‘Emotional Terrorism’ is a great term, but it is in danger of losing all meaning and utility precisely because of the grand scope of its potential applicability or aptness. This post is an attempt to pin down a good working definition. This article’s use of the term, for instance, is virtually worthless. This article gets closer, sometimes supplementing the appropriate term ’emotional blackmail.’ Why the difficulty and ambiguity? First of all, ‘terrorism’ itself is extremely difficult to define. However, the core of the difficulty for our present discussion is the following:
- Human beings want to be liked, accepted, and long to feel safe knowing they are part of a tribe. To be ostracized meant certain death during most of the history of our species and we therefore interpret bullying, rejection, and isolation as threats to our very existence, while the fact that today we physically survive hardly ablates the feeling of being symbolically dead.
However, I want to restrict the term in question to something far more specific, lest I go on ranting about “negging” at bars, cyber bullying, and every form of snobbery & rudeness. This is no easy task, for technically, the negative takeaway, threatening to leave at the drop of a hat, could be a form of ET if the person has fallen sufficiently in love with the purported terrorist, but this maneuver is easily spotted and is too broad or vague to help us with our definition. This definition will not do, for emotional abuse is more properly just “emotional warfare,” not “emotional terrorism.” While a show of blunt military power can be meant to “terrorize” or cow a nation into submission, the threat is actually directed at the other nation’s own military power, not its civilians, per se. We invented the word terrorism for a reason. In a romantic relationship, arguments and the threat of arguments are a necessity and could be considered a “just war,” in the analogy, with mistakes and misunderstandings being “proper targets.” Emotional abuse would be an “unjust war,” while ET is a specific form of this.
What I have in mind is the sort of double bind that people in romantic relationships often employ to gain more power and control over their partner by attacking “improper targets” with such unscrupulous “weapons.” It must involve a hostage of some kind; a fear, an anxiety, or a psychological (or social!!) weak-spot that is being ruthlessly exploited. Though we will get into many examples later, let me attempt to hone your imagination in on the concept I’m attempting to articulate here: the common form of ET that I have seen in both romantic and other relationships is the use of one’s influence with a person to undermine their sense of their own competence, their trust in their own intuitions & thoughts, and their self-confidence, rendering them ever more needful of one’s guidance and influence, thus establishing a self-reinforcing cycle of unhealthy reliance. This is not ETs universal form, however; it just always has some element of gaslighting, of this kind of psychological crippling and undermining of someone’s sanity.
ET is more pernicious than political terrorism in a sense, because with the latter one can actually employ a policy of never negotiating with terrorists. A relationship, especially a romantic one, however, is just one long negotiation, so this is not a possible strategy. In fact, the only strategy is flight, especially for men, as the fight (argue) option is basically not available without encumbering enormous social and legal hazards. So this article is meant to explore some common tactics of emotional terrorists in the hopes of making them more easy to spot and escape, while hopefully also offering some tools for de-escalation that one could employ before a full-scale tactical retreat is in order.
There is one last aspect to my preamble here, one that will be difficult to digest: though both genders certainly can be emotional terrorists, it is generally women who employ the tactics that I am here discussing. Sadly, emotional terrorism, dissimulation, manipulation, and such tools have been women’s only means of power for a large part of human history, but things have changed and we need to demand an end to ET, not least of all because crafty men are getting the hang of it also. However, when a narcissistic man uses threats of violence, that is actual terrorism being employed–he is “terrorizing” his family, for instance. If such a man uses threats of physical violence, implied or overt, to his romantic partner, again this is “unjust emotional warfare.” It is “emotional terrorism” if this man knows that his partner had an abusive father, is unconsciously attracted to such behavior, loves him, and has been trained to comply in order to get security and love. This is the improper target that he is exploiting or taking “hostage,” creating something of a double bind. By and large, men are not clever enough to use real ET. Sorry, but these are the facts and I’m trying to be honest about this murky area of human intercourse. Men are more prone to use emotional “warfare;” women “terrorism.” A man is more likely to yell “bitch!” when raging; a woman “you have a small penis and are secretly terrified of your mother!”
To attempt some parity and alleviate any concerns about potential misogyny, let me give an example of male ET tactics:
- knowing that his girlfriend has crippling self-esteem issues and a bit of the “learned helplessness” of the depressive, he criticizes her savagely so as to further undermine her self-esteem in order that she leans on him more for help, given how obviously powerful he must be, while he unconscionably confirms a view of herself that she has grown comfortable with and that garnered her care and support in the past. If he’s a real son of a bitch, he can use the “you’re too needy” card at will, then the “you know you need me” card whenever she attempts to stand up for herself.
If I were to write a book on this topic, I think the first nine chapters would involve planned ambiguity or intentional vagueness. Here is a specific example to get us started:
- Jane: “You just aren’t hearing me David!” (insensitivity is a common knock on males in modern society; the blundering oaf the most common caricature)
- David: “I’m trying Jane, please be more specific. Do you mean this?” (he takes a guess and in so doing has taken the bait)
- Jane: “How dare you put words in my mouth! You don’t know me better than I know myself!” (continues to refuse to explain herself)
- David: “I’m so sorry, I’m just trying to understand. I didn’t mean to imply I know you better than you know yourself. Please explain your feelings.”
- Jane: “I can’t explain! They are feelings! How dare you force me to press my complex inner experience into words, definitions and reasons!” (she claims she doesn’t really know herself and therefore can remain purposefully mysterious while blaming the confusion on the man’s lack of emotional intelligence)
You could call this tactic, in many instances, the “Solipsism Card.” Defensively withholding the truth of one’s inner being and then accusing the other of failing to understand is pretty fucked up and destabilizing. Another’s solipsism is always ET in that it makes you question your grip on reality and makes intimacy impossible. It is a tactic that can also be used offensively due to the fact that a romantic partner is a witness to your life and should provide necessary perspective. I once revealed to my girlfriend the deepest existential wound in my soul only to be met with the retort “Well, I don’t see it that way.” This is when one should smile and walk away, or depending on the level of crazy you are dealing with, run away.
Here is another example, one that I’ve run into with a couple different women, but which really shouldn’t fly at all: “He’s not my ex-boyfriend. You have no right to feel jealous when I’m with that guy, because he’s only my ex-boyfriend to you. He’s just my friend.” There is a distinction in there that she has a right to draw, but the way it is being deployed actually denies the man’s feelings and reality (ie his justified jealousy) and messes with his sanity. She needs to say “I know that his (actually!!!) being my ex makes you uncomfortable, but please feel at least a little comforted by knowing that I only see him as a friend and couldn’t even imagine ever hooking up with him again.” But even here, she cannot claim that his feelings are irrational. Guy’s, you can always pull the legitimate, Clive Owen, “because I’m a fucking Cave Man!” card.
Women know that they have a right to their feelings, but they can tweak this truth to protect their preferred interpretation of their feelings, an interpretation that they feel to be true and thus protect it too from any scrutiny or analysis. Thus they can hide in the various levels of abstraction, claiming that their man is denying their reality, denying their feelings, or otherwise commandeering their person when he probes for some clarity. Sometimes the preferred interpretation itself can be withheld and the other party has no recourse to address it but by guessing (ie “putting words in her mouth”). For the record, your feelings are always real, but they may not be justified or it may not be justified to direct them at the people you currently choose to.
Here is another oldie but goody employed by either gender: claim to have some grievance with the other person, but never articulate the magnitude of the problem relative to other things in one’s life that one is suffering from. This is a good way of extracting maximal leverage, as one can hide one’s entire existential burden neatly behind the grievance, essentially asserting that the other person is responsible for it. Here is how this can unfold:
- Dave: “Ok, Jane, I’m sorry I didn’t get the laundry done, but you seem to be falling apart as a result. How much of your suffering would you say this is causing you, versus your work and family stresses this month?”
- Jane: “A lot.” (intentional vagueness)
- Dave: “Yeah, but how much. Can you give me like a ballpark figure? A tenth? Half?”
- Jane: “How dare you try to extract numbers and statistics from my feelings. These are my emotions we are talking about!” (evasion and vagueness in combination with the male insensitivity cliche)
- Dave: “I understand that, sweetie, but I’m just trying to get you to think about how you might be taking out some of your stress on me unjustly.”
- Jane: “So you already assume its a negligible part of my suffering, huh? So you know me better than I do? Is that it?”
- Dave: “So it’s not negligible? Its a big part?”
- Jane: “Yes!”
- Dave: “But that must mean more than a quarter, or something, of your suffering is about laundry, right?” (points out the absurdity)
- Jane: “I don’t know! How does someone put their feelings into lifeless numbers? Are you saying my feelings are silly?” (claims solipsism–only she knows the truth–but then claims not to know with any degree of certainty, giving her carte blanche to extract as much leverage as she wants, which is best applied by doubling down on the emotional insensitivity angle)
ET must involve some form of vagueness or deception. Let’s explore the example of using sex as a weapon.
Sex As A Weapon:
Guys, if you have done something legitimately hurtful, stupid, or insensitive, your woman is not going to be in the mood, so her withholding sex is not ET, it’s karma. As it happens, you are being given an opportunity to show contrition and care, which might very well put her in the mood. Handle yourself well, gentleman! However, quite commonly, women will withhold sex so as to dissuade their lover from arguing or to otherwise get what she wants. This is still not ET, if it is in the open. If she goes with the migraine excuse, we are getting into ET territory. Let’s say a woman knows that her man is upset with her about something, but she doesn’t want to give in to his needs/demands, and can sense his frustration mounting. He ignores his frustration and tries to have an intimate evening with her, which he is hoping will blow off some of his steam and get them closer and more ready for discussion & compromise. When she gets the drift that he is turned on, she tells him that he is so angry and frustrated all the time and this kills the mood for her. As the testicles swell along with his frustration and mounting blood pressure, a certain inarticulate rage builds up that she can then use as further justification for withholding sex. He now will have a very hard time keeping his cool when he approaches the issue he needs her to address, while worrying about having sex withheld from him if he loses his cool. His balls are now an emotional hostage.
I don’t mean to harp on women here, but I think we all know that they use sex as a weapon directly far more frequently. Here is an example of men using it a little more indirectly:
- Jane: (with real pain and concern in her eyes, not the wieldy and venerable ‘crazy-face’) “You don’t spend enough time with me and it makes me really uncomfortable when you get so many calls and texts from Jennifer and Ashley. Don’t you get to talk to them in person quite enough? You know they are into you, right?”
- David: “Ughh! You are so needy and paranoid! You make me feel so claustrophobic and upset. I’m going out to blow off some steam.” (they both know the people he hangs out with habitually are attractive, into him, etc. This reinforces the message that David is a marketable item whose company is highly sought after while getting across the subtext “better not control my freedom or piss me off like this or I’ll cheat or leave.”)
This is the ET equivalent of yelling “Allahu Akbar” before hitting the button. Narcissists of all forms love to use sexual jealousy as a weapon. However one tries to justify it, stocking the “on deck circle” is always a form of ET, even if it doesn’t meet all the requirements of my definition. You see, the actual terrorist is really not saying “god is great” when he yells “Allahu Akbar,” but “I am great, for I’m the very hand of the Almighty.” Similarly, the emotional terrorist is saying “I’m great–in high demand; you don’t deserve me and should have to chase me.” I guess actually cheating would be hitting the button in the analogy.
Defensive versus Offensive ET
Just as with actual terrorism, the emotional variety can be used defensively or offensively. A terrorist can defensively set up shop in an orphanage or offensively take over a passenger aircraft, just as an emotional terrorist can defensively play dumb, for instance, or offensively start a spat on certain ambiguous premises. We generally only think of the offensive variety of ET, but it is actually far more pernicious in a defensive mode. Look at this exchange, for instance:
- David: (calmly and with great care and sensitivity) “Jane I am really angry with you. Why would you do such-n-such?”
- Jane: (with look of feigned terror) “I don’t feel safe talking about this.”
- David: (steps back) “What do you mean hun?” (this doesn’t make sense given his peaceful body language and nature)
- Jane: (fidgets) “Please stop pressing me to explain myself, I don’t feel safe doing so.”
- David: (who now categorically CANNOT express ANY anger) “Jane, do you mean you think that I am too angry to really hear you correctly…that I’d misunderstand?” (both of them know the true meaning but he is being threatened with a different connotation)
- Jane: (gets more uncomfortable, as her gambit is getting exposed) “I’m going to go talk to Jennifer about this and get my head straight.” (avoids being pinned down to an obvious meaning/subtext, avoids having to explain herself, avoids being called to task for hurting him, neutralizes his anger, all with the implicit threat of claiming physical abuse, which is driven home ruthlessly by bringing a female friend into the equation, who can’t see the peaceful body language and might assume the worst about David)
We have seen some offensive forms of ET already, so I need not harp on the obvious, except to note that the next example is such an offensive strategy.
This offensive strategy is really nasty and is usually used only by females, to my knowledge. Quite simply, it involves treating a guy like crap (i.e. being a bitch) for as long as it takes for him to mutter the word ‘cunt,’ at which point the woman can claim victory and retrospectively justify her being a bitch (i.e. b/c she was with a man who was capable of uttering the unmentionable ‘c-word’). Bill Burr discusses this strategy in many of his comedy specials (see the end of this clip). He explains that if a woman is right in an argument she sticks to the point and keeps you to the point until you are on your knees apologizing. Touché! But if she is wrong, she may think up nasty things to say to distract the man, bait him, and grind him into such a rage that he might utter an insult, at which point the argument is now about that insult and she wins. Burr offers great advice: guys, just know that if a woman gets angry and hurls insults, you have won, so long as you don’t take the bait and play it cool. “Honey, I think we should discuss this later when you calm down,” etc. Total victory! Another nasty thing about the bating strategy is that it can be played as a “long game,” for years, gradually chipping away at a guys will-power and restraint to avoid telling the woman what she is acting like. He can hold out for half a decade, but if he eventually takes the bait, even post-breakup, all bets are off and he is open to a ruthless character smearing campaign with no recourse whatsoever. For some reason it’s ok for women to sling insults, key cars, destroy property, generally go berserk, but that ‘c-word’–it’s the ultimate trump card. (note: I’ve never called a woman the ‘c-word’ in my life)
This form of ET utilizes a prevalent feature of most forms: enlisting outside help. (The terrorist equivalent is subverting the populace of the target country or allied countries with propaganda.) We already saw an example with the whole “I don’t feel safe” routine. However, there are far subtler versions. For instance, if a woman (or a man, for that matter) feigns ignorance and misunderstanding, then implies that she/he wants to discuss this with friends or family, or that the couple needs to see a counselor, this is also an implicit threat of spreading the misunderstanding and potentially slandering the other person. It shifts the risks of the misunderstanding onto the other party even though they are responsible for it (the other party can’t understand it for them, after all). The relationship counselor should have 10 books on his shelf addressing this and preparing him to be vigilant, especially against the female in the relationship, who any of us are predisposed to feel like helping/protecting on an instinctual level. Now we are getting into the really murky territory of this black art.
More Subtle Forms
Here is one of the single most tricky forms of ET to deal with, again, usually employed by women, who generally appeal to emotion more than logic in arguments, if you will forgive a generalization that offends but that you likely share with me.
- David: (delivers eloquent and well-reasoned argument for his case)
- Jane: (stymied) “We both know you are better at using logic than me, so stop muscling me into submission!” (plays on social stereotype of the domineering male)
- or….Jane: “Stop using logic, this is about our relationship…it is about emotions!” (plays on social stereotype of clumsy man with no intuition or emotional intelligence to avoid reasoning about emotions at all)
The really tricky part about this is that men often do just blatantly out-muscle women with rational argument during an emotional exchange that doesn’t require so much logic, but calls for a soft touch (literally and figuratively). Perhaps this is the male equivalent of this form of ET: to play on the female stereotype of the irrational women during a time when she is quite emotional (and SHOULD BE!), while his using logic, being inappropriate, etc offends and thus frazzles her even further. This is especially tricky when there is a disparity in debating skills and abstract, analytic intelligence. Thus, the rule should be that any advantage should be put out in the open and OPENLY compensated for on both sides. The professional logician should have to double-up on his comforting body language, soft tone, etc, etc. A sensitive, intuitive woman, on the other hand, should be responsible for covering for her logic-addled man’s lack of sensitivity, for instance giving his pronouncements a generous reading or volunteering one, like “I think what you meant to say was something more like this, right?”
Here is another subtle form of ET that both genders do, in their own way: treat sex with a blasé, cavalier, or counter-intimate attitude. If a guy treats sex as “just fucking” and withholds total commitment and intimacy, this protects him, while potentially exposing his woman, all without offering emotional parity. He will usually defend this with some bullshit evolutionary psychology and what have you, which undermines his woman’s right to demand his intimacy and vulnerability, while treating these emotional needs with contempt, as if they were silly anachronisms (this plays on the irrational female prejudice). To be honest, I see this a lot in dating, but not very often in committed relationships. The female version I see in both situations. This involves a woman doling out sex as if it were a gift that a woman gives to a man, essentially denying the reality of her own sexual needs so as to 1) protect herself from intimacy, or 2) undermine his sexual self-esteem, as if he couldn’t get her in the mood or is somehow unworthy sexually. This gives her ultimate control and plays on the social norm of the mindless, horny male who will just hump anything he can get his hands on. This makes the man feel inadequate, but vaguely sated; cared for, but not himself supportive; like he needs her, but she doesn’t need him. Furthermore, he can’t really ask for more sexual intimacy, because “oh, you horny guys, always just wanting more,” when the guy actually might want more intimacy. Lastly, both parties know she has sexual needs, so there is an extremely vague, but real, threat of someone else matching her unspoken fantasy.
As mentioned earlier, if you are facing an emotional terrorist, the only real counter-measure is to run. However, you will likely need to be throwing blocks and strikes as you retreat, so I’ll leave you with one sure fact that I have uncovered that may help you: the narcissistic solipsist really only knows their own internal world, meaning that whatever insults or accusations they send your way, these are pure and untainted projection, so know with certainty that these are a road-map to their soul. I hope you can make use of that knowledge better than I was able to.
Probably a whole book should be written on appropriate versus “cheap” targets, but in closing, I’ll mention that quite often men are stuck in social double standards that make it quite impossible to argue with women as doing so exposes far too many “cheap targets.” If he is too emotionally supportive and tries that Mark Wahlberg tone, he is open to being called a ‘pussy’ or, alternatively, accused of being patronizing, as if the woman couldn’t handle a real debate and needs kid gloves to be put on. If the guy fails to put the kid gloves on, he is open to being called an insensitive prick. If he stumbles through some compromise between these, he can be accused of not being clear, of equivocating, and generally not speaking in a conversive, natural manner. Basically he’s screwed if the woman really wants to nail him to the wall. He is the hapless fool with no emotional intelligence or domineering patriarch if he uses logic and reason, but a fag or amateur if he appeals to emotion. Generally men can keep their cool during a debate, keep their thoughts on ice, better than women because they have more experience with verbal combat and the bar for what is offensive is already established far above what women are generally comfortable with. (Again, generally) women have a harder time focusing on the topic instead of the subtext; the argument instead of the underlying relationship. To make matters even worse for successfully negotiating a romantic relationship, men and women have different “ramp up” times and “cool down” times vis a vis adrenalization. All of this makes argument and negotiation between the genders truly rather treacherous. I sincerely hope that we can at least expose and eliminate as many forms of ET as possible, as this is just needless baggage heaped upon an animal whose knees are already close to buckling.
Emotional Terrorism is a distinct and specific form of emotional abuse in a relationship that utilizes an improper weapon in the form of a double-bind or self-reinforcing dynamic employed to generally undermine sanity; takes a hostage–a target that is “cheap,” such as someone’s sexual jealousy; and thwarts honest communication with intentional vagueness and deception in order to gain leverage, control, revenge, or other unworthy goals.