I’ve been thinking a lot about compliments lately. About phrases many women think they want to hear from the men who love them. One of the most common: “You’re so beautiful.” I’ve been thinking how many things that phrase can mean depending on the circumstance, the person, the couple, the power dynamic. If the man is an abuser the phrase has its own power, its own trickly, poisonous sugar that you don’t taste when he says it to you for those first few months or years, while everything is sort of ok, when something is a bit off but you couldn’t imagine not being around him because he’s a new form of oxygen. You’ve grown a new lung and he’s the air, the only air, that can be breathed into it and you need him or part of you will suffocate.
You’re so beautiful. Say it to your child and it can be with wonder, amazement that the little creature in front of you somehow is of you, is so precious. How you can see the world in them and the end of the world if they end. Similar perhaps on the surface to the feeling that the abuser stirs, but with the child it’s a need that expands your sense of the world, the experiences you will have, expands who you are, what you can be. The abuser promises that but then methodically makes your world smaller and smaller and more and more hopeless.
You’re so beautiful. When, as teenage girls, we see it said to women in TV and movies, when we read it in books, it’s met with a revelatory spark of pureness and wanting and need from the fantasy ‘him’. He’s seen something in you that is so special, so rare, so delicate and fierce that he is overcome. Everything you doubted about yourself is gone, they love all your imperfections. When a boy or a man looks at you, sees you, really sees you and tells you you’re beautiful in that special way it means true love and you will finally feel complete. It’s magic. As women we’re programed so early to link those words with love that when an abuser praises your beauty, seemingly overwhelmed with how amazing you are, it feels like the dream has come true. You may think: this is it, this what I was dreaming of. Look at him, he is so in awe of me, of how beautiful I am. This is love. So down the track when they start to get a little jealous, give their opinions offhand about a preference of hairstyle or clothes, when they become a little too invested in what you should do or say it’s because of how amazing they find you. It’s love. That’s what we were told. That’s what I was told.
One of the biggest breakthroughs I’ve had in my recovery so far is to realise that abusive people don’t love the same way non-abusive people do. Everything they love about you is because it can be an extension of their own ego: it fills one of the many voids of their shattered psyches. For one abusive man it may be that a beautiful wife will be the trophy that will make others realise his worth, she will be the thing he touts around that validates that he is in fact better than all his colleagues, settles the war between the duelling feelings of inferiority and superiority that rip him apart.
Abusive people are a different sub-species of humans. That’s the best way I can think of to describe them. They lack the basic gifts of empathy. They spend their days in the dark, unable to ever properly understand or connect with other human beings, trapped in overwhelming insecurities that they use as justifications to lash out and trap others to feed the void, feed the always hungry maw of their fragile egos.
You’re so beautiful. They take your face between their hands and look at you like you are something so rare, so precious. And in that moment many of them actually believe it. They often believe that you will fill the void they feel, you will give them status, security. Sometimes they never really believe it because they’re so far down the spectrum of narcissism they have no problem knowingly manipulating you without a shred of guilt. Abusers may not have empathy but all of them are so incredibly skilled at manipulation that they know what to say to melt your walls down, to turn off your inner voice whispering its warnings.
Look at Donald Trump, America’s Abuser in Chief, and the way he talks about his daughter, Ivanka. Many have noted his creepy fixation with how attractive he finds her. That’s because he is an abusive narcissist who believes a woman’s worth is usually tied intrinsically to her physical attractiveness. So the fact that Ivanka is attractive means that she is the best type of woman and since she is of his DNA that means that he is the best type of man. When he fixates on her attractiveness he is actually fixating on what that says about him. When he looks at her he sees himself.
What did your abuser see when he looked at you? Were you a trophy? Were you a nurturer that would bend to his every whim and provide all his emotional needs? Would you be amazed by his intelligence and wit and curtail to his superior opinions like everyone else should, but at least if you do it then he knows he is in fact smarter than the rest? Does he see you as a paycheque, someone who will prop up his lifestyle and let him spend you into debt because that’s the life he deserves but other people always got in his way? Does he see a body he can dominate and use and pour his anger into once you inevitably fail to live up to his impossible standards for you? Watch how he can change those words as things deteriorate to make you desperate for the brilliant and amazing first few times he said it and everything felt right. You’ll fight to make him happy, to get him to look at you that way again, desperate for that special oxygen you think you need.
“You’re so beautiful when you wear that dress.”
“You looked so beautiful on our wedding day, what happened?”
“You used to be so beautiful.”
“She’s so beautiful. Look how confident she is, it’s so sexy.”
You probably heard similar things but with a flavour unique to your abuser, maybe with insults thrown in, calling you names. Maybe it was more subtly implied. Maybe he threatened that if you didn’t take care of yourself better he’d have to seek out other women. Maybe he said it with silences, with the absence of touch, freezing you out like you were diseased. No matter how they say it, it’s devastating.
Then sometimes it stops altogether, the talk of your beauty, their fixation on what you look like. Perhaps he finally grows sick of you and finds someone else, someone fresh and untainted by his poison. Perhaps he has you worn down so much and you’re so afraid of everything all the time that he doesn’t have to say it anymore: he knows you’ll never leave, you’re dead inside. He hates you so much at that point that he is happy to see you desperate and afraid and lonely for the sin of not being able to save him from his own narcissism.
They always grow to hate you. You never live up to their expectations because it’s impossible for one person to fix another. They still feel empty, angry, insecure and unfulfilled by life. You were supposed to fix it all and when you don’t every problem in their lives is now your fault.
I find myself cringing at most romantic scenes on screen or in print now. Charm is now an immediate red flag for me. I wonder how it could be said to me in the future without me recoiling. I think it’ll be in what they want back. Like a parent looking at a child, they recognise beauty and a little piece of wonder in the world, someone who has potential. They want to see you grow in your journey, they don’t have a journey already mapped out for you, a path that you need to cut off pieces of yourself to fit along. They look at you and want to see you become everything you can be. They want for you, they don’t demand anything in return except for you to want the best for them too. But is that just more romanticism programmed into me but in a better package in our #metoo world? Is it just another version of the revelatory “You’re so beautiful” moment I thirsted for when I was a teenager? I’m not sure yet. At this stage I’m working on being able to tell myself I’m beautiful and actually believe it.
After so many years of feeling like I was the ugliest person on Earth, under the harsh neon light of his empty compliments and quiet resentment and repulsion, beautiful is the last thing I feel.