There are two kinds of boundary violations: overt and covert.
We know a lot about one half of boundary violations: the kind acted out in an anxious way.
This first kind of boundary violation is hopefully already obvious. This is when you say no, or are unable to consent, and someone goes ahead and touches you anyway. This is the kind of boundary violation that occurs when someone touches your body when you are drunk, or are unconscious, or are drugged, or do not say an enthusiastic yes, or your body language communicates trauma, fear or hesitation and someone goes ahead anyway.
It is the kind of boundary violation when men insist that we smile for them on the street, or smile before they will give us our food at a restaurant, or when they insist we talk to them and placate them and flirt with them when we are really trying to get from point A to point B in public space. There is still a long way to go in creating clear and straightforward ways to get no to mean no. There is still a long way to go in getting overt violations to stop.
Another category of boundary violation exists, however: the ‘covert’ boundary violation. I understood it a few years back at a counselling session when I felt like I was losing my mind and I blamed myself for it. The psychologist said, “No, this is not you. That person has crossed your boundaries and you are owning something that is actually not yours.”
This second kind of boundary cross is what one friend calls ‘the unmaking.’ This article attempts to grapple with and find words to describe this kind of behaviour. Some description comes first – written while I was in the thick of trying to get my head clear while in an abusive relationship – and the list below provides language that I slowly grew able to use over the two years following, in which people protected me, and made clear that what had been done to me was not healthy, not normal, and not ok. Now I can speak very clearly about what happened. Many of the folks who have heard about what happened have shared that they know many other survivors who have had similar experiences, and have had difficulty coming into words. So I hope the list of concepts and words may be helpful for others finding their way back to strength, speech, and clarity. It takes time, but healing can happen. 🙂
The Covert Cross
This kind of covert violation occurs when you consciously or unconsciously but in a sustained ongoing way over an extended period of time use deception, undermining, destabilization, or bait and switch when you want access to someone, when you want them to serve some sexual or romantic purpose for you (sex, adventure, excitement, ego boost, arm candy, status), rather than engaging with them in an emotionally honest way as a whole human being who has intelligible needs and feelings of their own.
In this covert violation, you (consciously or unconsciously) use deception or manipulation rather than force to enter the gates, gaining trust even as you do not act in a trustworthy way.
In this violation the survivor consents to their own violation, because the abuser uses deceit and manipulation to get access to the survivor’s trust and lower their defences. Once inside the gates, the abuser damages everything they touch.
When she lets you in, instead of simply being good to her, you undermine her trust in her perceptions, smashing up her emotional safety from the inside.
This behavior takes what you want, exploiting the survivor to meet needs of yours, without the incumbent relational responsibility involved in gaining another human being’s physical and emotional trust.
This is a Trojan boundary violation.
Once inside the gates, in order to get what you want without relational responsibility or accountability, you gaslight her, manipulate those around you both, tell different versions of reality to different people, keep her feeling unstable and off balance, and create uncertainty, confusion, and instability. People who have a lifetime of knee-jerk practice in using manipulation to get their needs met, or who engage in these kinds of actions reflexively and even unconsciously, can be so practiced at it that it becomes second nature to them. This can happen so quietly that it occurs while hiding this deceit from everyone around them, doing it on a narrowband channel that only the survivor experiences, so those around them do not understand what is going wrong.
If the abuser’s need to keep the women they fuck off balance and confused contradicts their constructed image as an ally or a feminist, everyone will only see this ‘great feminist dude’ and a ‘crazy unstable woman.’ Be very, very wary of this combination when you see men who self-promote as feminists who appear to have ‘mysteriously unstable’ partners. By controlling public perception and taking advantage of cultural conditioning to disbelieve women and femmes, abusers can silence and confuse those they harm, even as they work on her psyche to prevent her from even understanding how badly they are acting towards her.
If someone has an ingrained panic at ever acting accountable or having anyone see them vulnerable, it may feel ‘safer’ to that person to destroy the women they have sex with, rather than relinquish that power to avoid and evade emotional trust or closeness even while meeting other needs (such as for sex, for a public image of being desired, or feeling powerful or important). So they are deceitful about very important things, and then are dishonest about being dishonest. They get her to open up sexually and emotionally by saying all the right words even as those words are internally contradictory or bear no resemblance to reality or to their behaviour. They manipulate and triangulate her social circle, preemptively and subtly twisting reality to get people around her to percieve her as unreliable by subtly dropping little hints about how “crazy” she is to them when she is not around, preemptively gaining control through priming people’s willingness to see women as unreliable long before she ever comes into words about what is happening.
These kinds of abusers believe they are entitled to be thought of a certain way – as an ally, as a feminist – regardless of how they actually act, or how the person they presume to be allies with actually feels about it.
This kind of entitlement – to believe you are entitled to tell others how they ought to perceive you, to perpetually heroize yourself and need someone ‘crazy’ that you are ‘saving’ to make yourself look good – and to manipulate people into not listening to the survivor – these are hallmarks of abuse.
She begins to feel crazy, because your emotional logic cannot connect up, everything you do contradicts everything else. and she keeps trying to make sense of all the contradictory things you say, things that do not make sense together. When she asks you, bewildered, why your actions are so different from your words, or why your emotional logic strings are so endlessly contradictory, you tell her she is imagining it. And you undermine her sanity, over, and over, and over, and over again, and then use the apparent instability that this creates to tell others ‘there, see, she’s crazy, how could I possibly have abused her?’ This can go on for a long, long time.
To observers, the woman being undermined in this way may look like the people of Cittagazze, in The Golden Compass. Consumed by ‘spectres’ that are invisible to the onlookers, the adults who get attacked look crazy, as they fend off an invisible attack: they appear to dance about, shout, cry, and eventually go still as the spectres approach them to suck out their soul. Once the viewer becomes able to see the spectres, the movements of their victims become clear. Without seeing the source of the harm, however, you would not see an attack and a desperate attempt at survival – you would only see a crazy person crying, shouting, or flailing about in evasive maneuvers.
This kind of boundary violation – destroying someone’s mind and hiding that you are doing it so everyone only sees them looking incoherent – is the unmaking of another human being. It is the gift of making, turned backwards and become a weapon.
It is a horrific violence to the psyche, enacted quietly over a long time, all the more harmful because it is so deeply masked from others, who may leave the survivor alone in it or mistake her inchoate fury for a ‘personality trait’ when it is actually a direct and healthy response to abuse.
Boundaries: the ability to navigate the relationship between self and others, without collapsing or closing off
This Trojan boundary cross is every bit as much a boundary violation as the first kind. It is still getting someone to let you in, when they have not made an informed choice about your trustworthiness, because you use words to try to control and mask reality.
It can include betrayals of trust by making and then breaking safety agreements around sex, ‘forgetting’ you made them, or making it sound as though you never ‘really’ made safety commitments or only ‘kind of’ made them. (Who ‘kind of’ makes a safety commitment about sex? What is a ‘kind of’ safety commitment?)
It can include talking about how ‘reliable’ and ’emotionally mature’ you are, about how ‘nurturing’ and ‘feminist’ you are, saying you ‘have the same values’ as her, talking about what a ‘good ally’ you are and how ‘accountable’ you are, using words to replace actually doing any of those things.
It can and often does include a deep, deep-seated need to control your intimates (whether to keep them from straying if you are anxious towards them, or to keep them constantly off-balance and doubting themselves so they expect very little comfort or emotional security from you even as you fuck them if you are dismissive-avoidant).
It can include a lifelong-honed pathological lying response cultivated from so early on you somehow manage to look honest as you lie until enough lies pile up.
And even then how much you believe your own lies confuses those who start to catch you in them as they finally have to face more and more and more. The only sign of deception a turning away of your face, an odd tuck of the head, tiny signals of shame that you mask as something else – a cough, an urgent need to check your phone. If you know that this is happening you can recognize the tiny tells, but this takes clarity and work to decide not to trust, which not everyone can or wants to do.
Until your victims learn the signs and patterns of your bizarre deceptions you find ways to make everything fucked up you do sound reasonable and ok, which means you look calm as she looks crazy; you get others to pile on gaslighting her with you without realizing they are even doing it, because you make use of this culture’s abuser logic. Only your victim and those who have very powerful observation skills begin to be able to tell, after months and months of exposure to this, while you continue to quietly manipulate everyone else she goes to for help in ways they only realize much much later, if they realize it at all.
This pathological lying practice is so smooth and ingrained it fools everyone, even yourself. You can mask your compulsive need to control (closeness or distance, anxious abusers do it one way, dismissive-avoidant abusers the other) under ‘truthy’ bits of story in which the “only reason you act abusively is because your ex made you that way,” or whatever other story makes it clear you are not in any way accountable for your abusive acts. You tell the best story to get the most sympathy even if you tell different stories to different people – as long as you keep them all apart and unable to compare notes. You will desperately want to keep the people around you and her from talking about this, to discover the lies and twisting of everyone that you have engaged in.
For those watching and trying to figure out what is wrong in the relationship, it is hard at first to see or recognize or understand these twisted manipulative and controlling acts if you yourself are not manipulative, because it takes imagining someone acting in a way you see no reason to act. It’s like intentionally writing a bad sentence when you know how to write well. It takes effort. If we weren’t all watching a textbook abuser use these tactics openly on a massive global stage, we would find it hard to believe that anyone could use such internally contradictory logic so brazenly. And yet this is what abusers do.
It is hard to follow the emotional logic of those who would act this way if we would not act in this way ourselves. It can feel too strange to be believed, like ‘why would anyone ever act like that?’
Survivors often report, “I was afraid that no one would believe me, because even as it was happening it felt hard to believe.”
Unfortunately, this problem of believability – where the gaslighting behavior is so incomprehensible it is hard to understand even as it is happening to you – leaves the one who was harmed alone in the abuse. Unfortunately in these situations the emotional logic of the one who abuses does not make any sense, and that is precisely the harm.
Add to this that this kind of abuse causes physical injury to survivor’s brains, and you have a potent mix of silencing that tilts the playing field firmly to the side of men who abuse and do not have a capacity for accountability – who would rather continue lying instead.
It can include telling her you are in love with her when you are actually just using her for sex; Cultivating the feeling that she is your special secret friend or creating a special magic feeling of intimacy with her without actually being there for her;
Telling her one thing while you tell others another, and not acknowledging the difference. For example, one person who did this to me told me he was deeply in love with me and that we were partners, while he led the friend who introduced us to believe he was ‘hanging out’ with me having casual sex. He apparently did this through being vague and evasive and never openly saying we were partners, letting the friend believe the version of events that suited him (while having promised me that he had publicly and unambiguously let everyone we were friends with know we were partners, which he said was what was happening, and then made me feel insane about when I felt like there was something wierd going on in the way I witnessed him talking about me with friends). When I was alone inside this alternate reality with him and the friends he had manipulated in this way, who seemed to believe I was consenting to a year of casual sex, when that was not even remotely what I was being told, with none of the people who knew him as my partner to reality check for me, he began referencing the ‘agreement’ we had made to ‘hang out’ – with a kind of wink nod to the other people there – referencing the version of events that he had lied to those around me about to get them to define reality with me this way too – when he had me in his social environment he took advantage of my vulnerability to obliquely reference this alternate reality to others in front of me as though we had agreed, as though it made sense and was not completely different from anything else he had committed to when with me and with those close to me. And because this reality distortion had no logical sequencing with the rest of his interaction with me, I could not comprehend the abrupt disconnection between his competing realities. I got unable to speak or comprehend what he was doing and had no protection or means to defend myself because he had created an alternate reality in this one space – one that had a complete discontinuity with how he acted in all the other places and times. He created a kind of imagined backstory and seemed to jump in in media res – as though he was referring to prior conversations, but ones that we had never had, for the benefit of people watching who he had manipulated into this alternate reality. The effect was utterly destabilizing and could not even be addressed because I could hardly even understand what he was referring to, because it was completely unrelated to the way he talked with me about his feelings about me and what commitment he had made to me when we were with my friends or with one another alone. It was as if he had built multiple simultaneous truths and would use whichever was convenient for his purposes at any given time.
For an entire year every single day every second of every hour of every day – I am not exagerating, it was relentless – he monitored my behaviour – continually 24/7 – for any indication I was coming to rely on him emotionally or trust him or feel comfortable that he would be there for me in an easy way the way other men who treated me well have been. At any sign that I was beginning to feel comfort in his reliability, he would actively and intentionally pull the rug out from under me by doing actively destabilizing things, while innocently telling me nothing was happening when I would ask him why he was acting so strangely.
Near the end of the relationship he actually came out and screamed “I DON’T WANT ANYONE TO RELY ON ME!” but even as he screamed this and acted it out he also continued to tell me “I AM BEING SO GOOD TO YOU WHY DON’T YOU FEEL SAFE YET!” to confuse me when I asked for things like cuddling or a hug or to sleep next to him. Completely normal things. He alternated between these two realities in ways that led me to feel insane. It was as though he felt entitled to treat me badly, and also entitled to have me not perceive he was treating me badly in any way because he felt entitled to think of himself as a “nurturing feminist ally” and would flip out at me if I felt scared of him. If his actual behaviour towards me was alarming and confusing, he would do or say anything to get me to not trust or feel or see what was happening, so that he could protect his ‘feminist ally’ reputation, even to himself.
Luckily my friends who were with us for months every day held the line of my sanity when he was continually manipulating me and trying to get me not to trust myself. “He is treating you really badly, why can’t you see it?” they told me and told me and told me over and over again. “It gives me a horrible feeling in my belly watching how he treats you,” my best friend tried to tell me. But he was telling me – angrily – that he was being really exceptionally good to me. How could he possibly not be being good to me when he was so certain and I was so fundamentally foggy and confused about things? He was such a feminist, such a great ally. He kept telling me so and he had for years and years cultivated this public ally reputation – how could he be treating me badly? But why did I feel so constantly triggered and uncertain and shaky and dissociated around him? He kept saying it was me, it must be me, he’s so good. I kept telling my close friends “you don’t know him like I do. It’s because his ex was so crazy. And he’s such a good guy and he says he’s treating me really well, he says it is me.”
Those around us watching how he treated me were tearing their hair out watching him abuse and manipulate me for an entire year while he convinced me not to hear what they were telling me.
This kind of continual control and manipulation can include acting in ways that make her question herself, like hooking up with her in private saying you are in love with her, and then acting like you do not even know her as soon as other people are around while denying this is taking place.
It can include promising to tell everyone you know how in love you are with her, and that you are a couple, and then actually not telling anyone you are together, when you have expressly agreed that the relationship will not be a secret.
It can include having lots of sex with her while making it clear to her you reserve the right to bolt at any time if she has any needs or feelings that are inconvenient for you, while denying that this is occurring if she attempts to come into words about how destabilizing this is;
It can include acting strangely cold and cruel to her while complaining constantly about how good you are being to her and how ‘needy’ you think she is for having completely normal emotional needs – like limbic connection, nurturance, or emotional reliability
It can include telling her that things she knows happened did not happen, and calling her crazy when she insists that she knows what is real;
It can include humblebragging about what a good ally you are or how ‘self-aware’ and ‘not like those other guys’ you are when you want into someone’s pants, using words to try to create a flattering identity instead of actually doing your own emotional work or acting in an accountable way.
It can include using flattery and love-bombing to gain trust and connection without actually being emotionally responsive, self-aware, connected, or safe (this is part of the idealize-devalue-discard cycle that narcissist abusers are prone to)
It can include telling her that normal nurturance or emotional connection does not exist, that all couples are unhappy and disconnected inside, no matter how they look from the outside, that what you are doing to her is what everyone does;
It can include telling her that the way you treat her is the only kind of treatment that exists, that no one else ever does things like look one another lovingly in the eyes, or comfort one another;
It can include saying one thing one day, and a completely different thing the next, and acting as though these are not confusing or contradictory but always was what you are saying now;
It can include calling her needy or crazy when she tries to name the gap.
When she asks you, bewildered and confused, to help her identify why her gut is telling her one thing while your words are telling her another, you give a plausible but untrue explanation.
Or you subtly change the subject.
Or you answer as though you have answered the question when you actually have not.
Or you simply are silent, quietly acting as though she has not spoken. There is a ‘black hole’ effect, where he can make it seem as though she simply has not said anything – making her feel the words have vanished somehow as they leave her mouth. This kind of silencing is a powerful, powerful way to keep control.
This Trojan boundary violation entails manipulation and dishonesty of a profound and dangerous kind because it is both traumatizing and hidden, and therefore deeply isolating, coming from within the boundaries of trust, from a lover, partner, or friend who has convinced you they are reliable and emotionally safe when they are actually undermining your sense of reality moment by moment, day by day.
The deep psychic violence this does occurs because your defenses are down, because it comes from someone who you trust, someone you have no reason to doubt, someone who has committed to be your rock, your safe harbour.
The reason covert boundary crossing in a patriarchal culture is so dangerous is because it is at once so quiet and so fundamentally undermining.
It can include subtly changing the subject when she brings up the gap between things you say one moment and things you say the next, or the gap between your word and reality, messing with her sense of reality until she is so unstable that she looks crazy, while you look calm and like you’re ‘such a good feminist’ to put up with her as she gets crazier and crazier. Then dumping her because you say she has “mysterious” needs you can’t meet and telling your friends and family that you ‘tried everything.’ Instead of ever coming to own that the disruption to normal emotional connection is inside you, you perceive and convince her that something inside her must be shameful and wrong. And bystanders, seeing only a calm feminist guy and an angry woman, fall sway to misogynistic cultural assumptions that encourage us all to centre those with power and ignore those with less – so she appears unreliable or inaudible or incomprehensible as she is trying desperately to get heard. Only the few survivors and bystanders who have already worked through their issues around gender or actively taken courses and read books on how abuser dynamics work will recognize she is accurately describing a dynamic, and take the time to turn and look accurately at how the abuser works to mask his actions.
The ‘talking you up to gain your trust’ stage is the kind of grooming behaviour that people with narcissist qualities employ, who can then say they did not know they were doing it – because they honestly don’t. They can be completely un-self aware by nature, and use this as a defense for dismantling someone else’s mind. As though someone other than themselves is responsible for their actions.
Meanwhile because the worst of it happens in private with no one but your abuser there to witness for you, no one can quite make out what is actually going on. You will see women in these kinds of relationships get mysteriously smaller and smaller and smaller over time, shrink in confusion and uncertainty, living with this quiet, continual undermining of their trust in their own perceptions.
People may have a funny feeling about the relationship but they may just think the woman is inherently crazy, especially if the guy is quiet, mild-mannered, or has built a big public persona as a committed feminist. And because these men have no developed inner core – are typically completely emotionally disconnected from their true, original selves – they are drawn to fields that create public personas, like academia, journalism, organizing, or any public work in which they can build a reputation and gain a steady source of admiration and respect. They will attempt to destroy any survivor of theirs who even gently asks them to do accountability, because all they can see is the risk to their reputation, and their reputation is all they have for a self. True accountability helps one’s reputation, but true accountability takes integrity and an internal compass for empathy, and that is what these men lack.
The growing gap between word and reality leaves the woman alone with this insanity, as the words get trapped in her own body, unable to come into speech about how deeply wrong everything feels and unable to get help as she gets more and more isolated.
This kind of boundary cross destroys people.
It unmakes them.
This is the unmaking of another human being.
If this is happening to you, you will feel wrong but not know what is wrong or where the feeling is coming from.
You learn to separate yourself from yourself, because to live with the cognitive dissonance requires nothing less.
What is the difference, in the end, between drugging someone’s drink or isolating them, destabilizing them, and manipulating their social circle and their mind?
Both get you in, both let you get off treating someone like they are not a human being, both are a way to take all the power while taking no accountability for yourself. Both are based in a dangerous form of self-centredness and entitlement that are hallmarks of psychological abuse.
The second kind of boundary violation, the Trojan boundary cross, is especially dangerous because it is usually done by those who are so disconnected inside that they don’t even know when they are lying and when they are telling the truth.
They manipulate so successfully because they believe their own narratives, since their true self – the part of them that would do empathy, trust, or connection – is offline, buried under firewalls and firewalls of shame.
When she (or others who perceive what you are doing) begins to come up into a capacity to speak about the enormous gap between your words and reality, you slide around and try to find other excuses, other ways to get her to forget or feel confused. You get more and more desperate as she gets closer to the truth, a truth you cannot handle or own.
When she attempts to get reality back, to get her sanity back, to ask you to do what you say you’ll do and be who you say you are, or to have reality named again after it has been so dislocated – instead of helping her heal, you wrap more emotional dishonesty around the emotional dishonesty, and turn it around. So instead of hearing honesty named, she ends up feeling bad for thinking you were not being honest.
A person with narcissist qualities has built a false persona and resents everyone and everything that asks sincerity, empathy, or genuine connection of him, because he cannot provide these things, because he does not know that they exist.
That on its own would not be cause for harm; however, instead of owning this is something to work on in him, he will make this everyone else’s problem, calling women ‘crazy’ instead of owning and working on the core of his issues to make sure they do not harm others. Herein lies his danger and his violence.
He can playact being in love or looking you in the eyes, while you can’t understand what is going on because he is actually looking strangely inwards at himself.
He can come inside you looking right at you, and he may even feel some affection for you – while the absence of an empathic or connected self there with you creates a terrifying cognitive dissonance, a disconcerting absence in his eyes and an intense concurrent blaming you for ‘not feeling safe yet when he is being so good to you.”
They can mask for years the fear of actually letting you see any part of them, the fundamental disconnect and absence of an inner guide to connection with other human beings.
This kind of sex that is focussed on physical sensations while pretending to be about emotional connection is extremely crazymaking, perhaps the most intense kind of boundary cross that exists, because in gaining your trust while they undermine your sanity they cross boundaries of body, spirit, mind, and trust in your own instincts all at the same time.
They can lash out, shame or blame or ostracize you if you attempt to understand, or if you attempt to make sense with others who have experienced the same thing. They will not want you to know their exes or compare notes, as this would undermine their control over the narrative, which they must keep at all costs.
When asked a direct question that catches them in the dishonesty, they may act as though you have not asked the question. Silence is their primary means of control.
They may not respond at all, or they may change the subject as though the question has not been asked, or answer as though you asked a different question.
If pressed to get honest, they will toss up distractions, or weave more narrative on top, even one that makes no sense with the narrative before. And then if you pin down this nonresponse or inquire about the deep and confusing contradictions between these constructed fictions, they will find an excuse to talk about it ‘later’ – but later never comes.
When cornered with these lies, they attack or flee. They will only do ‘accountability’ when they can control the terms and the ground of the discussion to make sure no actual accountability occurs.
When asked to do accountability on terms set by the one they have harmed, instead of doing so, they will attempt to talk to other people who are uninformed about the abuse instead, to gain control of the narrative. Controlling the narrative is much, much more important to them than their actual lived integrity, because with their core empathic self offline, ‘the narrative’ is all they think they are.
Their eyes look inward, always in to themselves.
They can mimic the acts of passionate love and yet there is a coldness, a kind of non-connection, and if you come close to naming this, they will attack you rather than care enough about you to admit what they are missing, what is offline inside them.
It can include using her prior trauma history to gain access to her trust by inviting her to share secrets, vulnerabilities, and intimacies with you while not sharing intimacy or vulnerability of your own; sharing ‘pseudo-intimacies’ (such as ‘it is really hard for me to open up to people’ to lead you to think they are acting vulnerable) while not actually opening up at all. It can include subtle put-downs, undermining of her confidence and feeling of emotional safety with you, such as gaslighting her about normal emotional safety needs, or acting cold and cruel to her while telling her you are so emotionally generous, giving, and constantly burdened and put out by meeting her perfectly normal needs – needs for things like hugs or emotional connection that an emotionally healthy person would meet without thinking twice.
This last – acting cold and without empathy while telling someone how much you do for them or how emotionally ‘needy’ you think they are – is deep abuser territory and particularly damaging.
It can lead people to think that completely ordinary emotional needs, such as the need to feel your partner expressing empathy, are crazy or unreasonable.
It can even lead survivors of this kind of abuse to forget that true empathy exists. This kind of abuser lives in a world in which ordinary human empathy does not exist, and they can draw vulnerable others in to this world with them.
The tragedy is those who do this often do not even know they are doing it. The part of themselves that would organically guide and inspire them to act with healthy connectedness and empathy is disconnected internally, offline, buried and undeveloped under layers of forgotten shame, and so any needs in other people actually appear to them as excessive. Add to this an inherent expanded sense of entitlement to benefits without responsibilities – to having their own needs met without inherently feeling the desire to meet the normal emotional needs of others – and you have a potent abusive mix.
They don’t inherently experience the many benefits that most people get from sharing emotional connection and empathy, and so they have to use raw effort to make it appear they are feeling empathic connection. This would tire anybody out.
The problem is they don’t recognize the issue in inside themselves, and that that is what needs to heal. They feel entitled to take without giving, to centre themselves, to meet their own physical or emotional needs without taking much interest in anyone else’s.
The incidence of these ‘narcissistic qualities’ – the inability to say sorry, to make amends, to want to know when you have caused harm so you can repair it, the inability to recognize and respond in a healthy way to your intimates, the absence of an inner compass of ordinary human responsiveness, is 7.7% of the male-identified population, higher than among female-identified people at 4.8% http://thenarcissisticlife.com/what-is-the-prevalence-of-narcissism/. (The stats do not yet include genderfluid people – all of our stats need to change to reflect the actual lived realities of gender).
It is not that these folks don’t have a true and good-hearted self buried somewhere underneath, it is that they have a lot of work to do to allow this part of the self back into the world, when it may have been offline, fractured and buried from a very, very young age, so far back they do not even remember what they have lost.
And that would be fine, if they were only harming themselves – but when you begin to harm others that creates responsibilities. What is needed to heal and repair these kinds of harm is empathy for the one who has been harmed. Empathy for the survivor of this kind of abuse and finally, finally, centering the survivor’s needs. Within that framework, it becomes possible to insist on genuine accountability and healing.
Nearly eight out of every hundred masculine-identified people have these qualities. Look at that in the mid-30s singles dating pool and that number gets much, much higher, because these are guys more likely to have relationships end or never get going.
Add to this the tendency for the single dating pool to also be disproportionately high in dismissive-avoidant attachers, because dismissive-avoidant attachers are the ones more likely to end partnerships or remain single, and what you have for the mid-30s dating straight cis female is a veritable treasure trove of dismissive-avoidant men with narcissistic qualities on every dating site and every place where you could connect with guys.
Given the capacity of narcissists to lie convincingly to your face about very fundamental emotional realities from day one, lie so well because they do not even know they are doing it, dating straight men past age 30 begins to feel like a game of Russian Roulette. Where 25% of the chambers contain dismissive-avoidant guys who will make you feel crazy for needing emotional connection and 7.7% are waiting to reveal that that cute, sweet, mild-mannered and awesome guy who geeks out on all the same things as you and talks and talks about how he shares your values is actually some variant of un-self-aware narcissist who will gaslight you incessantly and then call you crazy when you lose your mind.
This does not make them ‘evil’ people. I do not believe in ostracization of abusers, because no one is disposable. And yet until they own and face the healing needed inside them, they cause immeasurable psychic harm to others. Especially to those who have had this harm done to them before. They sniff out women who have been abused before and reel them in.
The larger cultural fabric means this dynamic is still deeply masked when it falls along gendered lines. This kind of dissembling can happen to anyone, but when it lands in existing cultural norms about gender, it lands in particular ways shaped by power.
Those who identify with femininity or who walk in the world as women come up navigating a landscape in which we are expected to constantly discern whether men are actually treating us with respect. We are expected to ‘withhold’ sex like some kind of trump card until they ‘prove’ they are treating us well. It is somehow our fault if they lie to us, our fault if we are trusting and believe them. This double standard begins young.
The same is not true for men navigating the sexual landscape, who are not raised to believe it is their job to ‘protect’ themselves from being used and deceived in this way.
Somehow this culture raises men who are not taught to take any accountability for their choices, words, and actions in sex, and raises women who are taught we are responsible not only for our own actions and emotions but for the actions of men, as well. We are somehow expected to ‘safeguard’ ourselves against masculine manipulation and dishonesty while men are taught their job is to ‘conquest’ and base their masculinity on whether they can get action, or create a flattering social status, no matter how they act in private, no matter who they hurt. If we get duped, everyone asks why we did not run away, why we were unable to tell a guy was lying to get into our trust, when what they ought to be asking is why that guy used manipulation and dishonesty to gain access and to fuck us. Boys will be boys, amirite?
It is deeply normalized in our culture for men to act in this way, which masks this kind of abuse. Wider cultural norms are deeply invested in protecting both notions of rugged individualism, and protecting the social power of patriarchy, as evident by how unsurprised we all are by ‘advice’ columns that say a guy ‘would have sex with a woman on a first date’ ‘only if he’s not really that into her,’ while advising women to ‘not scare their men away’ by expecting things like open communication, accountability, or ordinary reliability. Cismen, and male-of-centre people, are still taught that they are not expected to be accountable for their words or actions in relationship – because female-of-centre people are expected to be responsible for everyone. The bystander dynamics in this kind of abuse reveal the contours of patriarchy in our own lives. This means when a cisman acts in this specific abusive way, the entire culture will minimize the harm, and situate him as normal or her as unreliable for experiencing this abuse. Instead of asking what he did, we ask why she did not know enough to get away. Sound familiar?
Just as with overt violations, you can do this while not being fully aware that you are doing it. You can do this simply because you do not know yourself, have not yet worked through your shit, and so you still think that the magic of words makes saying a thing the same as actually doing it. Saying “I’m so self-aware and a really great ally” does not make that true, if in your actions you act like any other dudebro doing what any dudebro would do. The main difference between you and any dudebro is you allow your feminist cred to lower our defenses.
You ‘not knowing’ that you’re doing this to someone doesn’t change a thing to the one you have harmed. How often do those who engage in overt violations say “I didn’t realize her freezing up meant she didn’t want it”? There are things to learn in this life about how to be good to people. Does not knowing yourself, not knowing how to be good to people, make things easier for those you have harmed? No. We have been hurt enough by your prevarication. What we need is for you to hear, see, apologize, and own, so we can begin to heal.
Hearing that you have done this to someone doesn’t make you a ‘bad person,’ it makes you a human being who has done a harmful thing, who needs to know how to make it right. Just as with overt boundary violations, when someone comes to you to say ‘hey you did this thing,’ it is not adequate to say “I am a good person so I could not possibly have done this,” or “I meant no harm and my intentions are all that matter.” Effects are what matter, not intent, because someone who is unaware of their own issues can wreak havoc in another human being because they have not done their own emotional work, regardless of their intentions. What matters is not that you ‘didn’t mean any harm’ – what matters is how well and how quickly you clean up the mess you have made.
When confronted with your manipulation and dishonesty, in this kind of boundary violation instead of owning, apologizing, and doing repair, the one who has done this – even or perhaps especially when he sees what he has done and is drowning in guilt – is so busy feeling entitlement, and focussing on his own feelings of shame and guilt that he feels no empathy – caring about the other person for once rather than himself. Instead of owning, he deflects, prevaricates, manipulates further, attempts to flee, or if all else fails, goes on the attack and tries to shut the woman up, discredit her or prevent her from naming what has happened to her. Anything to keep control of her mind, to keep control of the narrative, to prevent anyone from seeing the secret core of self-loathing that drives his acts of harm.
This reaction to naming harm – attack, avoid, or flee, driven by his sense of entitlement and his guilt addiction rather than by empathy or accountability – creates an extremely unsafe environment for the person whose boundaries have been violated because when the survivor names the harm, instead of honestly stepping up to do the needed repair, the one who caused the harm is so self-absorbed that rather than return with full accountability or any honest apology, he goes on the attack and tries to destroy the woman to keep her from speaking and exposing his core of self-loathing, which he feels he must hide from the world at all cost. If he did not have this self-absorption, this hidden core of self-loathing, he would never have done this to her in the first place, but the hidden core that causes him to harm also causes him to try to destroy her when she finally comes into speech and asks him for help.
And somehow we’re supposed to believe the ‘crazy ex girlfriend’ stories men tell. This cultural narrative is a gaslighting operation woven into the fabric of our culture, so deep we have to blink and refocus to see it. Men who act in these harmful ways – making women in their lives feel crazy and then shutting them up – have only to kick up this existing stereotype about crazy women to muddy the water and get everyone around them confused and unable to see.
Understand how this kind of cultural gaslighting operates and then, click, it comes clear, a complete change in the lens we use to look at the world. Like those old high school microscopes, clicking between lenses. A blur and a refocus, and then you see it. Click. Turn the story inside out, click. Abruptly all becomes clear.
Lexicon of concepts and terms helpful for describing covert boundary crossing:
Triangulation. telling everyone around you slightly different versions of reality, which keeps control, breaks up friendships, manipulates social circles to prevent people from comparing notes about his behaviour, and makes the survivor feel crazy. Pitting people against each other by slightly manipulating facts, or by allowing people to believe just slightly or sometimes fully different versions of reality. This can be done in very subtle ways, leaving out key bits of information, to make it very hard to pin down the deceit and manipulation, and so that everyone thinks oh I must have just misunderstood, which creates a fog of confusion around the survivor and causes CPTSD when sustained over time.
Using logic salad / kettle logic / disorientation. Incoherency – live action continual rewriting of basic moment by moment coherence or logical cause effect – contradictions creating utter incoherency to confuse and destabilize survivor and render them unable to comprehend what is going on and wear them down to weaken their ability to protect themselves or think clearly. The only coherent emotional logic that functions to tie it all together is their inner requirement of “I am not shameful.” Once you insert that logic into the bizarre twists and turns and recognize it is the single only governing logic that they use, the rest of the trap doors and constant switchbacks come into focus. “I am not bad.” or “I am special and important and better than other people.” Those logical pieces are what connects the bizarre non-sequitors and constant changing of reality together. Try plugging that in to the inconsistencies and see what you get. It helps. They can also literally rewrite history because anything that leads to feelings of shame gets rewritten in their own minds.
Invalidation: Making survivor think that normal needs are not normal. eg: ‘no one else I have ever dated needed this thing you need, so you can’t expect guys to understand this really extreme and individual need of yours. Your need is perfectly valid of course but it’s just not something I’ve run into with other women I’ve dated so you can’t expect guys to know what you mean, you need to ladder them into it.’ (the need in that case was ‘when dating a guy who says he’s really into me on a first date and that he wants a committed home base partnership with me, wanting to wait to see if he sticks around to form a partnership before wanting to open up and get very vulnerable with him physically and emotionally. This dude who never made it to date two said he had ‘never heard of that with other women before,’ and that not wanting casual sex on a first date when what you want is a full committed relationship was something ‘he had never run into before so I couldn’t expect guys to even know that that exists since it was so extreme and unique to me, nothing he had ever seen in any other woman before.’
Devaluation – using disposability to keep you under control. “Do what I want or I’ll leave.” “You don’t matter to me so I can get away with whatever I want and you can’t say anything.” “If you’re too much trouble (ie have basic standards) I’ll replace you so you better keep quiet and let me do whatever I want.”
Using evasion to gain control – using plausible deniability and people’s desire to have good will and trust in order to control and manipulate. This occurs when someone is constantly surrounded by a kind of cloud of vagueness that they use to control and make it hard for people or intimates to get any clear sense of what is actually going on. This may sound like no big deal when it translates across the communication gulf but it can be a significant control move, hard to pin down, and relentless. When you ask a direct question and he just makes it seem as though you have not asked, or things go into the well of silence, or he answers as though you asked a different question, or just is continually vague and evasive about all kinds of important things, while masking that he is doing this or making it seem ‘normal’ – except for the crazy feeling that it creates in those subject to it.
Misdirection and minimizing so survivor’s capacity to calibrate goes haywire. This is when someone who is manipulating and doing other odd control maneuvers makes dozens of different excuses for why what is happening is all in the survivor’s mind. It can be always a temporary reason or just this next thing or just the survivor’s imagination or just a temporary task he needs to do, so nothing is unusual at all in his behaviour according to him. He is always just about to begin acting really honest and trustworthy, just after this next temporary thing he has to take care of. If asked ‘why are you acting so strange’ he can act like he has no idea what you’re talking about, making you feel crazy.
Entitlement. This one encompasses many things, but the key one in this kind of psychological abuse and covert boundary cross is a bizarre belief that basic human relational responsibilities (like not lying, not manipulating) are his great ‘gifts’ and ‘generosity’ that he is ‘giving’ people. For example, saying he has ‘given enough’ when asked to not lie or help create a coherent narrative after gaslighting and trianguation. Many people with these kinds of issues will convince people around them, who have not cross-checked his facts, that he has ‘given and given’ by ‘doing accountability’ even when he leaves out the detail that he actively sabotaged those efforts and did not act in them in good faith. In this kind of entitlement, the person causing harm disregards the generosity that goes into setting up a process for him – he treats it as though he is doing everyone else a favour. Why Does He Do That has a great set of case studies describing this kind of behaviour.
Bait and Switch: doing things that would naturally lead anyone to feel confused and destabilized then turning everything around so it becomes impossible to follow and the survivor’s fault. The survivor leaves these conversations feeling they can never remember what they had been originally trying to talk about.
Words of remorse used to minimize and misdirect, without any action to change behaviour or repair harm in any way. Can include telling bystanders “I already did accountability what more do they want” when he has not done accountability at all. i have even seen abusers who, far from doing accountability or owning up to their issues, have threatened to sue to shut survivors up rather than taking any steps to clean up the mess they have made through all the lying, triangulation, etc.) At this point when someone who has been asked to do accountability threatens lawsuits even as they say they ‘already did accountability,’ you pretty much know who you’re dealing with. After hearing so many of these stories of the same kind of behaviour, it’s become de rigeur. Another example is to express remorse that continually centres himself, and never bothering to ask if the repair he supposedly has done (centring himself and his intentions) in any way addressed the issue. Sometimes people may use self-flagellation this same way, expressing way over the top remorse while continuing the same abuser behaviours, perpetually recentring himself. Similarly can say things like “I’m working on it, I’m working on it” in order to not work on it and misdirect.
Misdirection by implication: This is part of the general ‘cloud of vagueness’, but is a specific part of the manipulation and control. This is when certain kinds of covert abusers gain trust early on by talking up how different they are from ‘other guys who have issues,’ sharing their ‘insights’ into how “unaccountable men” behave and their inner motivations. Without coming out and saying so, they can imply that they’re obviously ‘not like those other men,’ implying that he is better and more trustworthy – even when the insights they’re sharing and the behaviour they then demonstrate are exactly the same. This is when someone uses words to try to create an image of themselves as trustworthy and reliable while hoping you won’t notice the behaviour and the misogynistic, entitled, or self-loathing inner impulses that lead them to do exactly the same things they say ‘other guys’ do.
Externalizing blame / Hot potato The messed up behaviours are always someone else’s fault: his ex’s fault or his kid’s or his coworker or his mother or eventually the survivor’s. Calling him on this will make it your fault – he will call this ‘toxic’ and make you out to be some kind of mean person for not letting him continually blame other people for his own things. They’re remarkably adept at getting everyone around them to feel sorry for them and empathize with them and will twist entire communities around them to protect themselves from ever having to hear that they’re causing harm. What helps is to have everyone around this kind of person simply and quietly turn away, protect the people they’re gaslighting, and give them room to do their thing without anyone believing the distortions, which emerge out of a deep inner emptiness and can’t be given room to distort the culture around them.
Identity theft: Mimicking and copying genuine caring behaviour or insights copied or lifted from survivor and others in order to appear caring and gain kudos. This is mimicking the body language of people who expeirence more empathy, knowing on some level that that is what is expected and what will make people like and trust them, but it’s missing the core inner emotional resonance or capacity to empathize fully and spontaneously with others. Dizzying feeling of seeing your own authentic compassionate behaviour lifted and copied in a kind of fake performance of what they think will win them cookies, mimicking the actions of empathy rather than living it internally in an integrity kind of way. Gaining praise using borrowed behaviours and language carefully built on top of a kind of numb void. Using these copied fake empathic behaviours to get sympathy and cookies even as they confuse the issue and muddy the water so it becomes hard for bystanders to perceive clearly. He can have an idea of himself as deeply empathic, and may do intellectual empathy, but once you begin to notice the pattern, there is always someone he is better than and who he says he is saving, positioning himself as a hero saviour – by undermining someone near him to make them look unstable so he can look strong and powerful. Always really about him.
False persona to gain trust: people with these kinds of issues are drawn to limelight; if something is happening in the world that is getting attention, they will feel compelled to draw some of that attention to themselves. So they can become quite powerful and high up in all the prestige-granting fields (arts, professions, academia, film and tv, journalism) because they’re drawn to any field in which you are expected to building a public reputation that can stand in for your genuine spontaneous self. Some can build public reputations as very emotionally developed feminist allies who write about it and give talks and workshops essentially promoting themselves as great allies. The distinction or tell is often the inability to simple build relationships that don’t bring them prestige; to be at the back doing the thankless support work (folding chairs, cooking, cleaning after events, childcare, booking space, running errands) but to always feel compelled to be up front, on stage, on the poster, making things about themselves even when they are doing work ostensibly ‘for’ and about others who are facing oppression they are not facing. You’ll notice they make it look really natural that things centre on themselves, and increase their public profile and prestige, while mastering the art of appearing to be motivated by a simple desire to be ‘helping’ other people. They live in a world in which self-promotion IS ‘helping’. They don’t distinguish because they can’t imagine a motivation based in genuine empathy and emotional connection – they think everyone is motivated by the same kinds of things that they are (position and prestige, feeling ‘special’ to avoid genuinely feeling connected to others). Generally scratching the surface of the constant obsession with appearing special and you find deep self-loathing and misery. That is of course worthy of compassion; if it didn’t cause so much harm. We have to get them contained and stop the harm going on to communities and social fabric, before we can give them compassion and room to heal whatever motivates this socially manipulative action. They’ll insist on having the right to claim that you think of them as good allies, and get angry when you take them up on it and actaully expect that of them.
‘Concern trolling’ – using false empathic behaviour to control, pathologize, escape responsibility, and manipulate third party perception, ex ‘i am just worried about my crazy ex i hope she gets the help she needs but she is slandering me please report if you hear any gossip.’ ‘I feel so sorry to have to report that a former partner is spreading distortions about me; it hurts my heart so to have to tell you that she is so distraught that she is going around telling lies about me, but I just have to correct these distortions,’ ‘doing it for her own good,’ ‘she doesn’t know what she needs,’ ‘naming what I did to you isn’t healthy for you,’ etc. Rapidly mobilizes cultural conditioning around women being ‘crazy’ and undermines our trust in our perceptions, relying on misogyny to hold up an abuser’s false self at the expense of those around him while managing to make himself look like the ‘poor nice guy who just can’t keep up with what these crazy women expect.’
This old tool invoking the ‘crazy woman’ renders him into the aggrieved patient loving feminist hero with the ‘crazy ex’ and is a control move. Using ‘she’s crazy’ synonymously to mean ‘she’s unreliable / she’s not telling the truth’ – as if survivors having mental health issues precludes being abused, as if you can’t have both happen at the same time? In reality, mental health issues – PTSD and neurological impacts are a normal effect of long periods of psychological abuse. Using survivor’s distress, incoherence, difficulty speaking, panic, dissociation, etc to muddy the water is classic abuser behaviour according to Why Does He Do That. (An amazing book – read it if you have not yet).
Sabotage of process Continuing the same abusive behaviours all the while using accountability processes to manipulate and not act accountable. Saying “I did accountability what more do they want” when he has not actually acted accountable at all, and has sabotaged or manipulated accountability circles offered by the community. The simplest act of saying ‘wow I’m sorry I messed up, how can I make it right’ can be nearly impossible for men who have this set of issues, and that can mean they use a series of slippery manipulation strategies to look as though they are showing up while not actually showing up at all, or actively undermining process. They can then make it look like people are ‘bullying’ them or unreasonable for continuing to name abusive behaviour as it continues to occur.
False Target maneuver: ‘Sliding’ apology – apology for other than the harm – apology for something that makes him look good instead of genuinely apologizing for the actual harm caused, then angrily saying ‘I already apologized what more do you want.” However, an apology is only useful if it actually apologizes for the harm caused. You can’t give the shape of an apology to issue a non-apology and expect that everything will be repaired.
Terrifying ‘Teflon’ attachment style. This piece is the hardest for observers to understand or describe if you have not lived it. It is unlike any intimate experience I have ever had before. I have since heard this particular teflon attachment phenomenon described by other survivors of narcissistic abuse. Do not think you have understood it until you drill down into what you think you understood) – See award winning author Mo Daviau on this to get a bit of a sense of how it works.
I cannot find words that would convey how this manipulation worked. There are no words in the English language for this bizarre experience. Other survivors of narcissistic abuse describe this same thing. It is a kind of slipping or slipperiness wherein the usual human interactions in intimacy occur with a kind of slip, a pause, a disconnect while telling you that connection is occuring, a freeze moment in which they have to work through, as one smart friend put it, their inner responses that say “you’re inferior to me and shameful for connecting,” and then handle that, mask it, and mimic the kinds of responses that are expected. Under it is “I’m shameful for needing connection and I cannot let you anywhere near my true self, which is distorted, frozen, and long long abandoned, which never grew fully into an emotionally coherent core,” but they will deny this and project their own emptiness and self-loathing onto anyone who is emotionally open and exposed around them.
Destroying communities to get control. Directly or indirectly pressured powerful bystanders in their circle to silence and ostracize anyone who speaks up about abuse, directly and indirectly leveraging social power. They climb in order to be unnaccountable and seek gatekeeper positions in which they can quietly compel people to perceive them as they wish to be perceived, at risk of losing opportunities, work contacts, advancement, inclusion, etc. On top of all of this, they will manage to make this appear to be the survivor’s fault for not being silent. The mobilization of community silencing and ostracization of survivors who speak up can be rapid and stunning.
(more soon… this stuff is hard to write about!)
If you have been asked to be part of a support or accountability pod for folks grappling with this kind of abuse, it will be important to have the capacity to develop empathy for the survivor: How Can We Cultivate Empathy for Gaslighting Survivors?
More by the same author:
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Hold me Tight, Sue Johnson
Wired for Love, Stan Tatkin
A General Theory of Love, Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon
Attached, Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller
The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, bell hooks
Other ways you can support this project?
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For a world in which everyone can feel safer, including those who harm and those who cause harm. Thank you.
I love this Bay Area Transformative Justice pod mapping worksheet so much that big, dramatic, hyperbole feels called for. ie I wanna shout it from the rooftops and say it again and again: if you consider yourself a feminist man, or you allow others around you to let you walk around with this identity and you enjoy having that reputation, or if you find you get laid or get dates or partners because of this reputation, and if you have not yet mapped out your pod of people who you would want to call you on it when you act in abusive ways, then do this right now. like today. like right away. Because it is everything, it is wonderful: https://batjc.wordpress.com/pods-and-pod-mapping-worksheet/
This is an incredibly on point and insightful piece from Everyday Feminism I highly recommend you read and act on right away: Abusive ‘Feminist’ Men Exist — Here Are 6 Things Men Can Do to Stop Them
For more on working with shame and hope, here is a piece that looks at how the fear of being ‘not good enough‘ can be self-fulfilling
Here’s another resource I like that emphasizes the importance of expressing empathy when you apologize for harming someone. Without empathy your apology will feel hollow: Mindful Tools: How To Apologize
Do you love speculative fiction and social justice? I am working on a speculative fiction project that deals with the transformations our planet is undergoing, and the undoing of cultures of domination. Cipher wants an agent. Learn more about Cipher here.
A note on gender binaries: I want in this post to talk about masculinity, and about power, and that is gendered. I want to do it in a way that doesn’t reinscribe gender binaries. This feels tricky to me, how to talk about power and masculinity – which we need to talk about – without erasing or reinscribing cishetnormativity. I want to talk about masculinity and power dynamics in the kinds of relationships that I know intimately, yet i want to be clear that these are not the only relationships and that these are not the only bodies. I don’t feel really well placed to write about how these power dynamics play out in queer and genderqueer relationships – I know they do, and I have been learning about it from people who understand how that works, but I can’t write about something I don’t know from the inside.