THURSDAY, JANUARY 3 2019 KRISTEN MILSTEAD
Cold abuse, verbal abuse delivered without emotion, is familiar to many abuse victims. The film I, Tonya, depicts the physically and verbally abusive home life of notorious Olympic skater Tonya Harding. Harding is best known for the scandal that took place in 1994 in which her husband, Jeff, carried out a plot to maim Nancy Kerrigan, her skating rival, prior to the winter Olympics that year. There is a scene in the film in which the teenaged Harding sits at the dining room table eating breakfast with her mother. She has a black eye, given to her by Jeff, her boyfriend at the time.
Harding’s mother tells her that her makeup doesn’t cover the abuse and remarks in an off-handed way, “You’re a dumb piece of s*** who thinks she deserves to get hit.”
Harding continues to eat and responds under her breath, “How’d I get that idea?”
“Maybe he should hit you,” her mother responds, calmly and unemotionally. “Maybe you’d learn to keep your big mouth shut. Sure helps me out.”
The film is difficult to watch. It illustrates all of the methods of delivery of verbal abuse that I have discussed previously, including angry or hot abuse, covert abuse, and cold abuse, which this scene illustrates.
I know and remember this form of verbal abuse well, for it is the one that hurt the most. Sometimes, as in this scene from the film, my boyfriend delivered his comments completely emotionlessly. Other times, it was delivered with a look of smugness on his face, as if he was receiving pleasure from the pain he was inflicting on me.
What made it cold abuse to me, however, as I reflect back, is that “cold” seemed precisely how he felt. It was as if he had gone completely dead inside. His calmness was almost inhuman, and he acted as though he felt absolutely nothing for me, except maybe hate.
Why Cold Verbal Abuse Hurts So Much
We live in a culture where verbal abuse is rampant. Any stranger on the street can yell demeaning comments at us and engage in hot abuse. Even turning on the news can provide us with the latest YouTube videos of customers abusing store clerks over policies they don’t like or the latest Twitter wars between celebrities and public figures. The social distance threshold for abusive people to take aim and attack is almost unlimited.
Covert verbal abuse is more subtle. Because it allows the abuser to cause harm but avoid responsibility, it can take place in environments where there is more of a relationship between the two parties but the abuser has a greater investment in keeping the abuse hidden, such as in the workplace.
Both hot abuse and covert abuse can also occur in more intimate relationships, such as in families or in romantic relationships. What makes cold abuse different, however, is that it works only in relationships where there is a high degree of emotional investment. You will not find it in relationships among strangers or acquaintances, or at work.
Abusers who use their cold demeanor to deliver their verbally abusive comments understand that the pain comes from the complete betrayal of the relationship through their indifference to that pain.
These abusers need you to love them so they can rip it away with their callousness.
Verbal abuse does not have to look “out of control” or come from a place of perceived anger in order to cause emotional violence.
In I, Tonya, we don’t see Harding’s mom provide her with much affection. In my relationship, however, these moments of cold abuse stung so much because they were such a sharp contrast to the way he had formerly treated me with such love.
When he smiled and said things to me such as, “You were just a piece of meat to me,” I couldn’t dismiss what he’d said as merely an emotional outburst, because he hadn’t had one. In fact, he’d outright enjoyed what he’d said to me at times like that.
Not only was it as if everything he had ever said to me when he’d been good to me was a lie, but it was also as if the very person he’d presented to me before had been a lie too.
It was one of the most violent things he ever did to me.