conflict because he
continues to be abusive or twist the conversation, disengage from
him. Hang up the phone or leave the room. You can try again when
you are both calmer.
If you made a mistake and didn't disengage from the conversation,
here's how you handle the twist:
He says, "I didn't call you a slut. I said that other
men would think you're a slut."
You say in a cold, calm voice. "I don't appreciate the implications
of what you are saying. Are you going to be able to set aside your
negative thinking about my dress so we can have a nice evening
together, or do we need to cancel this date?"
"Now you're trying to call off this date, after all I've planned for
tonight? I've spent a lot of money on the tickets to a play that
you wanted to see."
"Are you going to be able to set aside your negative thinking about
my dress so we can have a nice evening?"
"If you go change, I'll be fine."
"I'm fine with what I'm wearing. Are you going to be able to set
aside your negative thinking about my dress so we can have a nice
At this point, he either caves or continues his twisting behavior.
If he continues, you have several choices. You can repeat the above
statement over and over again all night long if necessary, which
would be boring, or you can call off the date. But whatever you do,
don't give in. Because if you do, you will just reinforce his
controlling, abusive, twisting behavior because it gets results
A good book to help you learn more about his behavior and your
response is Why Does He Do That? Inside the Minds of Angry and
Controlling Men by Lundy Bancroft. This is a great read for all
women because even if you aren't in this kind of relationship, you
may have been in one in the past, might be in the future, or you
know someone who is.
Good luck with standing your ground.
Feel free to
me with your questions.
Debra Holland, Ph.D., is a licensed psychotherapist who
specializes in relationships and communication techniques.
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