This is a well-written, thought provoking article.
I like the use of the term “gaslighting” — quite fitting. I have seen the movie Gaslight many times and love the psychological suspense, the acting, the writing, and the resolution of the plot. OK, I admit I adore Ingrid Bergman, too!
I think emotional manipulation is a great topic for discussion, because virtually all of us can relate on some level. What Yashar Ali writes, in and of itself, definitely has the ring of truth. I’m an emotional guy myself, and it hits home.
However, I think the situation is more complicated than he presents and has more layers than he peels back.
First, I am certainly guilty of emotional manipulation at times, in particular with respect to my spouse. Yep, most definitely I have used the words “Relax, calm down” in a rather invalidating, condescending way. I don’t think it makes me a bad person, just part of the club. I won’t go into detail here about my relationship with my wife, for the sake of privacy. Suffice it to say, she and I would agree I have at times been guilty as charged. Nevertheless, for purposes of this post, I would appreciate the reader to think of me as a Human Being and not merely a Man, see what I mean?
There is so much more to this topic that raises serious questions. Why does Ali cast this as something Men do to Women, rather than something People do to other People? I do not mean to detract from the value of understanding what he is talking about. I merely object to the notion that it applies only to men hurting women. To be fair, he does mention that we can all relate, but he portrays Men as the primary culprits and Women as the victims.
Ali states, “It’s a whole lot easier to emotionally manipulate someone who has been conditioned by our society to accept it. We continue to burden women because they don’t refuse our burdens as easily.” Really? That is quite a generalization about Women. Is it not true that most people exhibit some mix of both “feminine” and “masculine” traits? That’s true in my experience. I know men who don’t refuse burdens easily, and I know women who are callous and insensitive.
Many, many times in my life people have intentionally and unintentionally belittled me and invalidated my feelings by suggesting I am overly emotional about something that matters to me more than it matters to them. Cry me a river. Again, most of us have been victims in this way, but if we are all in the same boat, the boat cannot solely be labeled “Women”.
Furthermore, in reality, conversations between spouses (and other pairs of people) involving the dialogue Ali refers to may best be viewed on a case-by-case basis, because every relationship is unique. The offending words themselves — e.g., “You’re so sensitive. You’re so emotional. You’re defensive. You’re overreacting. Calm down. Relax. Stop freaking out! You’re crazy! I was just joking, don’t you have a sense of humor? You’re so dramatic. Just get over it already!” — need to be placed in the context of the larger situation in which they occurred. What was it the first person just did or said that led to the other party saying those words? How many times has essentially the same conversation happened before, and with what outcome? What is the emotional state of the person saying the offending words, and might they be reacting to other anxieties or concerns not readily apparent? Could it be a situation of one person “crying wolf”, so to speak, and could the emotional outburst itself be a form of emotional manipulation directed at another person? All of these factors can really matter.
Suppose a person gets really, really upset about — to use a proverbial example — spilling some milk. Suppose the partner observing the incident says “Relax, you’re over-reacting!” That is a simple but instructive example, because to one person the act of spilling makes him or her feel like a klutz (which may be symptomatic of a deeper self-esteem issue), whereas the other person may feel that self-esteem need not enter into the equation and that it truly need only be about the spilled milk, which in and of itself is insignificant (assuming the couple is not extremely poor and down to their last drop of milk). Moreover, suppose the milk-dropper in this scenario is a man and the other person is a woman? The point is, there is a whole context to the situation, and the words “you’re over-reacting”, while technically judgmental, may be objectively true when all the dust settles. Could it be that not saying the offending words is a form of “enabling” or “co-dependency”? I can’t say that I know for sure, because I’m not a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist; my instinct, however, is that there may indeed be a whole other can of worms that could eventually open up if one person gets upset and the other just let’s it be, if “letting it be” is only temporary and leads to pent-up frustration. Again, I don’t know, but there is definitely more to this than meets the eye.
Another aspect of this is that a person telling someone else they need to calm down is not necessarily making a personal judgment at all. Suppose what they are trying to say is, “I understand you’re upset, and we can talk about his if you like, but I need you to calm down so that I can more effectively listen to you.” Yes, by all means, they then need to learn how to say that in a non-invalidating, more sensitive way. My point here is that it would be unfair to place all of the burden of perfect emotional stability on one person and not the other. It is not easy to listen to someone else vent if one is also experiencing emotional or other difficulties or just having a bad day.
If there is a long history of one person getting upset and the other getting frustrated by that behavior, not only does it behoove the latter to figure out how to deal with it in a mature, non-judgmental way, does it not oblige the former to grow over time and handle their emotions in a healthier way, for the good of the relationship? Maybe.
I think I am raising important questions that can expand this very provocative topic. For myself, I am taking a look in the mirror and reflecting on these issues irrespective of my gender.