Trump Cards: The Abuser’s Game-Changer

ace of spades2“Strange game.  The only winning move is not to play.”  WarGames

You may not even know he holds them, but the odds are good that, if you are in an abusive relationship, you have had these thrown at you more than once.

They are trump cards.

Abusers almost always have a trump card or two tucked into their pockets.  Just when you think that your reasoning might bring about a favorable resolution to a conflict, he pulls one of these babies out and drops it on the table.  Then what do you do?  You’ve just been undermined, shut down and dismissed.  The conversation is over, and you have lost.

 “I don’t care what you think.”

“I didn’t ask for your opinion.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Just go away and leave me alone.”

“I’m done talking to you.”

“I have made my decision.”

“Just do as I say.”

“You will submit to me.”

If you think on it for a minute or two, you can probably recall some trump cards your abuser pulls out of his deck at opportune moments and how incapacitated you suddenly feel when he uses them.  Those trump cards are just part of his game plan – the tool he uses to change the subject or make you feel foolish or guilty or crazy while diminishing the impact of his behavior.   His intent is not merely to end an uncomfortable conversation, but to silence you.

As strange as it seems, one of the more deadly trump cards he has at his disposal is the apology.

Let’s take a closer look at how the game is played.

Perhaps one evening, as you are making dinner or getting the kids ready for bed, your abuser decides to go into a tirade because you forgot to buy dog food, or you didn’t return his phone call as quickly as he wanted, or he decided that the plans you made with your friends for the weekend were suddenly unacceptable to him.  He goes into a rage that defies the nature of the problem and leaves you trembling and bewildered by the severity of his anger.

Shocked and confused, you curl up on your side of the bed and endure a restless night trying to rationalize his behavior and seeking comfort for your bleeding heart.  The next morning, standing silent and still shaken in the kitchen, your abuser calmly wanders in, pours himself a cup of coffee and turns to you.

“I’m sorry about last night,” he says coolly.  “I was just angry.  I know I shouldn’t have gone off on you like that.”

The words feel sterile and that sick feeling rises within you.  The cruelty of his actions cannot be so easily excused.

“I don’t understand.  Why do you talk to me that way?” you respond in obvious pain.

Then comes his snapping reply.

“I said I’m sorry.  What more do you want from me?  You can never just let things go.  I knew it was a waste of time to apologize to you.”  And away he walks, wagging his head and muttering under his breath.

As your tears fall, the mix of emotions is confusing.  How do you go about reconciling your own inner conflict – feeling angry and emotionally beat-up, but also feeling guilty, selfish and petty all at the same time, wanting to trust the sincerity of his apology but sensing no genuine regret on his part?

You don’t know what to do with it, how to heal from the bruising you just took and what to expect from him going forward.  But because he permanently closed off any options for further discussion, the event becomes the trauma that wasn’t.

The truth is that his apology was not a reflection of genuine repentance.  No, his words merely served as a trump card, a trifle mimicking sincerity that instantly accomplishes three vital objectives for him.  First, the apology serves to diminish the magnitude of his offenses, no matter how brutal, to make his words and actions seem somehow paltry and insignificant.  Secondly, his words impose on the victim an expectation of immediate forgiveness and reconciliation; and lastly, those handy little words invalidate her right to feel pain.

Case dismissed.

So an apology that is not accompanied by genuine repentance can be among the most powerful and hurtful of trump cards.  Once the abuser tosses out, “I’m sorry,” he essentially demands that his victim forfeit her voice, her value and her memory.   He demands that his victim enter into his imaginary world of propriety, a life of illusions, fabrications and play-acting.  Is it any wonder that, over time, an abuse victim learns to dismiss her hurts and fears and to thoroughly distrust her senses?  She must find a way to squeeze those traumatic memories into dark dungeons in her heart and slam the doors shut, to put little Band-Aids of denial over those gangrenous emotional wounds.  She has been indoctrinated to insist that, in spite of the depth of her pain, she isn’t hurting.  It’s not allowed.  He did, after all, say that he’s sorry.

It is no wonder that so many of us, after leaving our abuser, struggle to feel anything.  Day by day, trauma by trauma, we become numb in order to survive.  If we can identify feelings at all, we might tend to say that we feel lost or empty or broken.  We have been trained to disregard our senses and to refuse to give any credit to our suffering.   We desperately need someone to come along and wrap their arms around us and remind us that this pain we have suppressed for so long is real and deep and devastating.

Some think they can win at this game, to insist that he play fair.  A victim will try to tell her abuser how she feels and explain why his actions are hurtful and unnecessary and to work to engender mutual respect.  If both are playing according to the “rules” of respect and love conducive to a healthy relationship, then that would surely work.  But from my experience, such “rules” do not apply to an abuser.  He doesn’t play fair.  The only rules he adheres to are the ones he creates to benefit himself.  What he cares about is maintaining control and winning each and every battle; and he won’t be the least bit troubled if your dignity and your sanity are sacrificed in the process.

So pay attention.  Understand how the game is played and know that an abuser will probably always have a trump card or two up his sleeve.

When you’re dealing with an abuser, there is only one winning move – and that is simply not to play.

Copyright 2015, All Rights Reserved

14 thoughts on “Trump Cards: The Abuser’s Game-Changer”

  1. Great article! And so true. One never wins. And then one learns to not even try anymore. And then they blame you for withdrawing…

    Here’s a quote I pulled from an old journal that, for some reason, I made note of back when. It’s from a character in the book Stones From the River by Urseula Hegi. This is set in Nazi Germany during the war. It speaks, I think, to the issue addressed here:

    “‘Your ability to adapt,’ her husband said, ‘is far more dangerous to you than any of them (the Nazis) will ever be. You’ll keep adapting and adapting until nothing is left.'”

    1. Hello, Phyllis.

      Wow, that is a powerful quote. So sad, but very true.

      As always, I appreciate your insightful contribution. Thank you for sharing.


    2. Cindy, you have such a gift to express the special kind of hell living with abuser is, and to expose and bring clarity to what was happening to us. This article is another pearl. Thank you so much. I was the one who forever, for years, tried to reason, explain how we have to have integrity, how respect has to be mutual, and trust earned and nurtured, till I was blue in face…I was few years older, more experienced and oh so determined to love him and make it… But he would always pull the trump card that made the whole attempt at a ‘loving relationship’ a complete futility. His favorite was ‘I don’t care what you think’ or ‘go to hell with…team, respect, etc’ Or horrible name calling and physical assaults. Completely shut me out. His apologies were precisely as you describe, Cindy. After this happens, you have this sinking feeling of gut wrenching despair and futility, hopelessness, and such sadness and pain. And you are emotionally exhausted. He goes to sleep cold as an ice-pick, and you toss and turn crying, talking to Jesus about it… But it was like ‘fighting the windmills’ with him. That was my little term. I took him back after seven years and arrest, our third child was diagnosed with severe autism and I didn’t have the courage to face the unknown alone, plus I didn’t still understand that he would not ever change. Not for me of course. I had so much to learn. Another four years and a sweet baby girl later, I finally separated four months ago! Lots of challenges but so happy and piecing myself back together slowly. I’m back to school, and I’m starting to feel like my old self on most days. I feel free, my house is clean and uncluttered, and I can relax, manage my resources, go out to a mall…small things which are huge for me. It’s a journey for sure. But this time I’m definitely swimming upwards :)) God bless you and your family, Cindy, and thank you for what you are doing.

      1. Hello, Sasanka.

        I am very sorry to read about what you have been through, but I am glad that you found the website and can at least find clarity and comfort in the truth – knowing that where you have been and what you have endured is not your fault.

        As painful as it is to read in your message, you described the trump card scenario beautifully. It is insane, yet it happens all the time. That hope we hold on to keeps us going, often until we are emotionally bankrupt.

        I am so proud of you for finally taking the steps to reclaim your life and your value, making the choices necessary to provide a healthy life for yourself and your children. It may not be easy, but I know it will be worth it.

        Let me know if there is any specific information you are looking for. I’m happy to help if I can.

        Thank for taking the time to write – and encourage others.

        And thank you for your kind comments. I consider it a rich blessing to be able to reach out to others in abusive relationships because I have been there and it hurts to know that there are other women just like me still out there, still living in it.

        All the best,


    3. Excellent quote. Thanks for sharing. My Ex-husband was explosive, out of control but looked like a Saint to his family and friends. He lied and was manipulative. Claimed I pointed a gun at him and during one of his hysterical rages,scratched his face and said I did that to him. He pushed me from behind and I landed into a kitchen cabinet and broke my nose. After surgery I filed for divorce. He physically abused me 3 times. I was blessed to get out alive. During our courting period he treated me like a princess. He was eaten up with anger from his first divorce.
      If you’re with a man who abuses, get out while you can.

      1. Hello, Dee Dee, and thank you for your comments. What you experienced is terrifying! I am very sorry that you went through all of that, but I so glad you divorced that man.

        I think it is interesting to point out how your ex-husband treated you so well during your courtship. That is the reality – he knew how to win you, but all of that went out the window once the ring was on your finger. Abusers know right from wrong. They know how to play the game of public perception. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde… Furthermore, if I may gently disagree with one statement you made about him being angry about his prior divorce. I am inclined to believe he had been consumed by anger long before that. From my perspective, the divorce just served as an excuse for his hostility. An abuser can always find a way to rationalize his behavior. Just my thoughts.

        Thank you for taking the time to share.


  2. I sadly understand the quote. I’ve adapted for 38 years to the point that I since i’ve moved out, I yearn for the old familiar, because i could adapt to all of it. I was like the sand on the beach of time, eroded by his constant demands of change on me. all that i feel i have left of me, are the rocks, sharp edges, caustic, hurtful, broken.

    1. Dear Broken.

      Your comments are truly heartbreaking. I am so sorry for what you have been through. But there is hope and healing available. Many of us here understand completely. I never imagined that I would recover, heal or even love again. But God is good. He will make a way for you.

      Keep reading and learning and growing. Don’t let that person rob you of one more minute of your life.

      Don’t give up. Don’t allow your history to become your identity. Instead, allow it to become part of your testimony.

      Yes, it takes time to grieve and let go, and it hurts like heck, but a new life lies on the other side.

      Come back and visit anytime. There is a lot of information here that may help you. I also provide one-on-one phone consultations. Visit the Phone Consultations page for more information if you are interested.

      Thank you for taking the time to share.


    2. Broken – please take steps to heal your precious heart. Find new friends who will reflect your tender heart. In my search of healing for abuse I have met many women who were in long term abusive relationships too. It takes effort to rediscover who you’re meant to be – but it is worth it and it is possible. Find a counselor especially for women in transition. Pick up a new hobby – something you always wanted to learn – it will be water for your thirst. And gradually you will blossom again.

  3. My spouse did not show an openly overt anger, however, I definitely realize I have been the scapegoat for whatever reason. In the past he and his family would apologize to me “not because they felt they were wrong” but because they felt guilty for “losing it”. The prided themselves on being ‘civil’ (whatever that means?)
    Eventually, I told him and my children and extended family to stop apologizing when it was not from the heart. I was expected to accept the apology because I was a Christian. This appeased their conscience about asking forgiveness but they still continued to undermine me as ‘a person’.
    Thanks for posting this; continue to covet prayers as I continue to live here and am exhausted.
    Prayerfully considering your phone counsel.

    1. Hello, Friend.

      You know exactly what the post was about from your own experience. “Civil?” Hardly. Apologizing after being a jerk hardly constitutes civility. But you already know that.

      I’m sure you’re tired of it. Feel free to e-mail me, and I do hope you consider a phone consultation. I am amazed at how much can be accomplished in an hour.

      Keep in touch,


  4. Cindy, just noticed your caption concerning a live Webinar. Would be very interested. Hopefully, I don’t get called into work!

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