Lundy Bancroft’s ‘The Water Torturer’ Part 2

In a previous blog post I touched on how important finding Lundy Bancroft’s book Why Does He Do That, and the abuser types he has created after his many years of working with violent men.

The Water Torturer was my abuser. According to Bancroft, a Water Torturer proves that anger doesn’t cause abuse. He can assault his partner psychologically without even raising his voice. He tends to stay calm in arguments, using his own evenness as a weapon to push her over the edge. He often has a superior or contemptuous grin on his face, smug and self-assured.” (Note: all sections in bold in this post are quotes from Bancroft’s definition of a Water Torturer.)

Previously I’d struggled to accept I’d been abused because although my ex-husband fit so many of the typical abuser traits, the way he manifested them was so subtle, and so insidious I would slip back into the doubt I had while married – when I would try to raise an issue with his behaviour and before I knew it an hour had passed, I was confused, I had forgotten what I had wanted to talk about in the first place, and I often ended up apologising to him.

“What’s the point of these conversations if you can’t even remember what you wanted to talk about?” he would say, sighing. exasperated.

Like Mr. Right, he tends to take things she has said and twist them beyond recognition to make her appear absurd…

During conversations with my husband, sometimes I could feel him twisting what I was saying, turning my words against me, and I would try to fight back, try to play his game and outsmart him. He would be so calm, so rational. He could construct an argument where he would convince me that the sun was the moon through a series of logic-tricks and false-equivalencies. I would feel my points, my valid, real, important points being systematically destroyed and I was powerless to stop it.

You see, I was playing fair, I was assuming he was a good person who genuinely wanted to hear my side of things and come to a consensus. I thought he respected me like I respected him. But we were playing different games. I was just a cancer to him to be wiped out. I was the reason he was unhappy. I deserved no respect and he sought my destruction and humiliation.

The impact on a woman of all these subtle tactics is that either her blood temperature rises to a boil or she feels stupid and inferior, or some combination of the two. In an argument, she may end up yelling in frustration, leaving the room crying, or sinking into silence. The Water Torturer then says, “See, you’re the abusive one, not me. You’re the one who’s yelling and refusing to talk things out rationally. I wasn’t even raising my voice. It’s impossible to reason with you.”

Sometimes I would end up shouting at him in frustration. He would sit on the couch in the TV room while I yelled, a few times I screamed, not sure why I was so upset but sure in the very marrow of my being that some kind of violation had just occurred. He would remain calm, sometimes sneering, sighing, telling me to be quiet like you might tell a toddler to be quiet after a long night of crying.

“Shhh. The neighbours will hear.” He would hiss sometimes, looking exhausted by me.

I would try to remove myself, step away, regain my composure.

“Yep, walk away again. There you go.” He would say with infuriating calm and caustic contempt.

I would go to the bedroom and stew on what had happened. I would come up with a brilliant piece of logic, a valid point, or a call for mercy and I would come bursting back into the TV room and he would sigh.

“Here we go. Back again. What is it this time?”

Wind knocked from my sails, I tried to explain my previously measured, well-constructed thoughts only to have them vanish as he looked at me like I was a pathetic child.

These incidents would end two ways:

  1. I would leave the room again, and cry myself hoarse, ashamed of my “anger issues”. alarmed by my “rage issues”.
  2. He would suddenly change track, come up to me, take my face between his hands and say with sickeningly sweet kindness “Oh I hate to see you cry. Go wash your face and we’ll watch some TV.” He was so kind, so understanding. I didn’t deserve someone so understanding of my mental issues.

The psychological effects of living with the Water Torturer can be severe. His tactics can be difficult to identify, so they sink in deeply. Women can find it difficult not to blame themselves for their reactions to what their partner does if they don’t even know what to call it. When someone slaps you in the face, you know you’ve been slapped. But when a woman feels psychologically assaulted, with little idea why, after an argument with The Water Torturer, she may turn her frustration inward. How do you seek support from a friend, for example, when you don’t know how to describe what is going wrong?

Either way our confrontations ended, I was the out-of-control one. I was a mess, I was demanding and unstable. I would see my psychiatrist and tell him I was ruining the relationship, that I had severe problems. That I was needy, volatile. This psychiatrist should have dug deeper. He should have looked at what else was happening psychologically. Instead he took me at my word and decided I had Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and over-medicated me until at times I could barely function. I have a Clinical Psychologist now who has diagnosed me with Complex PTSD and systematically ruled out BPD. Apparently trauma victims are often misdiagnosed with BPD or Bipolar.

If you are involved with a Water Torturer, you may struggle for years trying to figure out what is happening. You may feel that you overreact to his behavior and that he isn’t really so bad. But the effects of his control and contempt have crept up on you over the years. If you finally leave him, you may experience intense periods of delayed rage, as you become conscious of how quietly but deathly oppressive he was.

Now that I’ve gotten out I am still coming to terms with the full extent of the abuse I experienced. The arguments we had as described above are just one of the ways he psychologically tortured me. I ended up in a psychiatric hospital twice because of the abusive games he played with me. I spent years suicidal, wanting to die, convinced by my husband I was such a burden that my death would be less of a stress on his life. But I knew if I killed myself it would destroy my parents. So I woke up each morning and begged God to somehow make it so I never existed. That way I could spare the world the corrosive affect of my being, prevent my friends and family to have to be burdened by me.

Only recently have I realised how dangerous he was. How insidious and calculating. I’ve remembered one time where I actually got him on the real, actual defensive. It had been after a few weeks of silent treatments from him and he was refusing to acknowledge he was in fact ignoring me. I had had enough, it was early on in our co-habitation and I was bold enough to follow him through the house refusing to leave him alone until he acknowledged what was wrong and talk about it. I had the upper hand, he was on the defensive. His anger was rising and I still followed him, telling him we had to talk and I eventually had him backed into a corner of the house (it is important to note here that he his taller and bigger than me and I weighed about 55kg at the time so I was no physical threat). He turned suddenly, looming up before me, eyes wild with rage and violence.

“You need to back off or you won’t like what I”ll do.” I was so scared by the hatred and anger in his eyes I never challenged him like that again. He may not have said the words, but the threat was of physical violence, even though in that state he was clever enough to not say anything that could be quoted back and used against him later. I tried to be a good girl after that and use only my words when I wanted to bring something up, and try to be more respectful of his silent spells. Even when I lost my temper it was because of his design, so it was never elicited that dangerous threat, and it wasn’t until the last year of the marriage that I saw that same violence return to his eyes. I was an emotional zombie by that stage, barely able to function. His anger had been growing and growing and I sunk deeper and deeper inside. I made the mistake of leaving pegs filled with cobwebs on the ground, intending to hose them clean later, but he returned home before I could and he lost it. He was furious, yelling, angry to the point he visibly startled himself. He asked me to move out that weekend.

I know that if I’d stayed he would have turned violent. His games were no longer working. I was dead inside, a wasted shell of a human and it wasn’t fun for him anymore. I was challenging him in a different way to what I had done early in our marriage but still similar – this time too numb to engage in his games so in effect robbing him of control. And it had been robbing him of control that had elicited that first physical threat. He does not like losing control. It makes him angry in a way he can’t properly control. He scares himself with his anger.

Mr rage is slower to return than Bancroft suggests. For years I had him shushing me if I even raised my voice a tiny bit. But I’ve started feeling anger and passion. I few times I’ve spoken with animation to my psychologist as I describe the latest crap my abuser has pulled in our legal case and what I intend to do. I catch the tone of my voice and apologise.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to lose my temper.”

The first time it happened my psychologist looked at me in surprise.

“You’re not angry. You’re just passionate. It’s great to see!”

I was floored. So all these years, when I had been talking like this and he would make gestures to be quiet, wince like I was too loud, gesture towards the neighbours like they could hear, I was just speaking like a normal person passionately discussing a topic? Not only had he made me so confused I’d lost my temper and internalised my outburst, some or even many of those outbursts weren’t even outbursts.

So my rage is struggling to return. I feel anger but it quickly gets squashed by that part of me still acting on instinct to stop any “turbulent” emotions so that I won’t suffer the consequences from my abuser. That pattern is hard to shake. If passionate animation makes me feel ashamed and like I’m losing control, rage is still quite a few steps off.

For all you other sufferers of Water Tortures: you are not alone. Yours will have his or her unique techniques of making you think you’re crazy. But you can get through this. Just because they never hit you, it doesn’t mean you weren’t subjected to extreme violence and abuse. You were abused. You survived.

And always remind yourself of the key traits of a Water Torturer so when you have those days when you doubt you were abused you can repeat them and remind yourself your abuser may be subtle and careful, but they still fit a clear and identifiable pattern:

The central attitudes driving the Water Torturer are:

• You are crazy. You fly off the handle over nothing.

• I can easily convince other people that you’re the one who is messed up.

• As long as I’m calm, you can’t call anything I do abusive, no matter how cruel.

• I know exactly how to get under your skin.


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