Watching Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott go at it is a lot like witnessing a couple trapped in the death throes of a hideous relationship. They’ve got to the point where verbal abuse is not a side issue: it’s the issue. Whatever the specific conflict, it gets buried in a hail of verbal salvos designed to accuse, blame, denigrate, manipulate, control, and put down.
The couple sees each other only as adversaries. Their goal is to bring the other undone, and achieve domination. They struggle to achieve this in some or all of the following ways:
The verbal abuser refuses to responsibly communicate. She or he establishes what can be discussed, or withholds information, making genuine discussion impossible. She or he can prevent any possibility of resolving conflicts by employing this blocking tactic.
Diverting from the matter at hand into abuse that the other then feels obliged to defend or return is another impediment to discussion of real issues. Climate change, the economy, gay marriage – no matter what the topic on the table, it is always subsumed under the couple’s compulsion to do one another in.
Doing the other one in has become the raison d’être of the relationship. In a worst-case scenario, it has become the participants’ entire reason for getting up in the morning, and has taken on the qualities of a life-controlling addiction.
A verbal abuser will often accuse his or her partner of some wrongdoing or breach of the basic agreement of the relationship. This always distracts from the current issues, and puts the partner on the defensive.
Then there’s judging and criticizing. The verbal abuser may express their critical judgment of their partner. This is often disguised as being helpful and when in enacted in that form, can be particularly insidious as any retaliatory accusation of wrong-doing can be disingenuously denied, as in “Wot, me?”
Sometimes verbal abuse is disguised as jokes. While the comments may be presented as humor, they have poisoned barbs. They may be delivered inelegantly, or with great skill, but their intention is to diminish the partner, and throw her or him off balance.
Trivializing can also be a form of verbal abuse. Trivializing is the attempt to make what the partner has said or done, insignificant. This tactic can be quite hard to identify and name, although you know immediately and viscerally when it’s happening to you, and it makes you want to hit back, or crawl under a stone, depending on your particular learned method of self protection.
Undermining is another tactic. The abuser will attempt to slaughter an idea or suggestion with a few pointed comments, or derisive laughter.
Name-calling is also a classic tactic of the verbally abusive, as is reference to the hated other’s appearance, mannerisms, and past mistakes.
All these tactics can be employed in the privacy of home, or in public, often at dinner parties and barbeques, because couples in this state do best with an audience. An audience offers a golden opportunity to shame the other, and hopefully get somebody else on side. So delusional are couples by this stage, that they really do think what they say is taken seriously by those poor sods unwittingly subjected to their folie à deux. They have no idea that all anybody wants is for them to leave and never come back.
It can be disconcerting to be anywhere near couples dedicated to destroying one another. It can remind you uncomfortably of your own parents, or adults you knew as a child who were set on this path. It isn’t unusual, unfortunately, and having to witness it in adult life can provoke flashbacks.
In a verbally abusive relationship, there is no specific conflict. The issue is the abuse, and this issue can never be resolved. There is no possibility of closure.
This does not bode well for the Australian people.