When you bump somebody accidentally, for example while reaching for something near them, the natural instinct for most of us is to apologize to the person we bumped. We may not have intended to bump that person, but we did - and apologizing for our impact is the humane response. We are responsible for our impact on others, regardless of our intent.
Unfortunately, some folks struggle to exercise this same humane courtesy to friends or loved ones. They are informed they hurt or “bumped” someone – however inadvertently (although sometimes purposefully), and a conversation unfolds that I hear recounted on a regular basis in my therapy office, and in an endless number of case studies. The details vary, but the general theme is always the same: someone informs another person of a hurt they inflicted, and rather than take responsibility for their impact, the other party will get defensive, and attack the person bringing the hurt to their attention (also called an ad-hominem attack). This inhumane response avoids appropriate responsibility and is abusive in nature. In fact, this exact conversation format has been studied and found to be commonly used among certain groups of criminal offenders, particularly sexual offenders, when they are held accountable for their actions; it is called DARVO, which stands for "Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender." (Hat tip to my fantastic colleague, S. Marissa Stein for enlightening me about DARVO.) But it certainly isn't reserved to just criminal offenders. I’ve heard this conversation occur between romantic partners, divorcees, parents and adult children, coworkers and colleagues, friends, clergy and their flock, even strangers in comment sections online, and many more. It’s a tale as old as time, and a common story I encounter as a therapist to cycle breakers and trauma survivors.
Here is how this conversation commonly plays out:
Person A: Ouch, what you just said/did hurt. Please don’t do that again.
Person B: Oh well, I didn’t mean it that way. You are taking it the wrong way. You don’t have a right to be hurt. In fact, I’m hurt that you’re hurt. You are ungrateful for all the ways I have been good to you in the past.
Person A: I need you to take responsibility for your actions and reassure me I am safe from being hurt this way again by you. I won’t allow you to keep hurting me. I must erect a boundary of distance to help me feel safer again.
Person B: How dare you erect a “boundary”! I have a right to do as I please, even when it hurts “too sensitive” people like you! OR I’m sorry you got “butt hurt.”
Person A: That doesn’t make me feel safe. Please try again.
Person B: I said I was sorry one time. How many times are you going to make me apologize? You are clearly embellishing your hurt in order to control me. And while we’re on the topic of hurts, here are red-herring examples from the past of times you hurt me, or ways you are hurting me now – therefore, I don’t owe you humane treatment, and I refuse to discuss or take responsibility for this bogus “hurt”. Let’s keep the focus where it belongs on what a terrible person you are for even raising this grievance to begin with.
Person A: The impact of your painful action or words is still with me, I’m still hurting very much, and I don’t feel safe in this relationship. We all owe each other humane treatment.
Person B: Well, I’m not going to keep saying I’m sorry, and you’re a terrible person for thinking ANYone should have to say it more than once, or change their behavior due to your irrational sensitivity. You need to get over it. How about let’s attack you now! (Insert purposefully hurtful ad hominem attacks here.)
Person A: Now I feel even less safe with you. I need a bigger boundary or more distance.
Person B: Oh, here we go again! When will you get it through your thick skull that YOU are the only problem here. (And I am not the problem AT ALL.) Here are more ad-hominem attacks!
Person A: (erects bigger boundary)
Person B: You don’t have a right to your boundary! (violates boundary, often repeatedly)
Person A: Please attend a counseling session with me, so I have some assurance of safety and we have the mediation of a third-party. I don’t feel safe talking alone to you anymore.
Person B: I don’t do counselors because (insert excuse). OR I’m too busy to meet with a counselor with you. OR I refuse to have this conversation in public (because I prefer to be abusive to you in private). How terrible of you to suggest such a terrible idea of counseling!
Person B: (to anyone who will listen) I am a victim of Person A! What a terrible person they are. They should feel shame and I need as many people as possible to take my side so I feel better about myself, so I will tell a distorted single-story that maligns Person A to increase my chances of winning soothing sympathy from onlookers!
Its also common for people who enable the abusive behavior to echo the abusive sentiments (well, they didn’t mean it and you are too sensitive). There is overwhelming pressure in dysfunctional family systems to avoid anyone “rocking the boat” and to maintain the status quo (or else everyone risks rage and rejection of the "Person B").
When clients recall for me the first bit of such a painful conversation, I can predict with great accuracy the rest of the conversation (often to their amazement). I relish sharing that this exchange is sadly predictable and common, yet impart hope that there are many resources to aid healing and improve boundaries. There’s a lot of archaic social pressure on people to tolerate abuse and sweep hurts under the rug, especially within families, and Person A types often feel a fair amount of “afterburn” in the wake of setting boundaries that trigger the denial of responsibility and rage of their “Person(s) B.” There can be intense pressure to “stand down” when dealing with an aggressive, abusive person; but this has predictable negative results on the victim (Person A) that worsen over time (and often lead them to a counseling provider at some point).
In contrast, the practice of erecting boundaries, up to and including estrangement (in some circumstances) has been shown in studies to result in better mental health outcomes for all, and can even facilitate relationship repair down the road in certain ideal circumstances.
If this conversation sounds familiar to you, and you can relate to Person A, know you aren’t alone, and there are many resources that can help you cultivate improved emotional safety in your life. You can heal from these painful and inhumane relationships, even without the sincere apology and improved safety in that relationship which you so desire.
If you recognize times when you have behaved like Person B, counseling can help – we all have the potential to behave in emotionally abusive ways from time to time, especially when we feel triggered or defensive; and we can improve our patterns of relating to others. We can learn to set aside defensive feelings, center the hurt of the impacted person, foster emotional safety, and if we have our own concerns to address - take a deep breath and know you can do that at another time. Learning these steps can help us create healthier relationships. Counselors can facilitate the safety needed for breaking dysfunctional patterns.