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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?
Ms. Crazy

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 professional help.

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 dress."
"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 hurting me."
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to. I just wanted us to have a nice night."
"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 evening?"

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 for him.

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.

Dr. Debra

Feel free to write me with your questions

Debra Holland, Ph.D., is a licensed psychotherapist who specializes in relationships and communication techniques.

To read previous 'Ask Dr. Debra' articles, please visit www.wetnoodleposse.com, where Dr. Debra is a regular contributor, or click here to view the archives.





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