“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.
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.