Slowly Turning Up the Heat: The Dark Side of the “New Normal”

A “new normal” can simply be a period of adjustment, of accepting what has changed and adapting to a new environment. This type of acclimatization may be uncomfortable, but it is ultimately relatively harmless and potentially even provides opportunity for growth.

Learn more about the “new normal” after divorce.

But that’s not always the case.

Like many people, I used to question the decision-making abilities of those who chose to stay in toxic or abusive environments. Don’t they see how poorly they’re being treated? Don’t they expect better for themselves? I just couldn’t understand.

Until I was in a toxic environment myself.

My first known experience with a poisonous atmosphere was when a new administration took over my school. The changes started almost immediately. The email newsletter, where exemplary teachers were highlighted on a weekly basis, was suspended. Meetings began to take on an accusatory tone and trust levels began to decline. By winter break, we all began to feel as though we were walking on eggshells and trying not to wake the sleeping dragon. The image that always comes to mind when I reflect upon that era is a meeting my team had with the principal. A meeting where he sat high behind his desk, yelling at us while we were seated on the floor.

We adapted. We learned when to keep our mouths shut (which was always, as long as we were within the bounds of the school). We learned not to question, because the answers were always in the form of punishment, meted out with what seemed to be a vicious delight. We even joked about the circumstances, trauma funneled into hilarity in an attempt to survive.

And the scary part? It began to feel acceptable. After all, we were ensconced in that environment for 10+ hours a day.

The toxic and abusive environment had become our new normal.

And it was only once we were out that we could see it for what it was. Once we were all back in functional work environments, we could see how crazy of a world we had occupied.

 

It may have become our normal.

But it was far from okay.

It is rare for abuse to go from “off” to “high heat” within the first meeting (because then nobody would ever stay, would they?). Rather, the heat is slowly increased so that the intensification hardly registers and the very-much-not-okay no longer seems unusual or to be of any consequence. That’s definitely how the covert abuse developed in my marriage.

 

There are a few strategies to identify this dark side of the “new normal” and to recognize abuse as it begins to escalate:

  • Be careful if you’re in a fragile state. You may find that you’re attracting people that see you as easy to manipulate or dominate.
  • Listen to your gut. You may not “know” what is wrong, but you’ll have a sense that something is off.
  • Be aware of if you’re creating justifications for situations or behavior. If you’re always making excuses, it’s a sign that something isn’t quite right.
  • Be cognizant of “boundary sliding.” If you always said, “I never put up with…” and now you are, that’s telling you something.
  • Ask for feedback. Describe the situation to a trusted friend or volunteer on a helpline and get their feedback. It’s easier to see clearly when you’re not on the inside.
  • If you have suspicions, begin to document the behaviors. Once you have it in writing, it’s easier to see any patterns and it’s harder to make excuses.

 

Abusive relationships rarely improve. Promises of “This will be the last time” and “I’m going to be better” seldom come to fruition. And while you’re waiting for it to get better, the heat may just reach the boiling point.

Jump out while you can.

 

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How NOT to Be a Victim (No Matter What Life Throws at You!)

“Let me introduce you to the victim advocate,” offered the policeman who had arrested my husband the day before.

 

I stopped short. That was the first time that word – victim – had ever been applied to me. I certainly felt victimized. My partner of sixteen years had just abandoned me with a text message, stolen all of my money and then committed bigamy. Yet even though I was still in the acute phase of suffering, I startled at the application of the word “victim.”

 

Because even though I had been hurt, I did not want to see myself as a victim. Although it felt good for the pain and unfairness to be recognized, the term also made me feel minimized. That word embodied weakness in my mind and I wanted to feel powerful. It spoke of a lack of control and I wanted to be the one to drive my life.

 

I did not want to be a victim.

 

But for a time, I was.

 

In the beginning, I spoke about what was done to me. I looked for resolution and justice from outside sources, hoping for an apology from him and a conviction from the courts. I embraced my pain, feeling justified in holding on to it. Meanwhile, I demonized my ex, removing all semblance of humanity in my view of him.

 

There was a certain comfort in accepting a role as a victim. I garnered sympathy and commiseration from those around me. I had limited control and limited responsibility. But those same conditions that sheltered me also confined me.

 

As long as I saw myself as a victim, I would remain one. As long as I was limited by my past, I would remain a prisoner of what happened.

 

When the desired justice from the courts failed to appear and the hoped-for apology never came, I was left with a decision to make: I could either bemoan the circumstances or I could change my response.

 

I chose the latter.

 

I used the following ideas to help shed the guise of victim and make myself the hero of my own life:

 

Rewrite Your Story

 

When we are harmed, we often feel powerless, as though we are simply being led through someone else’s story. One of the first steps to renouncing victimhood is to take control of your story. Rewrite it. Reframe it. Narrate it. Change the perspective. Take yourself out of the role of victim (done to me) and put yourself in the role of hero (I did…). Write it or tell it until you believe it.

 

Pick up a pen and write your happy ending.

 

Create Purpose

 

Whatever happened, happened. There is no changing the past. But you can use the past to create something better in the future. Find some anger about what occurred and use that as fuel to drive you to create something better. Look around and see others suffering and use your experience to render aide. Use your rock bottom as a foundation for your life’s purpose.

 

You have the power to create something wonderful out of something terrible.

 

Make Changes

 

When unwanted change is thrust upon our lives, it’s easy to feel hopeless. Learn to recognize the potential hidden within and use the opportunity of uncertainty to create change of your choosing. There is no better time to release what no longer serves you and to embrace new beginnings.

 

When you’re rebuilding your life from the ground up, you have the power of choice and the wisdom of experience. That’s a powerful pair.

 

Find Gratitude

 

One of the powerful and difficult exercises that can empower the victimized is practicing radical gratitude. Face what has caused you the greatest pain, the most suffering, and write down why you are grateful for it. It is an amazing reminder of how much our thoughts rather than our circumstances are responsible for our happiness.

 

When gratitude is your wrapping paper, everything is a gift.

 

 

You are only a victim if you imprison yourself. Release yourself from the shackles of your past and let your spirit soar.

 

 

 

Your Rights and Responsibilities in Marriage

Your Rights In a Marriage

 

1 – You have the right to be safe.

You are entitled to be physically unharmed in your marriage. This right extends to the protection of all dimensions of abuse, from emotional to financial. You have the right to an expectation that your spouse does not seek to harm you and that if they inadvertently do, that they do not blame you for the transgression.

You have the right to feel safe in your marriage. However, and this is an important clarification, it is not your spouses responsibility to ensure that you are never uncomfortable with a situation. There will be times where you feel threatened because you are triggered. There will be times when you are scared of the content and importance of a conversation.

 

2 – You have the right to be informed.

You have the right to have access to any and all information that impacts the marriage, the family or you, personally. You can expect to have this information within a reasonable time frame and without having to beg or search for it.

The content and/or method of delivery of the information is outside of your ability to enforce. Additionally, keep in mind that your partner can only communicate that of which they are aware. At times, there may be issues beneath the surface that they have not yet brought to consciousness.

 

3- You have the right to be heard.

You have the right to ask for change. You have the right to speak your needs. You have the right to your voice and your truth.

 

4 – You have the right to freedom of choice.

You are entitled to respond as you see fit to any information that you receive. This right extends to communicating requests, issuing boundaries and even terminating the relationship.

At any point, you have the right to have sovereignty over your realm. This right does not extend to making decisions for other adults.

 

 

 

Your Responsibilities In a Marriage

 

1 – You have the responsibility to speak the truth.

You have the duty to communicate any information to your partner that may impact them as soon as you have achieved an understanding of the particulars. The decision to withhold information, even with the intent to spare your partner the pain, is contrary to your responsibility. Not everything needs to shared, but if you’re afraid to speak, it’s a sign that the information needs to come out.

 

2 – You have the responsibility to refrain from assumptions.

It is your obligation to approach your partner with an open mind and to refrain from assigning guilt and intent before you have all of the information. It is not fair to put a spouse on perpetual trial, where they are always tasked with defending themselves. Ultimately,  you have the responsibility to listen.

 

3 – You have the responsibility to keep your expectations in check.

It is not fair to place the burden of your happiness or life satisfaction at the feet of your partner. If your expectations are too high, you are setting your spouse up for failure. You have the responsibility for managing your own anticipation and supposition.

 

4 – You have the responsibility to address yourself first.

Before you assign blame, you have the obligation to first look inward and to address any issues you find first. Not only is it not fair or realistic to place all of the burden of change on your partner, it is also outside of your control.

 

5 – You have the responsibility of supporting the team.

When you enter a marriage, you are establishing a team. And you have a responsibility to act in the best interest of the team. Furthermore, you are obligated to ask for input and clarification about the goals and interests of the team, as needed.

 

6 – You have the responsibility of acting with kindness. 

Because there’s no excuse not to.

 

Additional reading on the rights and responsibilities within a marriage: 

What Do You Owe Your Spouse?

16 Widespread Misconceptions About Marriage

What Makes Relationships So Hard?

Finding Your Strength Through Your Victim Impact Statement

At the gym yesterday, there was a man near me who was using his headset to have a phone conversation. Hearing the one-sided discussion about inane business matters made me irrationally angry. I kept trying to tune him out, to let the music and other voices drown out his, but my attention kept being drawn back to him.

Science has studied this phenomenon and has confirmed that we find one-sided conversations particularly distracting. It’s proposed that this is because our brains detest a void and so they are working overtime in an attempt to piece together the missing part of the exchange.

I partially credit this fact with my obsession of having my voice heard after abandonment. It felt like an important conversation, interrupted. He said his piece and my brain was desperate to fill in the response. When all of my attempts at establishing a dialog were ignored, I became desperate to be heard.

I was first asked to write a victim impact statement by the district attorney’s office in association with the bigamy charge. I actually had to have my mom help with the first iteration, as I was not yet able to articulate the extent of the emotional, financial and physical fallout of his actions.

I was more prepared for the second impact statement, part of the required documentation by the IRS for Innocent Spouse Relief. As I composed the statement, I imagined I was speaking to my ex-husband. As I detailed his egregious acts, I started to feel a little better as my reply to his side of the conversation was recorded. And when the federal government validated my response by grating me relief, I felt even better still.


 

Not all victims are recognized by the legal system and given the opportunity to compose a victim impact statement. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t choose to write one yourself.

When you have been victimized, there is a power imbalance at play. You feel like you’ve been disregarded, disrespected and even dismissed. A victim impact statement is a way of taking back some of that power. Of saying, “I have a voice and my voice matters.”

An impact statement both highlights the injustices committed and describes the impact that those acts have had upon you. It gives you the space to say, “What you did was not okay and it hurt me.”

Being victimized often carries with it some shame. Abuse flourishes when people are too scared or too embarrassed to speak out. By writing your statement, you are saying, “I have the courage to speak up and take a stand against your behaviors.”

And finally, composing a victim impact statement can be the first, critical, step of taking ownership over your own life again. It’s a way of saying, “You hurt me, but you did not silence me. You harmed me, but you cannot stop me. You tried to keep me down, but I will rise again, stronger and even better than before.”

 

 

In some ways, this blog and my books have become an extension of my own victim impact statements. My way of refusing to be silenced.

Seven Strategies a Covert Abuser Uses to Create Convincing Lies

Unless you’ve been there, you simply cannot understand how well a covert abuser can lie. The stories are so cunningly crafted and so expertly delivered that even the professionals can be fooled. It’s one of the harder – and more frustrating – parts of emerging from this type of relationship, as you feel like nobody else gets what you went through or even believes what you are saying.

These manipulators all seem to follow common scripts and utilize similar tactics. These are the ones that I repeatedly see:

 

1 – They Choose Someone With Integrity

My ex knew from the beginning that I’m terrible at lying. In fact, I’m so bad at it that I would make him say “no” to an invite that we weren’t interested in and it was his role to return items to the store because I was too uncomfortable to say that it didn’t fit instead of, “It’s ugly.”

Covert abusers seek out honest people. They look for those with loyalty and integrity. Those positive traits are exactly what the abuser needs because those people will believe the best about their partners and don’t readily assume deceit.

 

2 – They Stay Close to the Truth

When my ex was in Brazil on his honeymoon, he claimed that he was working a car show. The exact same show that he worked the previous year. It was only later that I discovered that this particular dealer was no longer even a client of his. But I no reason to doubt his claim at the time, as it fit neatly into my expectations.

The best liars stay close to the truth. Not only does this make their stories more plausible, it also makes it more difficult for them to get their storylines mixed up. They may give you partial truths, leaving out critical information. Or they may replace certain facts while keeping the basic tale consistent.

 

3 – They Provide Plentiful Details

My ex walked into the kitchen with a MacBook box under his arm. And apparently with a story under his belt. For the next thirty minutes, he detailed how there was a raffle at the job fair (yes, he was unemployed) for a computer. He initially didn’t want to enter, because he didn’t think he’d win and he didn’t want to receive the endless ads that accompany such events. Finally, he said, he decided to throw his card in before he left. He was already in his car, three intersections away, when his phone rang and he learned he won. Except, years later, I found the charge for that very computer on a credit card statement.

Good fabricators use details to make their stories more believable and to distract from any implausibility. They use their words to paint a picture and to envelope you in its imagery.

 

4 – They Elicit Your Sympathy 

On that same Brazil trip, I received a short voicemail where my husband told me he had been stricken by food poisoning. He sounded terrible and, even more worrying to me, he sounded concerned about his situation. Unable to get through to him, I began to panic. For the next two days, I was so consumed with worry for him that I hardly thought of anything else.

Covert abusers like to make you feel sorry for them. Because as long as you’re sympathetic, you’re not suspicious. Additionally, these manipulators really do often see themselves as the victim and believe that life has not been fair to them.

 

5 – They Utilize Supporting Evidence

After my ex’s arrest for bigamy, I found a copy of his car insurance card in the center console of his vehicle. There was only one problem. The space where my name was on the electronic copy of the PDF, was blank on his card. He had Photoshopped my name off my card so as not to arouse the suspicions of his other wife.

Good manipulators do not only rely on words. They will use evidence, either gathered or fabricated, to support their claims. They understand that a little goes a long way here. If you have “proof” of one piece, you’re more likely to go along with the rest.

 

6 – They Employ Distractions

When interest rates dropped in the mid 2000s, we had agreed to refinance the house. He brought the paperwork to my work and had somebody cover my class so that I could sign the papers. All the while I was signing, he was trying to engage me in a conversation he was having with one of my coworkers. I was so distracted by the environment and the circumstances, that I never realized that the paperwork didn’t specify the terms that we had previously discussed.

It’s an old trick, but an effective one. When you’re busy looking at one thing, you can’t focus on another. Deceivers are experts at this technique and they make sure that you’re always looking exactly where they want you to. And then they take advantage while you’re gaze is turned elsewhere.

 

7 – They Use Gaslighting 

 

Once my ex was arrested, he turned the gaslighting up to “high,” claiming that we had been divorced for years and that I was just having trouble accepting it. He painted me as vindictive and greedy and “impossible to live with.” In other words, he tried to make me look crazy in an attempt to escape from his lies.

Covert abusers are experts at, “You didn’t see that” and “I never said that.” By making you question yourself, you get so lost that you refrain from questioning them. And even when they are caught, they will continue to lie and deny. After all, at some point it became their most fluent language.