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How to spot ‘The Bully in Your Relationship’

Dr. Anne-Renée Testa tells readers how to spot the signs that they are in an emotionally abusive relationship and offers advice on how to get out of it.
/ Source: TODAY

When bullies grow up, they keep bullying, using their spouses, children and co-workers as targets. Emotional bullying doesn’t require physical threats; an adult bully can cause misery by withholding love, sex or conversation or controlling the purse strings, throwing tantrums or calling people names. Dr. Anne-Renée Testa explains how to free yourself from an emotional bully. Here's an excerpt from “The Bully in Your Relationship.”

Chapter Two
We've just taken a look at what it's like to be bullied, and why it's so hard for the victims of bullies to make a change and stand up for themselves. You now have a better idea than ever before about just how awful, hurtful, and lonely it is for the victims of bullies. But here's something that might surprise you: it's almost as bad for the bullies themselves.

This may sound crazy at first. After all, they're the ones causing all this pain, creating all these problems! How is that hard on them? Why on earth would we think they were suffering, too? But the fact of the matter is, they really are. Please don't get me wrong — I'm not saying the way bullies act is okay. Bullying behavior is totally unacceptable, and I would never defend or excuse it. But I can explain it, and helping you to understand bullies better will help you to implement my A.R.T method for taking your life back from the person who's bullying you.

Let me take you inside the mind of the bully, and give you a chance to see what this dysfunctional dynamic looks like from the other side.

My patient Kellie, a pretty blonde in her early thirties, was cooking dinner for her new boyfriend Mark. It was the first time Mark had been to her apartment, and Kellie had gone all out. She spent all day (and a good part of the previous day) cleaning, shopping, and cooking. She dusted the entire apartment, washed the floors, cleaned the bathroom and the kitchen, changed the sheets, filled vases with fresh flowers, and stacked all her magazines and newspapers neatly in a corner. She spared no expense on veal shanks, wine, artichoke risotto, and chocolate mousse that she made from scratch.

"I really wanted everything to be perfect!" Kellie told me. "Mark has taken me on such nice dates, so I wanted to make it a special evening for him. I even bought a new dress, this sexy off-the-shoulder thing, and I wore my favorite pair of stilettos. I thought I looked great! And I was so proud of this meal. Mark has told me what a good cook his mother is, and it's obviously something he likes in a woman — I was excited to show off my cooking skills to him."

Kellie went on to say that when Mark arrived, he kissed her on the cheek, looked around the room and winced.

"How can you live in a dump like this?" he asked her. "Don't you ever clean this place?" At first Kellie thought he was joking, because the room was so clean it practically sparkled. But then she saw the cold, cruel look on Mark's face. She was devastated.

"I cleaned it today," she told him. "I thought — "

"You think this is clean?" Mark interrupted. "Next time, you better hire a cleaning lady." He glanced at her beautifully set table, where candles were lit and an open bottle of wine waited, and began to shake his head with an expression of disgust. "Did you get this furniture off the street? I can't eat here. Come on, let's get out of this place. I'll take you to a restaurant."

"So," I asked her, "how did that make you feel?"

"Pretty awful," Kellie said. "At first I was really upset, and even a little angry — I mean, I'd tried so hard! But then I looked around the place and thought, 'Oh, well, maybe he's right.' I mean, my apartment does get cluttered. And most of my furniture is from my grandparents' farm in Pennsylvania. I inherited it when my grandma died, and I love it because it was hers, but I guess it is pretty shabby. Mark comes from such a nice home, he'd know much better than me about that sort of thing. I guess I'll just have to try harder next time."

Obviously, Kelly's response to Mark isn't much healthier than the horrible way he attacked her. Let's take a look at what was going on for both of them, and why they acted, and reacted, in this way.

Inside the mind of the bully
What could have made Mark behave the way he did? What triggered his bullying behavior? Let's go inside his mind and make some sense of it.

As Mark drives to Kellie's apartment, he's feeling agitated, experiencing a vague sense of stress and anxiety, feelings that linger with him from a phone conversation he had with his mother earlier in the day, during which she attacked and criticized him, as usual, dwelling particularly on his lack of consideration for his family. She pressed him repeatedly to join the family for brunch the next day, noting that all of his siblings and their families planned on attending.

It just so happens that Mark would rather be almost anywhere in the world than at a brunch with his family. He doesn't want to see them, and have to listen to his mother go on about how unsuccessful he is, how much better his overachieving siblings are doing, and how he should have gone to medical school and become a surgeon like his father. He doesn't want to hear their criticism of his friends, his social life, his personal choices, the many errors of his ways. And he especially doesn't want to deal with the constant undermining and verbal abuse he always gets at family events from his two older brothers, who he feels were his parents' favorites.

And yet Mark knows he won't say no. He'll go to the brunch, as he always does. When it comes to his family, he just doesn't have any voice. Thinking about all of this he feels impotent — and angry.

Then, out of nowhere, he imagines Kellie at the family brunch. What would they think of her? She's a friendly, outgoing person, and even Mark's best friend, who never likes his girlfriends, told Mark after meeting Kellie for the first time that "she could charm a glacier." But his family? He can just imagine how many things they'd find wrong with her before she even opened her mouth to say hello!

This is Mark's state of mind when he walks into Kellie's apartment. Right away, he's annoyed with her. Her outfit is terrible; she looks like exactly the kind of woman his mother would disdain: trashy, too overtly sexy, obviously trying too hard. Stifling his irritation and judgments, he kisses her cheek, then looks around the room. It's awful, he thinks, cluttered and cheap-looking.

"How can you live in a dump like this?" he asked her. "Don't you ever clean this place?" As the words escape his lips, he feels a sense of power. Yes, he knows he's being cruel (though he doesn't quite realize he's talking to Kellie just the way his mother used to talk to him when he was a child). But he can't help himself. And Kellie's crestfallen expression drives him on; she looks like she's going to cry, which irritates him further.

Why is she so weak, so sensitive? That stack of magazines pile up in the corner annoys him too--why couldn't she just put them away? She's probably the type to leave clothes lying all over the floor of her bedroom and only change her linens once a month. His irritation builds toward rage. He glances at the dining table — it looks like something from the Salvation Army! The dishes are pure Wal-Mart, and the wine glasses have spots on them.

"This is all wrong," Mark thinks to himself. "She's all wrong. Get me out of here." He turns to Kellie, barely containing his temper. "I can't eat here," he snaps at her. "Come on, let's get out of this place. I'll take you to a restaurant."

What makes him act like that?
You don't need a degree in psychology to see that Mark's just reenacting a scenario from his childhood, carrying forward the anger and abuse his mother showed to his father, his siblings, and himself. He's repeating learned behavior, acting out on Kellie the treatment he's subjected to by his family.

Mark is demonstrating what I call the rage of generations. He's unconsciously repeating the bullying he experienced and observed growing up, and thereby perpetuating the cycle of abuse. Now, you may be thinking, "Wait a minute, in the last chapter you told me that people who get bullied as children become the victims of bullies when they grow up. Now you're telling me that people who get bullied as children become bullies themselves. It can't be both, can it?" Surprisingly, it can. Let me explain.

When children are bullied by a parent, or observe one parent bullying the other, they experience all kinds of guilt, shame, fear, anger, and confusion; but different children deal with these awful feelings, these unhealthy role models, in different ways.

Many children think they deserve the abuse they're subjected to. This is because they have no other reality to compare their experiences to. They think it's normal. They turn those stored feelings of rage, hurt, and hate against themselves. These are the children who grow up to become adults like Kellie, or like my clients Sandra and Spencer, who you met in the last chapter. These people have unconsciously internalized the message they received at the hands of their bullying parents, that bullying and abuse are what they deserve and, just as unconsciously, they will put up with (and even seek out) bullying in their relationships — seeking out the sort of treatment they're used to, even if it's miserable, because it's familiar and as a result, in some perverse way, comfortable. This is one manifestation of the rage of generations.

On the other hand, some children deal with bullying in a very different way. Faced with a rageful, controlling, or otherwise bullying parent who rules the roost, a child might begin to see bullying behavior as normal, and an effective way to gain power in relationships. These children unconsciously identify with the bullying parent and ultimately they begin unconsciously mimicking that behavior, becoming bullies themselves. This is another manifestation of the rage of generations.

In this way, both the children who grow up to become bullies and the children who grow up to become the victims of bullies are living out the rage of generations. What that means is that they're doing just what their own parents did, and their grandparents, and their great-grandparent, and so on. And unless both bullies and victims learn to acknowledge the patterns they're stuck in, and take action to break out, they pass that rage of generations on to their own children, who will pass it onto their children, who will pass it onto their children … until someone is able to stop this vicious cycle.

So now you have the answer to our question, how do bullies get to be bullies? You can see that bullies aren't born, they're made. No one's born a bully, and every single bully started out as a bully's victim.

How it feels to be a bullyPeople like Mark have suffered their whole lives from the pain inflicted on them as innocent children by bullying parents. For years they've carried around a rage bottled up inside, that they've been powerless to express: toxic, pent-up feelings that find an outlet at long last when, as adults, they begin controlling, criticizing, bossing around, and behaving abusively toward their own boyfriends or girlfriends, husbands or wives, sons or daughters.

But while it may look like a bully has power, or is in a position of strength, nothing could be further from the truth. Their bullying gives them the illusion of power — temporarily, and almost always at great emotional cost to themselves. In reality, the bully's sense of self-worth and self-image are just as bad, and his or her self-esteem and confidence are just as low, as that of the person he or she is bullying.

It's those things, in fact — the self-hatred, the sense of powerlessness — that make bullies behave the way they do. Unconsciously bullies feel so weak and frightened that they develop an overwhelming need to command and dominate, to compensate for how vulnerable they feel. This leads them to choose victims, especially spouses and lovers, over whom they believe they can exert complete control.

As a survival mechanism, children who were bullied take on the anger and fear that fueled their parents' bullying behavior, and that very same anger and fear is now eating them alive, leading them to hurt the people they love and to destroy the very relationships that are most important to them.

Inside the mind of the victim
This brings us back to our biggest concern: why do the victims of bullying stick around to serve as punching bags, targets of a bully's displaced anger? What keeps good people trapped in bad relationships?

As we've already discussed, bullies and victims were almost always bullied as children. Both are carrying forward the rage of generations; they just do it in different ways. Bullied children who grow up to become bullies identify with the bullying parent and learn to externalize their pain and rage, turning it on the people around them. On the other hand, bullied children who grow up to become victims identify with the victimized parent, and learn to internalize that pain and rage, turning it inward onto themselves; they think they deserve it.

These victim types are usually filled with shame and humiliation. They suffer from feelings of extreme inadequacy and insecurity, and blame themselves for the bullying treatment to which they're subjected by their partners. They've internalized the negative messages that came from their parents, the lies that they're worthless, useless, not good enough to be loved, not deserving of kindness and respect. The result? The victim’s self-esteem is so low that when their partners abuse and demean them, they believe it! This is the behavior we talked about in the last chapter that we've identified as "living out the lie."

We saw this pattern manifesting itself in Kellie's behavior. You could probably tell pretty quickly by what Kellie said about her reaction to Mark's behavior that she, too, was bullied as a child. Kellie's cold, remote father ignored her, and when he did relate to her it was clear that he found his role as parent inconvenient and tiresome, and Kellie herself clumsy and unappealing. He also criticized Kellie's mother frequently, making disparaging remarks about her appearance and the difference between their class backgrounds.

Through this particular dynamic, Kellie came to believe that she was uninteresting, unattractive, unworthy of attention — in short, she believes she is totally unlovable. Obviously, this is going to lead her to make bad love choices…until she learns how to breaks free from the rage of generations.

A perfect (destructive, codependent) match!
As you can see, Kellie and Mark are perfect for each other! That is, they're perfectly set up for destruction, for a codependent relationship that perpetuates, for both of them, the rage of generations, and the pain, self-hatred, and loneliness that comes with it.

When Mark attacked Kellie, his remarks didn't come as a surprise to her; they just echoed the messages she'd received as a child, the lies she's been telling herself all these years. By telling me she thought Mark was right in his criticisms of her, Kellie revealed her own unconscious belief that she's not as good as other women, and that she expected Mark to treat her badly. She thinks that's what she deserves.

When he lashed out at Kellie, her unconscious thoughts sounded something like this: "Gosh, I feel terrible about what he's saying, but who am I to think that he'd approve of me? I'll never be good enough for him. He finally found out how out how flawed I really am. I'm lucky he even bothers with me at all! I should be happy he wants to take me out to dinner instead of breaking up with me right here and now."

Kellie's introject — that is, the negative messages about herself that she got from her family — has warped her perceptions of herself and others to such an extent that she can't see the truth that's so obvious to the rest of us: that she's a lovely, completely loveable woman, and that her new boyfriend is nothing but a big bully!

Fortunately, Kellie didn't have to stay in the dark much longer, and you don't have to, either. You can escape from the rage of generations. Instead of passing that rage and pain on to your children, you can make sure the cycle of bullying and victimhood ends with you. Let's take our next step toward freedom right now, by learning to recognize the different types of bully and see them for who they really are.

How to identify bullies
Remember we've defined bullying as any repeated behavior that degrades, denigrates, and otherwise makes you feel badly about yourself, ranging from the most blatant insults to the subtlest criticism. What follows is a list of the most common bullies, with information about how they operate, and what makes them tick, and how they carry forward the rage of generations.

Not all bullies will match these behaviors exactly. Many will exhibit characteristics of different types at different times, or combine several at the same time. And of course you may have experienced bullying behaviors that aren't on this list (unhappy people are apparently endlessly creative about the ways they take their pain and fear out on others). The descriptions below will give you more information about the basic types of bully and the techniques they employ, but remember your best guide for identifying bullies is always your own intuition, that sick, sinking feeling in your gut that tells you something's not right.

Excerpted from "The Bully in Your Relationship" by Anne-Renée Testa. Copyright 2007 Anne-Renée Testa. Reprinted by permission of McGraw-Hill Publishers. All rights reserved.