When Criticism Feels Like Love

Are you picking toxic partners because of childhood emotional abuse?

I distinctly remember being told, “There’s something really wrong with you.”

I remember being taught my multiplication tables and my father screaming curse words loud enough that the neighbors got concerned when I got one wrong.

I remember hearing “worthless”, “lazy”, and “you never change” hissed at me several times a week.

I remember my father and my grandfather grabbing my arms and squeezing them, calling me fat as a sensitive 16-year-old, and howling with laughter about it.

I never saw my parents hug or kiss each other once in my entire life.

If you were emotionally or verbally abused as a child, the likelihood that you repeat that pattern with romantic partners is higher than you may think. According to Medical News Today, the following qualify as emotional abuse of children by parents:

· yelling, bullying, or threatening a child
· shaming, belittling, or humiliating a child
· telling a child that they are worthless, a mistake, or bad
· giving a child “the silent treatment” as punishment
· limiting signs of affection
· exposing a child to violence against others
· calling a child names
· negatively comparing a child with others

And if you have been emotionally abused, odds are, you aren’t aware of it, and probably don’t care to entertain the notion.

Years ago, I took a test for abused children given to me by one of the most highly regarded therapists in the country.

I passed with flying colors. I couldn’t understand it.

My parents gave me, and still give me, everything I ever wanted. They generally never spanked me and failed to punish me when other people’s parents would have. I was grateful for all the material things they had provided.

It felt disloyal to them to even consider it.

The results of the test made no sense until my therapist and I stopped talking about what I got in my childhood and started talking about what I didn’t get.

Material goods and money were forthcoming, while kind words, encouragement, instilling self-esteem and confidence, or respect for me as a person were almost entirely absent.

It took me two years in therapy to admit I was emotionally and verbally abused.

But it still took many more years for me to realize that for me, love always featured devastating criticism. I’d never known any other kind.

Delusional Dating

I remember distinctly dating my first real boyfriend, and him calling me “stupid” until I cried. He was arrested for cocaine possession and sales the day after I lost my virginity to him.

I remember dating a much older producer for years who called me “fat” every single time we met up. Every sentence he uttered started with, “If you lost weight…” It was finally after a conversation in a restaurant in which he accused me of eating potatoes “only to make him angry” that I couldn’t take it anymore.

I remember dating an actor in L.A. who would tell me how hot the other women were, who he was bedding.

Next, was a relationship with a man with such frighteningly low self-esteem, he called me a bitch if I failed to speak to him on the phone for at least three hours a day, reassuring him.

I didn’t see what was happening for an EMBARRASSINGLY long period of time. I thought those men just happened to turn out to be assholes, or that I was just bad at picking them.

I believed I had no better choices.

It hadn’t occurred to me that when criticism feels like love, kindness seems deviant.

When yelling, cursing, and accusations are a daily occurrence, manners seem laughable.

How to stop the cycle

You CAN prevent yourself from pursuing partners who want to prey on you.

But you have to keep your eyes open and plan ahead of time. I use these rules myself because I still need them.

Set boundaries. BEFORE a first date, write down the behavior you will and will not accept, and what are deal-breakers. You’re much clearer-headed before you meet someone than once hormones start rushing around doing their thing.

Insist on a certain level of respect. If a potential partner crosses the line or doesn’t show you respect, especially if it’s more than once in a short period of time, send them packing. But the truth is, you probably won’t have to. Like abusers of any kind, if you’re not a willing victim, they’ll go look for someone who is.

Speaking of which, build your self-esteem and self-confidence. The best ways to do that are to make and complete goals on a daily basis and keep making them harder to achieve. You’re not viable prey if you believe in yourself. Interestingly enough, several emotional abusers I know had less and less to say to me after I completed my master’s degree. Eventually, they all fell silent, and most disappeared entirely.

Spot red flags. The biggest red flag of narcissism is extreme differences in personality between public and private life. My first boyfriend was a gregarious social butterfly who worked the room; it was how he got me in the first place. In private, he was depressed, sullen, and always angry. My producer ex used to grab me, push me against walls, and jam his hand between my legs at a popular Hollywood movie theater. At home, he would push me away and tell me to leave without laying a finger on me.

If you feel like you’re dating Jekyll and Hyde, he or she may be a narcissist.

Avoid anyone who tries to control your behavior. The number one sign of an abuser is someone who tries to limit or stop your interaction with family, friends, and even your work. They want total control. No, he doesn’t “love you that much”, he wants anyone who might help you out of the picture.

Watch how they treat people “beneath” them in society. Does this person yell at waiters? Throw fits in public over nothing? Cuss people out? Or physically harm ANY living creature for enjoyment? Run.

This is an extraordinarily painful thing to talk or write about, and I debated whether to post it or not for over a week. My own journey with it is far from over. But I hope to help others see a pattern that was extremely difficult for me to spot. You CAN learn to identify abusers long before they become part of your life.

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