How do so many smart men fall for toxic, abusive women? Why do they remain in painfully self-destructive relationships when their higher intelligence knows better? Many men frequently cite, “but I love her.” Do they love these women or have they been brainwashed by abusive personalities? Are they confusing love with dependence on their partner/torturer—a kind of Stockholm Syndrome?
Emotional and physical abuse wears you down over time. It erodes your confidence, independence, sense of efficacy and good judgment. Successful abusers use brainwashing tactics to disassemble your personality and extinguish your natural responses to abuse. In other words, you become numb and submissive instead of fleeing or fighting back in the face of her abuse.
Abusive women establish control over their targets by using “brainwashing tactics similar to those used on prisoners of war, hostages, or members of a cult” (Mega, Mega, Mega & Harris, 2000). Most abusers instinctively know these behaviors. Their behavior is mostly unconscious; they’re natural predators. However, some abusive women know exactly what they’re doing. In such cases, I’d argue that they’re sociopaths and not the garden variety narcissist, borderline and/or histrionic and are, therefore, highly dangerous.
In the 1950s, psychologist Robert Jay Lifton studied POW’s from the Korean War and Chinese prison camps. He concluded that these soldiers “underwent a multi-step process that began with attacks on the prisoner’s sense of self and ended with what appeared to be a change in beliefs” (Layton). Lifton defined 10 brainwashing steps that occur in 3 stages.
Stage I: Breaking Down the Self
1. Assault on Identity. “You are not who you think you are.” This step is comprised of an unrelenting attack on your identity or ego. For example, You’re a jerk. You’re a loser. You’re selfish. You don’t deserve me. You don’t have any friends. Your family doesn’t care about you. You don’t make enough money. These kinds of attacks have a destabilizing effect that breaks your stride and keeps you off kilter. The assault continues until you become “exhausted, confused and disoriented,” which causes your sense of self, beliefs and values to weaken.
2. Guilt. “You are bad.” Once your identity crisis sets in, you’re then criticized for offenses great, small and imaginary. You snore. You chew your food to loudly. You’re not sensitive enough. You’re too sensitive. You breath wrong. You blink too much. You don’t fold the towels correctly. You never do this. You always do that. Why can’t you be more like so and so? The constant arguments and criticisms that cast you as the bad guy make you believe you deserve to be punished and treated badly. You feel a general sense of shame, that you’re wrong and that everything you do, don’t do, say or don’t say is wrong.
Humiliation and shaming tactics destroy your confidence and make you feel bad about yourself, which puts you in a malleable and submissive state. Shame is a form of paralysis. Inducing a sense of shame doesn’t just make you feel bad; it make you believe that you are bad.
3. Self-Betrayal. “Agree with me that you are bad.” Because you’re now disoriented and feeling a pervasive sense of guilt and shame, she can manipulate you into going against your own best interests. You forsake your own needs and make choices that are detrimental to your well-being. This is the time when an abusive spouse or girlfriend will begin to isolate you and/or get you to turn against your friends and family. The betrayal of yourself, your beliefs and the people you once felt loyal to increases your feelings of shame, guilt and loss and also makes you easier to control.
4. Breaking Point. “Who am I, where am I and what am I supposed to do?” You no longer know who you are. You’re confused and disoriented from gaslighting and constantly being fed a distorted version of yourself and reality. You may feel like you’re having a nervous breakdown or feel depressed, anxious, traumatized and a host of other negative emotional and physical symptoms like insomnia, paranoia and digestive problems.
You question your judgment, perceptions and sense of reality. She tells you she loves you yet continues to treat you horribly. You believe she loves you and that you must be a colossal jerk for her to always be so upset. If she’s successfully isolated you or gotten you to isolate yourself, you can’t reality test her version of events or receive outside support. By this time, she’s made you totally dependent upon her and solely focused upon pleasing her, gaining her approval and avoiding her wrath or disapproval. You probably feel completely alone. Alternatively, if you’re still in contact with friends and family, you fear that if you tell them what’s going on that they wouldn’t believe you or wouldn’t understand.
Stage II: The Possibility of Salvation
5. Leniency. “I can help you.” This is what I like to call the tyranny of small mercies. Periodically, this kind of woman will offer you some small kindness or you’ll have a “fun” afternoon together in which she appears normal. Because your perception has been so warped, the tiniest act of kindness or absence of overt hostility and/or icy withdrawal fosters gratitude, relief and a sense of adoration within you. In reality, she’s not kind and she’s not normal.
The disparity between her bad behavior and good/neutral behavior is so great that the simple act of heating up a can of soup for you makes her seem like Lady Benevolence. Her minuscule and infrequent acts of normalcy cause you to romanticize her. “This is why I love her. She can be so sweet.” It also causes you to experience a destructive sense of false hope. “If only she could be this way all the time. Maybe she will if I just try harder to please her.” The only way you can please this kind of woman is by continuing to allow her to harm you.
6. Compulsion to Confess. “You can help yourself.” You’re so grateful for the small kindnesses she bestows in between periods of covert and overt abuse that you agree with her criticisms and devaluations. For example, you agree that your friends are bad for you and that your family is controlling and dysfunctional (um, hello, pot meet kettle). You promise to be more attentive and sensitive to her needs and see your needs as evidence of your selfishness.
Alternatively, you agree with her just to make the rages, derision and accusations stop. By the way, this is why torture techniques don’t work for intelligence purposes. People will say anything to make the torture stop. By this time, your personality has changed. You’re hypervigilant to her moods, ego gratificationÃ‚Â demands and wishes.
You’re overwhelmed and confused by her accusations and criticisms. Subsequently, you feel a pervasive sense of shame. However, you’re so disoriented that you don’t know what you’re guilty of anymore. You just feel wrong.
The Goal: Pointless Control with No End to the Abuse
Individuals or groups who use brainwashing techniques are deliberately trying to convert followers, change political allegiance or get people to buy their brand of soda. The ultimate goal is to breakdown your identity and replace your belief system with their doctrines in order to make you an obedient follower. Once they achieve their aims, the psychological torture stops because you’ve become a faithful acolyte.
Unlike professional terrorists, cult leaders and prison camp commandants, abusive narcissistic, borderline, histrionic and sociopathic wives and girlfriends don’t have an end goal for their brainwashing techniques. They don’t know what they want. They just know that they want to control you in order to feel in control of themselves. This is why they don’t progress past the sixth brainwashing step and complete the process through the third stage, Rebuilding the Self.
By keeping you stuck in the Possibility of Salvation stage, you become locked into perpetual hoop jumping mode. She says if you do x, y and z she’ll finally be happy. You do x, y and z and then she either has a new set of expectations, demands and requirements or tells you that you didn’t do x, y and z to her satisfaction or that you only did it to make her happy not because you wanted to do it. You’re caught in a maddening cycle of trying to please her and not being able to please her with no relief or “salvation” in sight.
Abusive borderline, narcissistic and histrionic women’s moods, beliefs and realities change from day to day and, in extreme cases, minute to minute. They want whatever their current mood or insecurity dictates and change their beliefs, demands and perceptions accordingly. The only doctrine they offer is, “You’re wrong and bad” and “It’s all about me, my needs and my feelings” and “you need to fight for me” or “you need to fight for this relationship” (never mind that she is the one who is destroying it). This keeps you destabilized and in a perpetual state of guilt, shame, hypervigilance and confusion.
She puts you into no win situations, double binds and keeps raising the bar of her expectations for as long as you let her. You never get to reach the third stage of a new identity that brings some relief. She keeps you stuck in the cycle of abuse where she will psychologically torture you until there’s nothing left of you.
Over the next few weeks, I will discuss other aspects and techniques of brainwashing culminating in how to deprogram yourself.
by Dr Tara J. Palmatier, PsyD
Originally published on A Shrink for Men on February 24, 2010.
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Mega LT, Mega JL, Mega BT & Harris BM. Brainwashing and battering fatigue: Psychological abuse in domestic violence.Ã‚Â NC Med J. 2000, Sep-Oct; 61(5): 260-265.
Layton, J. How brainwashing works. HowStuffWorks.Dr Tara J. Palmatier holds a Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology and M.Sc. in Counseling Psychology. She has over a decade of experience delivering direct services to diverse populations in a variety of settings. She left the clinical field in 2005 to begin a career in multimedia editing, writing and consulting. Dr Palmatier runs her own blog, A Shrink for Men, and a private relationship consultation practice for individuals, primarily men, who are suffering emotional abuse in their relationships.