Friday, March 26 in Middle Tennessee was a spectacular sunny day bookended by fierce and damaging storms on Thursday and Saturday. After Thursday night’s storms passed through, as is often the case after such an incident, we woke on Friday morning to clear blue skies.
It was as if nature was gaslighting us about the previous night’s chaos and saying, “What terrible storm last night? I don’t know what you’re talking about. I think you’re exaggerating. In fact, I believe you exaggerate and overreact a lot. It’s never as bad as you say. I don’t know if you have a memory problem or if you just like to make stuff up. Besides, as you can see, it’s a beautiful sunny morning and that’s what I’m focusing on. And that’s another thing, you’re always bringing up negative stuff about the past. Why can’t you just live in the positive present moment?”
The other response and narrative I imagine when a lovely day follows a frightening and perhaps destructive night is it being nature’s way of apologizing. “I’m sorry about losing control last night. I promise it won’t happen again. I brought you a bouquet of sunshine and blue clouds to make it up to you.”
When nature imitates life
The truth is that Friday’s sunny reprieve between two storms is what a lot of adults and children experience in abusive relationships. The abuse may be emotional, verbal, physical, sexual, or a combination of two or more.
Whether it’s a pattern of abuse followed by denial and minimization or a cycle of abuse followed by apology and promises, the key words are “pattern” and “cycle.”
Abusive partners or parents engage in one or more of the following behaviors:
Denial— “I didn’t say that.” “That never happened.”
Minimization—“It wasn’t that bad.” “You’re exaggerating.”
Justification/Excusing— “I was having a bad day.” “I was already stressed about work/the kids/the house/finances/Covid/your parents coming, etc.”
Blame Shifting – “If you hadn’t given me that look I would not have yelled and cussed.” “If you would just do what I ask I wouldn’t have to lose my temper.”
Apologies: Inadequate or non-existent
The abuser who engages in the behaviors listed above is not inclined to apologize because to do so acknowledges responsibility and accountability, and that risks the loss of having leverage and being in control. Some abusers will offer a fake apology (“Okay, fine. I’ll say I’m sorry if that’ll make you feel better.”) or a drive-thru apology (“Okay, I’m sorry. Can we just move on now?”)
Sometimes the abuser is sincerely regretful and profusely apologetic… in the moment. The problem is that the toxic behavior doesn’t cease with that regrettable incident; it just recedes for a short time like low tide. Or it may fade for a slightly longer period of time the way a harsh winter blast gives way to a gentle spring, but in a few seasons it will be winter again. This abusive person will claim that you are unforgiving and are dwelling on the past when in fact you are struggling to trust an untrustworthy person and you’re wondering if/how the future will be different from the past and current pattern.
Friday is fine, but Saturday is coming
Whether the abusive episode is followed by gaslighting, denial, minimization, justification, and/or blame shifting OR the incident is followed by flimsy or cyclical apologies, the victim remains traumatized and on edge. And just like a pleasant and sunny day sandwiched between two storms, the victim is hemmed in on a good day by the memory of yesterday’s torrent and the bracing for the stormfront in tomorrow’s forecast.
Article is yours for the asking
I mentioned “gaslighting” in this column’s second paragraph. If that’s a term you’re unfamiliar with, or if you’ve heard about it and wonder if it’s happened to you in a current or previous relationship, I’ve written an article titled “Gaslighting 101” that I’ll be glad to send you. It describes manipulative gaslighting behavior in detail and offers guidance in how to recognize it when it’s occurring and how to respond and defend yourself against it. Just send me an email at [email protected] and request the gaslighting article. You can also request my article “The Features of an Effective Apology.” Both articles are free, and I’ll be glad to send either or both of them to you. And please feel free to forward the articles to anyone you believe would find them helpful.