Help! What is this totally toxic arguing tactic?
February 13, 2017 6:27 PM   Subscribe

I need to know what an arguing "technique" is called so I can do some research and finally cure a loved one of this toxic habit.

Generally what happens is that we have some minor disagreement, which almost instantly turns into "you hate me," or "I know I'm trash, it's ok," or "I know all your friends hate me, so you don't have to say it."

I've never said anything to her like this, and I have no idea where it comes from. I suspect it's deeply rooted in her childhood and her mother, as well as an abusive ex.

I'm the product of many years of therapy and I know how to listen, accept responsibility, right wrongs, apologize, work toward compromise, see where I'm name it. I don't use abusive language, I try to talk rather than fight, I never use the words "stupid" or "dumb" or "trash," yet she's constantly throwing them at me. No one has ever done this sort of thing to me and it leaves me upset, feeling chaotic and panicked.

The net effect, obviously, is to force me to say "of course you're not garbage, I've never said that" or "I don't hate you, please don't say that" or "jeez babe, where did you get dumb c*nt from???" And then the discussion becomes about how what she's saying isn't true and why would she say that, and not the issue at hand, so nothing gets fixed.

I'd love to have a Web page to send her, or a book to buy her. This is a woman with a huge number of friends to whom she never does this, as well as a successful career. I saw no sign of it until a few years into our relationship, and she admits she kept it hidden. And yes, I'm well aware of how problematic that is.

I'm honestly at a loss and I have no idea how to proceed, all of the tools I've learned to use are not effective.
posted by New Old User to Human Relations (24 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
It's a bit of everything: false dilemma, red herring, ignoratio elenchi, avoiding the issue, non sequitur, self-serving bias, confabulation etc. Confabulation is probably the closest one, but I don't doubt there is a more accurate and specific term for this argumentative tactic.
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:42 PM on February 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

And yes it infuriates me too...but mainly because I remember doing it myself. That had a lot to do with my garbage self-esteem and ingrained belief that any minor criticism or correction was done because I was a rubbish shit-human, though subconsciously I was probably just hoping to be pitied and make the confrontation (even if it wasn't really a confrontation) go away. Now I don't do that, I just stew about it for months!
posted by turbid dahlia at 6:45 PM on February 13, 2017 [13 favorites]

False escalation?
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 6:48 PM on February 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

It is definitely a form of emotional manipulation and an unfair way to disagree. The closest term that is coming to mind for me is "martyr complex" but that's not quite right. Those words are meant to deflect the discomfort the person is feeling there on to you and as you say, you are left feeling chaotic and unable to work things through. What about pointing it out in a moment when things are not heated. "You know, when we disagree I notice you sometimes say something like X. I hope you know that I don't believe that of you at all. The problem is that when you do it, our discussion gets off track and I feel like we can't resolve the problems we are having. I feel like you are not hearing me and that hurts. What if we come up with a signal to take a time out when those words happen, but we agree we will discuss it again in an hour (or whatever you think will work)."
posted by goggie at 6:51 PM on February 13, 2017 [8 favorites]

This may help (forget about the narcissists, sociopaths and psychopaths part) think of it as 20 Diversion tactics people use to silence you - No.5 is relevant to you.
posted by unliteral at 6:53 PM on February 13, 2017 [18 favorites]

she admits she kept it hidden.

Do you notice if she ever says similar things when she's frustrated in general? Not specifically how you feel about her, but other negative thoughts about herself in general. If so, maybe she's voicing her negative self-talk now that she feels safer with you. If some self-help doesn't improve things, is she willing to try therapy?

Alternatively, if you felt it was strictly a manipulation technique (in the final episode of S2 Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt they call it being a get-aheader), you could refuse to let it derail the conversation. "No, I do not think X. I am upset about Y, but that doesn't mean I think poorly of you and don't love you." Depending on how distraught she is, you could offer to talk about it in the near future (define a time).
posted by ghost phoneme at 8:03 PM on February 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

I'd just ignore this as the best way to deal with it. She knows she does it, she knows she can not do it, she is choosing to do it. The problem is not ignorance.

Try saying something like "I hear that you're feeling overwhelmed so we will talk about this another time. Have a good night, talk to you soon." Then go do something else.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 9:12 PM on February 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

Self victimization or playing the victim.
posted by blackzinfandel at 10:01 PM on February 13, 2017

I'd call this a form of passive aggressive behavior. You are probably right; she has probably learned this tactic from arguments she's had with her family growing up. (I believe that if you really want to know a person, argue with them. It will tell you volumes about that person.)

I'd handle it by simply not letting it deter you from the topic at hand. If, for example, you're arguing about who forgot to take out the garbage, and she trots out the line, "I know you think I'm garbage", I'd simply respond with, "You know that's not true. Please don't try to change the subject. We're talking about whose responsibility it was to take out the trash right now...."

When she says stuff like this, it's intended to railroad you off topic. Don't let it work. Don't take the bait. Don't feel that you have to stop and reassure her. It's manipulative and counter-productive to a healthy relationship. You shouldn't have to defend your feelings for her repeatedly. You may have to be clear that there's a distinction between disliking this little manipulative trick that she does and hating her. I would hope that you demonstrate, through words and actions, that you do not hate her. You should say as much the next time she pulls this.
posted by cleverevans at 10:03 PM on February 13, 2017 [12 favorites]

I would ignore it because if you're having an argument about a real issue, she can't force you to divert the conversation unless you go there with her. Respond to the substance of the point, and if she didn't make a point, reiterate your own last point and consider the argument won and the discussion closed. that is what I would do. it may not be kind but it will free you of the urge to blame her for "making" you console her when you do not actually have to do that.

but in spite of that:

This is a woman with a huge number of friends to whom she never does this, as well as a successful career. I saw no sign of it until a few years into our relationship, and she admits she kept it hidden. And yes, I'm well aware of how problematic that is.

you're the only person she permits herself to be truthful with about how bad she feels about herself and your response is to want to cure her of feeling that she has such freedom with you. It's understandable since the behavior is so annoying, but a lot of people are talking about this as a tactic, a trick, a manipulation or a passive-aggressive manoeuvre. Why not suppose she means what she says? you know, like a person does. Usually people suppress fear and self-doubt and self-hatred like this because they're ashamed of it and they're afraid to find out that everyone agrees. I think it happens over and over again now that it's started with you because the natural aggravated response of "You know that isn't true" skips the crucial stage where she discovers that it isn't true. She doesn't actually know that, so the end result is she feels stupid and accused of lying as well as worthless and all the rest of it. so she keeps doing it again and again in hopes of hearing something she can believe.

you can, if you want, advise therapy, since curing her of admitting her feelings will not cure her of feeling them. If she's able to compartmentalize enough to only reveal her insecurities to a single person, they might as well be inflicted on a paid professional and not you. failing that, really do ignore it. it will lessen your distress even if not hers.
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:27 PM on February 13, 2017 [25 favorites]

I used to do this, and for me it was rooted in poor self esteem. I had a really hard time overreacting to criticism, and conflating any sort of critique of my words/actions with an attack on me as a person, which I then saw as validating all the shit things the asshole voice in my head was telling me (I also had depression). So, I'd get either angry/defensive or submit to this idea of what a shit person I was.

Eventually, I figured out that it was because my father is a narcissist, and can't take any criticism himself, so I had unconsciously adopted the belief that being incorrect was a mortal sin and that I had to defend myself however I could. I was also verbally abused, and accepting that you are a garbage person is freeing, if That's Just The Way I Am, there's no reason I should to work to change it, why would anyone expect more out of me? It can be a coping mechanism for feeling overwhelmed, a way to change the topic so she doesn't have to face her feelings.

I'd tell her that it makes you uncomfortable when she says these things, because she's forcing you to choose between the problem you want resolved and making sure she feels cared for. She derails the conversation, so your feelings aren't being addressed and this will cause a rift between you as your needs end up unmet over time.

The next time she does this, I would ask her why she feels that way instead of being drawn into the opposing I-never-said corner of the boxing match she's set up. She may have self-esteem problems, depression, bipolar disorder (does this behavior wax and wane?) that needs to be addressed by a therapist. She may have been trained to be a doormat by a narcissist or two and not understand healthy discussion tactics, or not realize that you're not "out to get her" when you disagree.
posted by Feyala at 11:44 PM on February 13, 2017 [22 favorites]

> I need to know what an arguing "technique" is called

Sounds to me like "Splitting"?
posted by richb at 1:36 AM on February 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oh man; I had completely forgotten this was one of the major reasons I broke up with my ex 3 years ago (Happy Valentine's Day, buddy).

Whenever I wanted to discuss an issue, he would immediately fly into, "You can do better than me," or "I'm such a loser you shouldn't even be with me."

My best friend referred to it as suicide by cop -- a person responds in an extreme manner trying to get the more reasoned person to end things. So by getting you to agree that they're terrible, they absolve themselves of having to be a thoughtful person.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 2:37 AM on February 14, 2017 [9 favorites]

And to extend Yes I Said Yes's answer- the ultimate goal of "relationship suicide by cop" is quite often the hope that the other person DOESN'T end things, therefore providing validation and proof of love. Each instance of this behavior is a test.

Here is the cycle:
1. [Criticism/argument]
2. "I'm a loser baby so why don't you kill me"
3. No you aren't, you're awesome, etc. (meanwhile actual issue vanishes)
4. "yay he/she loves me I am not a loser!"
5. [what just happened?]

IAN in your relationship of course- but I sense so much fear of abandonment playing out here. Perhaps in her life, those she loved all left her (either physically or in other ways) and she has internalized it as being her fault, whether they told her so or not. By constantly 'testing' you like this, it's her way of teasing out whether you're going to do the same. It's what she most fears, and every time you disagree, she thinks "this is it, I did it again, another one is leaving me!" and does a "get-aheader" (LOVE that concept) with the negative statements, to force you to the endgame before you have the chance to inflict it on her first.

For the person in this state, know that the actual argument issue is almost NEVER EVEN RELEVANT. As soon as they sense the smallest bit of disapproval, instinct takes over. No conflict can ever be anything but the opening to this deeper abandonment issue. Avoidant to the extreme, such people can have a very hard time learning to engage in even mild conflict with those they most value. Because the fear of them leaving overshadows everything.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 3:28 AM on February 14, 2017 [13 favorites]

From a Schema Therapy perspective, assuming there is some truth from her perspective in what she is saying (and it seems there is) rather that it being a pure manipulation tactic/rhetorical technique, this would be her being more open with you about her defectiveness schema ( )
In schema therapy the person in therapy can also work with trusted people close to them to all learn ways of supporting her to develop a more realistic schema, including developing shorthand for calling out what's happening when she defaults to a defectiveness mode in order to respectfully move past it in the context of a conversation.
posted by hotcoroner at 4:38 AM on February 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

What you do in the moment is say, "That's not fair." Because it is an unfair fighting technique. And then you can illustrate the problem in person: We were talking about X and you were disagreeing because Y and now all of a sudden, you have veered to attacking my character and suggesting I don't like you which is very unfair and I feel terrible when you say that - please don't do that.
posted by amanda at 5:22 AM on February 14, 2017 [6 favorites]

It's manipulative self pity and that is ultimately a diversion. Whilst you're managing her feelings of Relationship Suicide by Cop, you're not getting to discuss the issue you raised. No change on the issue can happen because you're cornered and have to manage her feelings, defend a position you don't actually have (ie that she's rubbish) and the chaos you feel afterwards is natural. Your feelings have not been respected and your hurt is buried, unresolved and thus lingers.

In the moment, ask her to refrain from self pity so that you can have an important conversation about the issue that you raised. "I love you and I still want to talk about this" "I'd like to continue to talk through this, it's important to me" "when you say these dramatic things, I feel like you are trying to divert our attention from this topic I have raised. I would like you to manage this way of interacting when we disagree, and work with me on this topic/issue. Can you do that?" I also say "you're asking me to lift the heavy end by asking me to console you when I am hurt about X"

I think you're right, this is a wound from childhood. I certainly know I've done my share of this because doing so removed or delayed punishment from an overbearing and critical parent. You are not her critical parent, you are her partner, and you do not want to punish her - but to have a beautiful, safe partnership. She would probably benefit from psychotherapy. I'm not sure CBT is the right thing, but maybe that could also be considered.
posted by honey-barbara at 5:48 AM on February 14, 2017 [5 favorites]

"Black and white thinking" has roots in Narcissism. If you are upset with her she must be a piece of shit, the worst ever, a huge failure, etc. It's totally rooted in low-self esteem. My husband does this when he is feeling attacked -- and I am rather fond of repeating "That's not what I said, I said X" until he is able to calm down and rejoin me in the actual conversation. Hope this helps!
posted by polly_dactyl at 7:55 AM on February 14, 2017 [3 favorites]

I always referred to it (and have heard it referred to by others colloquially) as derailing the conversation with self-pity. I had an ex who would ride this train pretty hard whenever we'd start talking about anything serious. I think "That's not fair" is a perfect response for the moment, but what I did to try to move away from that was to take him aside at a more relaxed time and mentioned my concern for the dynamic that had popped up between us ("Hey, could we talk about X?" "I KNOW, I'M GARBAGE" etc.) and let him know that we weren't actually solving anything and that I cared enough about our relationship that I did want to see a more successful resolution without devolving into self-name calling.

Another thing that seemed to help was to remind him that every time he said something like "I'm worthless" or "I don't know why you put up with me" wasn't just a dig at himself, but also a dig at me: he was saying that I have poor taste in partners if I'd put up with someone so worthless. It's one thing when they're dealing with their own self-esteem issues, but sometimes it helps to remind them that their self-loathing has broader implications. People generally don't like to insult their partners.

Honestly though, if you can't get to a better platform for discourse (or at least to a place where that's possible) on your own, I'd be issuing a "therapy or I walk" ultimatum. I typically am not for ultimatums, but this is one of those situations I think where a person will not change unless they know unequivocally that they are being deeply harmed by their choices, and sometimes a breakup can be the jolt they need to actually go "Hang on, maybe my self-loathing doesn't just affect me". Good luck! I wish you the best.
posted by helloimjennsco at 7:58 AM on February 14, 2017 [2 favorites]

Oh! Also! There was a comment on an AskMe a few days ago (my apologies, I don't remember which one it was) that linked to this article from a relationship therapist that was focused primarily on the difficulties that some men have with expressing intimacy, but it did also make explicit mention of the sort of recoil that you mention. He used the words "shame state" "grandiosity vs shame" and "offending from the victim position" to talk about it, if that helps with search terms and such.
posted by helloimjennsco at 8:03 AM on February 14, 2017

It's definitely all of the things said above, and in terms of debate, it's very clearly deflection. She's misrepresenting what you say so she doesn't have to actually address the issue at hand.

Whether or not it is rooted on her insecurity (it sounds like it) and catastrophizing (also a symptom of deep insecurity and in some cases depression), it is a very effective tactic that you have reinforced by falling for it multiple times.

For conversation purposes, calmly call her on it and continue pursuing the actual issue and she will realize it doesn't work.

For mental wellness purposes, bring it up in a separate conversation (very lovingly, because it's an embarrassing subject), and try to come up with ways to address the pain that is the root of this issue (counseling, code words, etc.)
posted by Tarumba at 9:10 AM on February 14, 2017

To me, this reads as:

A) She trusts you more than other people.
B) Whatever you are arguing about feels incredibly extremely threatening.
C) She feels threatened in part because she has terrible problem solving skills, so she expects to fail at fixing the problem, thus she expects to be abandoned.

Instead of trying to educate her about what she is doing wrong, which would threaten to take away her only defense from someone she feels terribly vulnerable with, I would get her books that help her learn how to effectively problem solve. This includes stuff like "Getting to Yes" and other negotiating books, "The seven habits of highly effective people," "The Peter Principle" and anything else you can think of that can arm her to solve the problem.

It would also help to actively frame it as "You and me against the problem, not me against you." You might also throw in some brainstorming tactics and try scheduling conversations about problems instead of arguing about them.
posted by Michele in California at 10:31 AM on February 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

A slightly different take on the self-pity angle--my ex considered herself deeply empathic, and believed she actually felt what others were feeling. She was also deeply insecure, and would project these insecurities on others. She would often accuse me of feeling "disgusted" with her, which was totally off base. We'd then go through the twists and contortions you describe, and never get to the actual issue.

It wasn't manipulative, or passive aggressive, or narcissistic or anything like that. She was honestly disgusted with herself, and honestly believed that I, in turn, was disgusted with her. She was *wrong*, of course, but she wasn't at all trying to control anything--she was, in fact, completely out of control of her own feelings.

I don't have a solution. We broke up. But this might give you more sympathy, or at least less resentment, towards her unfair accusations.
posted by pupsocket at 11:24 AM on February 14, 2017 [4 favorites]

Heard of the drama triangle? An old theory - but still very applicable. Lot's of interesting sites with suggestions on how to respond to the drama triangle.
I suggest focusing less on how to educate/change her (rescuing) and instead, focus on how to adapt yourself.
posted by what's her name at 8:31 AM on February 15, 2017 [1 favorite]

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