Carolyn Hax: Dealing with a girlfriend who’s suffered abuse

Carolyn Hax
Columnist July 29, 2013

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

My new girlfriend was emotionally abused by her husband. Her husband took his own life over a year ago. One thing he did was pick fights: He’d do something she hated, over and over, until she got mad, then a terrible row would ensue. She learned to deal with this by not reacting, which made HIM mad, but seemed to work better for her.

Now, it seems she has “turned off” the reaction mechanism. If I do something that would bother most people, either inadvertently or in fun, there’s no reaction. I wonder if this is a red flag, whether it’s a sign of other problems or whether this is GF 2.0 and her way of growing.

Anonymous


(Nick Galifianakis/The Washington Post)

Why would you “do something that would bother most people . . . in fun”? I get the inadvertent part, but the other part sounds as if you’re baiting her to see whether and how she’ll react. Wanting to know is understandable, but actively trying to provoke and test her, if that’s what you’re doing, is not cool.

If you’re doing it just to be goofy, then you explain that and see if she can distinguish past from present and just roll with it. If she can’t, then you see whether you’re comfortable toning it down. Standard new-relationship tweaking.

To the larger question, the only thing that feels right is to say that if your girlfriend hasn’t gotten therapy in the aftermath of her husband’s emotional abuse and suicide, then I fervently hope she does. That is a lot of messed-up stuff for one person to process.

It’s not, however, a gimme that her non-reactions are a bad thing. I (and plenty of others) devote a lot of electrons to the cause of acting vs. reacting. I believe a whole lot of relationships would be more rewarding, and trusting, if the people in them resisted the impulse to react with their first emotional response to every little thing, and instead made thoughtful choices to act.

What you’re really looking for here is whether she has learned to be calm or has defensively gone numb. The difference is often apparent in how giving a person is; it’s difficult to shut off just one type of emotion, and so if she’s merely calm, then I’d expect her to be loving, open and calm. If she’s numb, then I’d expect her affection, joy and enthusiasm valves to be “turned off” as well.

Re: Turned off:

Having been in a relationship that was terribly emotionally abusive and learning that non-reaction was the only tolerable choice when being baited, one becomes very careful about acting on one’s first emotional response. I know I still overreact internally to things, especially early on in a relationship when there is little to judge a partner’s behavior on except past (terrible) partners.

I don’t think that makes someone emotionally numb, just cautious, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this new girlfriend was seriously debating whether she wants to be with someone who tries to mess with that caution “for fun.” So tread lightly. Be nice.

Anonymous 2

Be nice — easy thing to forget. Thanks for your insight.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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