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Simple incompatibilities are common in relationships, but what happens when they lead to emotionally abusive behavior?

In this episode, I talk about the potential for hurtful and controlling behavior from someone who may not be able to accept your incompatibilities. They don’t want you to be you, they want you to be an extension of them.

(The following podcast transcript has been modified for easier readability and to benefit the Deaf and hard of hearing)

I’d like to share with you how incompatibilities can lead to emotionally abusive behavior, simply because we want someone to be more like us or less like they are.

If we want someone to be more introverted because we’re an extrovert, then that could lead to destructive behavior. If we want them to be more extroverted because we’re introverted, the same thing.

If somebody likes sci-fi and the other person likes romantic movies, things like that, even though they’re small, can be little compounding nudges or digs at the other person that build up into worse behavior over time.

Of course, with any type of control, manipulation, or emotional abuse, when you have something small like this, it’s usually part of a bigger pattern. For example, someone in a romantic relationship smokes, but the other one doesn’t. In fact, they hate smoking.

The person who hates the smoking is always going to have that in the back of their mind, or they’re going to smell smoke and they’re going to be triggered, they’re going to be angry.

I’m just laying out a scenario. This doesn’t mean everyone that has this kind of relationship where one smokes and one doesn’t has this going on, but this is an example of what can happen. You can have someone that does a behavior that the other person doesn’t like, and the person who doesn’t like it starts to build more and more resistance to that behavior and it creates a pattern where they’re more upset, more triggered, “triggerable” (where they might get triggered easily), and this can build over the weeks, months and years that you’re around this person.

An example of this besides smoking is drinking. A lot of couples that have an alcoholic in the home experience this. When the person drinks, the non-drinker hates it, and they can’t wait for it be over. Then the next day they’re sober.

But the person who doesn’t drink, the person who doesn’t want the other person to drink, is constantly thinking about the other person drinking. Or they’re hoping that person won’t drink. They hope they won’t pick up the alcohol this time.

That continues to be an emotional trigger that is not only present, but is also amplifying over time. You end up with low-level underlying stress and anxiety, constantly hoping the other person doesn’t drink.

It’s the same thing with bad behavior. Any type of controlling, manipulative, abusive behavior that the other person does, the person that’s not doing that behavior feels like they can’t do anything right or say anything, right. They feel like they can’t be themselves because the other person could go off at any moment, or make them feel bad about themselves, or put them down for something. So you get that walking-on-eggshells feeling.

This is what happens when you have the type of incompatibility I’m talking about is that one person shows up to the relationship in a certain way, and the other person shows up in a relationship in a certain way and unless you agree on the small compromises, where you can meet in the middle, abusive behavior can form.

If you are in any type of relationship where there is difficult or bad behavior going on, then I would ask you, What subject matter came up in the beginning that started to create the rift and the bad behavior?

If you can find the root of it, you can maybe have a conversation about it. For me, when I was married, it was like a week after I met my future wife. When we met, she told me she had a sugar addiction. I laughed it off. I thought everyone had a sugar addiction! I thought everyone loved sweets and ice cream. I just thought that was normal for people.

What I didn’t know is that she was serious. She was really addicted to it. She was an emotional eater. She ate junk food when she felt certain emotions come up. I didn’t know that until later, but she did tell me that at the beginning. I just didn’t take it as seriously as she meant it.

I found out not too long after that about just how serious she was. Just a few days later when we went out to eat, I saw her eat more than what I would call a “normal” serving of something.

When I saw that, I thought, wow, she wasn’t kidding. I didn’t take her seriously, but now I realized she was telling me the exact truth. I was convinced that she was serious about her addiction.

By that time I had already developed feelings for her. We’d been talking on the phone for months because we had an online relationship before we met. Then when we actually met, we already felt a deep connection with each other.

When she told me about her addiction, then I saw it in the restaurant, that’s the moment I developed an emotional trigger. From that point on, from that day, I had this emotional trigger buried inside of me that came up every time she reached for anything sweet – anything with sugar (or even any junk food. I just started generalizing it like all junk food, all bad food, all unhealthy food was a bad thing for her so my judgments came up).

I didn’t overtly say things to her, but I’d give her that look and I would say things passive-aggressively. And I did a lot of very, very toxic behaviors back then because I had that trigger inside of me.

This is what can happen. There can be one or two things that can start the pattern of emotional abuse. For me, it was seeing her do that behavior. We continued the relationship and I kept being judgmental, and I kept being critical. It was awful for her. After many years of that, it disintegrates love and connection. It hurts the other person.

I’ve talked about judgment on this show and my other show before. In fact, I just republished an article on Medium called Judgment: The Ultimate Relationship Destroyer if you want to read that. In there, I talk about how I destroyed all the relationships in my life, all the romantic ones at least, by being so judgmental. I share that back in 2013 I realized my marriage was ending and decided that there must be something wrong with me because all my previous relationships ended by them leaving me, and my marriage was now going in the same direction. I thought it was time to take a look at myself and figure out what I need to do to heal.

When I went on that journey, that’s when I finally healed from being judgmental. That article might be helpful to you if you’re dealing with judgment in your relationships. My point in this episode is if you’re in any type of difficult relationship, think of a time before things got difficult.

What type of incompatibility, if I may call it that, was present at that time?

For me, I didn’t want to be with an addict because I lived with an addict the first 20 years of my life. My stepfather was an addict, and I hated that behavior. I didn’t want to deal with that behavior. I had a judgment against that behavior. So when I fell in love with an addict, I immediately became triggered and immediately became judgmental.

From that point on my behavior toward her changed. I was no longer unconditionally loving, not that I was ever “unconditional”, but I believe I was much more supportive, much more loving, much more caring, much more generous and compassionate toward her before I became triggered.

I believe that most abusive, if not all abusive, people carry around some sort of emotional trigger – some sort of stimuli in their environment or the person they’re with – sets them off.

It had to start somewhere. For me, it was when I was a child. I was growing up with an addict. I held on to that unhealed part of myself. I brought it into all of my adult relationships. Anyone that did anything that reminded me of that addictive-like behavior, I became highly judgmental toward.

Figuring that out in my own life helped me heal from the judgment. It wasn’t just “figuring it out”, it was a process. I outline that process in that article I mentioned above. But once I figured it out, my relationships changed dramatically.

In fact, since my marriage ended, because of my judgments, because I was so critical about her challenge in her life, since then I’ve been a completely different person. I’m not carrying around this feeling that I used to have in my stomach.

I used to have this anger and anxiety and just all this negativity that I carried around in my stomach because I was always waiting for the stimuli that triggered that emotional response to me. When I was married, I watched her and I was waiting for her to do the “bad behavior” so that I could remind her in subtle, passive-aggressive ways that it was bad for her and bad for us, and I didn’t like it, and she should change.

I never really said those exact words, but I might as well have. I might as well have just been more direct like that, even though it was still hurtful and toxic. But my point here is that I went my entire life with this emotional trigger inside of me, and it lied dormant until somebody in my life did something that reminded me of that old behavior that my stepfather used to do. Then I became a watchdog. I became on guard. My radar was on and I was always looking for any sign or signal of that bad behavior so that I could point it out or manipulate or make the other person feel bad for doing it.

I don’t say this with any pride. I say this in a very vulnerable way knowing that there are people out there that have dealt with people like me (at least the me from my past), and I’m here to say that it is curable. You can heal.

One can heal from being emotionally abusive. It is possible.

But the abuser, the abusive person, has to admit that they need to heal. They have to admit it, at least if not to you, to themselves. They have to admit to themselves that they are the common denominator for the issues in their relationship.

When they admit that, the healing can start, they can look for counseling, they can read articles, or listen to podcasts like mine, and see that other people have gone through healing.

I’ll say this, it’s not easy. In fact, it’s so hard. It’s like a fish trying to breathe air for the first time. They won’t be able to do it. In fact, a fish can’t breathe air, that’s probably a bad example. But let’s just say that a fish learned how to breathe air. You might realize how difficult that would be (if they didn’t have gills and they developed lungs), it would be very difficult for a fish to transition out of the water and into the air.

That’s what it’s like. Not everyone can make that journey. I made that journey, but it was the most difficult journey of my life because it involved changing my very identity and being the most vulnerable.

I hate to say it, it felt emasculating. It felt like it was taking away my manhood. That even sounds ridiculous to say, but it did. It felt like I had no masculinity. I felt exposed, like someone was going to see through me. It was embarrassing. It was humiliating.

I’m not looking for sympathy when I say that. I’m saying it because if you know someone who does abusive behavior, it’s going to be very difficult for them to switch over, to make the change, because it does involve admitting that your entire life, your identity, was toxic or unhealthy in some way.

Imagine admitting that! That is so hard to do. But if the abusive person does it, if they admit “My behavior has been toxic all my life.” If they’re willing to admit that and they’re willing to ask, “What do I need to do to change this?” and they’re also willing to let go of trying to control others, because that’s the big one. If they are willing to let that go and let people be who they are, then you might start to see the seeds of change start to grow.

If you see those seeds of change start to grow, then we have to water them and continue to help them grow daily. Because what’s going to happen is they’re going to continue taking two steps forward and three steps back. Sometimes we’ll take four steps forward and two steps back. Sometimes five steps forward and six steps back, but hopefully they’re taking more steps forward than they are taking back.

What I mean by that is I worked on my judgments for years. I did not want to judge anyone in my life ever again. That’s how much I just wanted it out of my life because the feeling of always being on-guard waiting for someone to do something that I was going to judge felt awful to me. I didn’t like carrying it around. I don’t like that feeling.

One who is critical or abusive in any way, they most likely have this feeling (unless they’re fully narcissist. The narcissist doesn’t really care. The sociopath doesn’t really care. If they don’t care, then that’s a different story), but I’m talking about the people who actually care, the people who have empathy and sympathy, but the feeling of wanting to control and be critical of others, it overrides that sympathy and empathy and that’s what’s controlling their life.

When that disappeared in me, the feeling of wanting to control my partner, when that went away, it was a new feeling I’d never experienced in my life. I never had the absence of that burden in my life. That was something new and unique and I had to figure it out. It made me feel so much lighter. It made me enjoy life. It made me enjoy my relationships. It changed my very identity.

I felt like I had a complete emotional makeover. It was just so different because I had never experienced it before, meaning that feeling was always inside me. It was in there even at the beginning of every relationship I’d ever been in. It was always in there, underneath, even if I couldn’t feel it at first.

At the beginning of a relationship we have that one- or two-month honeymoon period, where everything is perfect, nothing can go wrong, they can do nothing wrong. You love them, you’re loving spending time with them. Intimacy is awesome. Everything is great. And during this time, there are no triggers present, typically

The triggers become present when we start settling in. This is why I say ‘don’t fall in love fast’. Don’t fall in love fast because the triggers need time to appear! You need to know what their emotional triggers are as you go forward.

Bringing this back to my original point, which is the fact that we will have incompatibilities, think about the incompatibilities in your life with someone you love (or someone that you’re in a relationship with) and ask yourself if that incompatibility was an emotional trigger for them.

If one of you likes to invite a lot of friends over, and the other one just wants a quiet night, was that an argument? Did that turn into something bigger than it needed to be?

If it did, was that something that stayed, even though your future arguments weren’t necessarily about that particular subject? What I mean by that is, sometimes you will have a conflict or incompatibility at the beginning and you’ll have a conversation about it, and there’ll be no resolution to it, so you’ll go forward thinking “Well, there’s nothing we can do with this. We’ll just agree to disagree.” Yet it stays inside as a negative emotion, never healed, never reaching closure, never addressed again. And the other things that you argue about might have its roots in that original emotional feeling that you’ve been carrying around.

A good example of that is… I’ll use a smoker versus the non-smoker example: Let’s just say that the nonsmoker accepts that their partner or their loved one smokes, and they don’t complain about it. They don’t talk about it. It’s just something they accept. The smoker goes outside, he or she follows all the rules, great! And they have a somewhat good relationship, but every now and then they have these weird arguments about minor things.

The arguments then escalate and they get heated, then they’re mad at each other, and then they don’t talk for a day or two or a week or whatever. They just get into these spats. And all this emotional energy is associated with the upset and you can’t figure out why you’re so darn upset about that.

“It was just about the toilet seat. It was just about the socks on the floor…” you know, all the stupid stuff that we go through in relationships sometimes. “Why am I so angry about it?”

I bet you can often connect it to something that upset you near the beginning of the relationship. What you’ve done is transformed the negative energy and took it away from the original subject (in this example, smoking) and applied it to another subject. This starts to generalize your negativity into other areas of the relationship.

When that happens, again, emotionally abusive behavior can form because the person holding on to the negativity, if they’re exploding at different times and you’re not sure why, it’s quite possible that they’ve held on to something and not resolved in themselves.

What they’re holding on to may have nothing to do with you or this relationship. It could be a previous relationship, or it could be like what I went through in childhood, some unresolved emotional trauma, some past trauma that turned into dysfunction in the relationship – those emotional triggers that we carry around.

If it didn’t start in your relationship, then it’s going to be hard to resolve in the relationship. Because if it did start in childhood, then what you’re dealing with is unhealed trauma of some sort so that needs to be addressed personally, within the person experiencing it.

That can be tough to heal from. That’s what I went through. It was very tough to heal from something in my childhood because my childhood is over. It’s not there anymore. I can’t sit down in my childlike state and examine my environment, and examine my parents, and look at all the influencers in my environment: the bullies my sisters and my brothers, and think, What is happening here that’s causing me to act this way?

I’m no longer a child so it’s hard to see things from an adult perspective. We tend to leave some of that childhood behind because we don’t want to experience that anymore. But if we never address it, and we never think about the emotional triggers that we have today, and how they started when we were younger, then we may not ever be able to get past some of our bad behaviors. Or at least the bad behaviors that can form from the emotional triggers that came from childhood.

I’m only talking about people that have emotional triggers and haven’t dealt with them and turned them into bad behaviors. I’m talking about the people that take out their unhealed emotional traumas or triggers on other people but not necessarily referring to people that are working on their triggers and not taking them out on others.

For example, my wife was facing her own challenges with eating and stuff like that in herself. She never really introduced that challenge into the relationship. She didn’t turn it into an “us” thing. She knew it. It was a “her”, thing. She knew it was a “me”thing (meaning her). I made it an “us” thing. I turned it into a relationship thing.

She didn’t want to do that. Looking back, I definitely shouldn’t have done that. That was her challenge and I should have been supportive about her challenges. I should have been the person who said, “Hey, if you need anything, I’m here.”

But I was not that at all. I was the opposite. I was the one who wanted her to stop. This is what happens. This is what emotionally abusive people want to do. They want to stop you from doing behavior they don’t like.

Let me just say this, if you do end up changing your behavior to please an emotionally abusive person, typically it won’t be good enough. I hate to break that to you. Let’s just say that the emotionally abusive person wants you to stop drinking because they have a problem with people who drink. And you say, “Okay, I’m going to stop drinking.”

It won’t be the drinking that sets them off next, it’ll be something that reminds them of whoever drank in their life, whoever was the addict, whoever was the drunk, whatever it is from their life, whether in a past relationship or in their childhood, they’re going to see behaviors that they’re going to attribute to that type of personality.

Even if you stop the exact behavior, you may still have to face the brunt of their old perceptions about what personalities are dangerous to them, or they don’t like, or they’re afraid of, whatever it is. Whatever personality characteristics they don’t like, if they see them in you, regardless of your behavior, then you may still face their bad behavior.

That puts you in a tough position because that means exactly what I’m saying it means that they may not ever be satisfied with anything you do. You may never be able to do anything that makes them happy. But this is also good news in a way, because it means that you don’t have to continue trying so damn hard to please them.

You don’t! You don’t have to continue trying hard. In fact, look at the past and try to recall if any behavior you changed made things better.

I know there are people that are going to say “Yes, when I changed this behavior, things got better.” Then there are other people that are going to say, “No, when I changed that behavior, things stayed the same, or they continued getting worse.”

For the people who changed their behavior and things got better, let me ask you this: Do you carry resentment about that?

If you carry resentment about that, things didn’t get better. They either stayed the same or got worse. I want you to be really careful about continuing to try to please the person who seems to be unpleasable because it only weakens you and makes them more controlling and have more power over you (not in a good way. Nnot in a loving, “Here’s my hand, I’ll take you through the fire” kind of way). I’m talking about a ‘power over you’ way, where it feels like an emotional prison.

I don’t want you to be in an emotional prison. I want you to be emotionally free to be who you are and who you want to be. When you are with someone who’s loving and supporting and kind and generous and caring, that’s what you should feel.

You should feel those things. If you’re carrying around this negativity, and you’re feeling criticized by your partner or any loved one, and you just don’t know how to please them… it’s not you.

Let me just give you this as a kind of a final note for this episode: The kindest, most caring, compassionate, loving, supportive people are typically the ones that can be taken advantage of. And because of that, you have to be more diligent in what type of behavior you’ll allow in your life.

That doesn’t mean you need to be less kind, less supportive, less compassionate and less caring… No, that doesn’t mean any of that. That just means you have to be careful who you allow into your life that takes advantage of those good qualities in you.

If you have all those characteristics and someone still puts you down and makes you feel bad, that is the unhealed trauma or emotional triggers in them and it has nothing to do with being who you are. Except that you need to be more diligent, careful, and discerning about who you let into your life and what kind of behavior you let into your life.

Once that bad behavior is in the relationship, this is the tough part, the kind, caring, supportive, generous person finds it very difficult to get it out of the relationship because they’re just too nice. I see this a lot, people mistreating kind people, but the kind person is too nice to stop the mistreatment.

When you are “too kind” to stop the mistreatment, you’re not actually being kind enough to yourself. Just remember that. I want you to be kind, caring, compassionate, loving, and supportive toward yourself so that you don’t let behavior like that into your life.

Once it’s in there, it can be hard to be the person that honors his or her boundaries and pushes that bad behavior out because you might be too nice.

If it’s already in there, then you might have to access a stronger part of you. But that strength comes from self-love and self-compassion and caring so much about yourself that you will not allow bad behavior in your life. You will do everything you can to make sure that that it is filtered out of your life so that you can enjoy life and can be happy.

People who love you and care about you and support you will want to see you happy .

People who love you want to see you happy. People who care about you want to see you happy.

They don’t want to see you upset or crying about something that they did or said. They will be hurt if they discover that they hurt you. That’s the kind of person who cares, where they feel hurt that they hurt you. If they’re not feeling hurt that they hurt you, then you may have a different type of relationship which does not sound healthy.

I hope that’s not you. But if it is, it’s time to give yourself so much self-love and self-care, because somebody else who is supposed to be doing it isn’t doing it. And you deserve to be treated better.

Share this with someone who might benefit.

Paul Colaianni

Host of Love and Abuse and The Overwhelmed Brain

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