There are times when each of us has moments of cruelty. It is part of the human dynamic. But there are some folks who seem to live in that dynamic often. How do we cope if that person is our partner? What do we do to take care of ourselves in that situation? When we are involved in a relationship we see all facets our partner. Some parts of their persona may be warm, passionate, empathetic, understanding and joyful. These are the parts that lead us to love. There may be other portions of their persona that are less positive.
When we are involved with someone who is cruel important decisions lie ahead. Cruelty is emotional abuse. We have much to consider when living with an emotional abuser. Can the cruelty be stemmed? Is the cruel partner willing to change their behavior? Are we willing to set effective boundaries to protect ourselves from further harm? Are we at risk? These questions are vital if we are to practice self care.
A note: If we are at risk for physical injury we must take action to protect ourselves and others for whom we are responsible. Seeking help is imperative and must be undertaken immediately. There are 24 hour hotlines in every area dedicated to prevention of abuse. The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-SAFE or on line at http://www.ndvh.org/.
Cruelty happens when we are wounded. When an event or series of events in our past creates extreme emotional pain, it injures us in a way that creates fear and shame. We may be afraid that we will re-experience the trauma that wounded us. Our defense mechanisms work to protect us from this outcome. We may feel great shame surrounding the incident or series of incidents. Our defenses work to keep the shame a secret from ourselves and others. Keeping up the defenses we adopt due to fear and shame, robs us of the energy we could be using to enjoy our lives. Living in denial is exhausting. When we have locked ourselves out from experiencing our emotions we may escape pain, but feeling numb keeps us from experiencing the joy of being alive.
When we feel threatened we may respond with our defenses. If we feel fear we may exhibit an exaggerated response in the form of rejection and hostility. Our defenses are attempting to protect us from harm by pushing away the threat. We may appear disrespectful and demeaning to others, particularly to the person posing the threat. What happens when the threat is intimacy? When our fears surround intimacy our partner becomes the source of the threat. Their attempts to facilitate closeness and connection may trigger our fear. We may react subconsciously without even realizing that we are behaving cruelly. Our partner may feel disrespected and demeaned finding our actions confusing. We may be sending mixed messages, saying that we desire closeness and intimacy, but behaving in ways that push our partner away.
Shame may cause us to react to a perceived threat with hostility and rage. We are reminded of the secret we hide from ourselves and others. The pain of remembering is excruciating. We may react to re-experiencing the trauma of the original shaming event or series of events with an array of negative emotions. Our core is threatened and our defenses arrive to protect us from further harm. We react with cruelty. We may spew venomous sarcasm or caustic remarks. We may shut down completely refusing to engage on any level. We may collapse into tears and recriminations.
When fear surfaces we have tools available to help us respond rather than react. We can choose to allow ourselves to feel the fear. We remind ourselves that this too shall pass. Once we let ourselves experience the full impact of the emotion, we learn that feelings are not permanent.
They are like a wave crashing on a beach. The wave approaches getting larger and more threatening. It finally crashes on the sand, then dribbles away back into the ocean. Feelings also come in waves. They arrive, build, may overwhelm for a few moments (crash), then in an environment of self care they dissipate.
Shame arrives through the back door. We may not be aware when we are feeling shamed. We may only feel our defenses stirring up hostility and rage. The best method of handling shame is to openly discuss the original incident or incidents in a safe environment, such as a support group or counseling session. There we can explore our emotions and the feelings they engender. We may be having issues with anger or hostility in our relationships. These symptoms may indicate that we have unresolved shame issues. When we fail to deal with our issues in a way that encourages personal growth, our shame leaks out in the form of venomous attacks on those with whom we are closest.
The long term damage that cruelty causes cannot be underestimated. Eventually the partner subjected to these extreme forms of anger may collapse emotionally. This may lead to a variety of endings, none of which are positive. The abused partner may decide to leave the relationship, or opt for emotional withdrawal. Some partners choose to find fulfillment outside the relationship. The wounds of the past can be healed and cruel behavior patterns can end. The answer is help and self care. Learning to practice our tools can lessen the pain of the past while increasing our self esteem. As we feel better about ourselves and our behavior we are more able to practice self control and esteem building activities.
We must first face ourselves with honesty. We begin by taking responsibility for our actions. Our next step is to seek support and guidance. This is a journey that we cannot undertake alone. As we learn to take care of ourselves and recognize when we are feeling fear and shame we increase our self esteem. We use our tools to practice self care and give those we love the respect and compassion they deserve. In this way we give ourselves the gift of growth.