Are you responsible for someone's anger when you abuse them?
July 23, 2020 11:18 PM   Subscribe

I completely understand the general idea that you aren't responsible for someone else's feelings. But what about in an emotionally abusive intimate relationship, where the anger is a natural and righteous response to gas-lighting? More inside.

I'm untangling lots of things in the aftermath of an emotionally abusive relationship with someone who was probably on the narcissistic spectrum.

One of my biggest frustrations was when he'd gaslight me, I'd get angry, and he'd righteously tell me the anger was my problem and he had nothing to do with it, and I should sort it out on my own. I'd say NO, this anger is because of this dynamic, this thing you did, and he'd get even more defensive and use new age floaty stuff in his defense.

Since the breakup, of course, I've had even more anger, and it is mine to feel and deal with. When I listen to it, it tells me how much violation I allowed. And I completely own it.

And yet the flattened idea that someone else's emotions are never your responsibility really triggers me. Aren't they sometimes very much because of you?
posted by miaow to Human Relations (28 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
1. More than anything, you have a right and a freedom not to engage in this argument at all. Mentally or in person. You have nothing to prove.
2. To say, "Your anger is your own and I have nothing to do with it" is a mind game, a tactic for deflecting responsibility for consequences of actions. That's all it is. "What I did made you angry" is not the same as "I am responsible for your feelings," and twisting the former into the latter is a diversionary tactic.
posted by billjings at 11:59 PM on July 23 [16 favorites]

Actions have consequences. Emotions are a consequence of your environment on you, and are not necessarily bad things. If you are angry, there's a reason. Being angry is certainly not your fault, but the behaviour you adopt and how you approach your anger js.

So if I shout at someone because I angry, then the shouting is on me, but the anger could well be because of them.

I think it's ridiculous to suggest that a partner isn't responsible for the others emotions, that's kind of the whole point of a relationship? One wants to help ones partner feel good, presumably.

Now there are definitely situations where your emotion isn't just driven by someone else's behaviour; you can be tired or hungry which can absolutely impact on how strong you feel. but suggesting that someone didn't have any impact on you is clearly absurd
posted by Cannon Fodder at 12:15 AM on July 24 [3 favorites]

I've thought about this before based on my own life, and in my view there are multiple ways to look at this but none of them support his viewpoint. There is not a single "responsible" person for emotions like anger that come out of a relationship, because you're both heavily involved. Responsibility is kind of two different things that share a word: blame for the actions that resulted in the emotion, and an obligation to care for and deal with the emotion.

In the "blame" sense, he is largely but not fully responsible for your anger. He is fully responsible for all of his emotionally abusive behavior and words that caused emotional pain, because he could have stopped them at any point, even if it feels like it would have been "too hard" to respect your emotions and do the right thing. But, you're also partially responsible for your anger, because there are actions you could take to stop it from causing future emotional pain to yourself and others. Anger is only a problem when it causes sustained suffering or disrupts your life. The process of "owning it" can be helpful to neutralizing the painful part of this anger, or you can work through it some other way. So in this sense you both share responsibility for your anger, with most of it on him due to his abuse.

In the "obligation" sense, emotional responsibility can only be accepted, it cannot be forced on to someone else. So, in this sense he is definitely not responsible for your anger because he clearly is not willing to accept this obligation. Someone who is emotionally abusive and narcissistic will usually not be willing to accept burdens like this, and there's probably nothing you can do to change that. So in this sense, it is fully your problem and your responsibility. But you can now choose to either try and deal with it all by yourself, or share it with friends, family, or therapists who are willing to help you spread the burden. So in this sense he is not responsible for your anger, but you can share it with others who would be happy to help.
posted by JZig at 12:42 AM on July 24 [4 favorites]

That arguement is inherently narcissistic, in that it denies introspection, it denies the ability for an apology and or denies that he needed to listen to you. It is an abusive arguement.

Yes, what you do with your emotions is your responsibility, and please do share them with others who can listen, nurture and care about you. But, it's also important that abusive people do abusive things and their impact is real. You are experiencing that impact. When you tried to resolve it the normal way (talking about it, bringing light to what happened) a healthy individual would look at the event, their actions, change their behavior and not do that thing again. He didn't. He lied, avoided and blamed.

Take gentle care, your anger is real and is there for a reason.
posted by AlexiaSky at 12:46 AM on July 24 [14 favorites]

There are two different meanings of "responsible" being conflated here.

1. Cause — "I was responsible for a car accident."
2. Owner — "I am responsible for my dog."

You are always the owner of your own feelings. What caused those feelings to arise could be anything, including interactions with another person.

To use a body example, if you get stabbed the wound is very much your responsibility to tend to. You didn’t cause it, but you own it. However, you owning the wound doesn’t absolve the assailant from their responsibility for causing it.

So to answer your question: Yes, other people can be responsible for ("cause") feelings and No, no one else can ever be responsible for ("own") your feelings.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:44 AM on July 24 [43 favorites]

"I'm not responsible for your feelings" means I'm not responsible for managing your feelings rather than I'm not responsible for causing your feelings.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:54 AM on July 24 [25 favorites]

Oh it feels so good to read your answers - being still in a state of some confusion from the gas-lighting. It all makes so much sense and I wish I'd had clarity on the two different ways we use the word 'responsible' before, not that there was any space for this unpacking this with him -- he'd have said I was acting like he was on trial and picking on his words.
posted by miaow at 2:00 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]

He was just gaslighting you further to excuse his behavior. To suggest that you can't influence another person's emotions is to put it bluntly - bollocks. Every interaction we have with another person has the potential to influence their emotions. Sometimes its intentional, sometimes unintentional. If I buy someone a gift, my intent is to make them happy. I don't control whether or not they do feel happy but that's my intention. If I bump into someone and make them spill coffee down their new shirt, I've unintentionally caused them to feel something that is probably negative. My choice in that moment is to try to ameliorate that negativity - by apologizing, offering to pay for a new shirt/get it cleaned/whatever. If I didn't stop and attempt to make restitution, that person would likely feel more strongly and more prolonged negative emotions.

I can't control those emotions, only my intent, maybe the gift I bought brought back bad memories for the recipient - that wasn't my intent and I didn't know about the association then, I'm not responsible for the bad feelings. (but also knowing that I've caused bad feelings, I am responsible for how I act - I can apologize, offer to return it for something else or I can call the recipient an ungrateful jerk.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, that we can be responsible for the predictable emotional response to our actions and intentions and we are responsible for how we act when the emotional response was not what we intended.

Everyone is entitled to their emotions, how you act is on you. How you feel is something that you can't control. If a person does something that makes you angry you can choose how to act on it, you can't really choose to not feel angry. You can choose to yell at them or wait until you've calmed down and discuss how they made you feel at a later time, or you could choose to no longer associate with a person who causes you anger.

Remember, the clue is in the name - emotionally abusive - you have been abused, emotionally. Accidentally hurting someone's feelings is not abuse. The abuser has intentionally caused you to feel negative emotions, then when you have reacted in a predictable way, they have intentionally chosen to act in a way that will worsen the negative emotion by blaming you for those negative emotions.
posted by missmagenta at 2:12 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]

First, I'm sorry this happened to you. Your situation is so frustrating and hard to hear. No one deserves to be deserved that way.

Your situation really mirrors my own. I suspect my ex was also on the narcissist spectrum (my therapist and our marriage counselor also suspected this) as he never acknowledge what he was doing to me was wrong and that everyone was out against him. My ex would do and say absolutely horribly emotionally abusive things to me and when I expressed any anger or frustration (including saying 'hey I need some space after what you just said), he would say I was abusing him. He knew exactly what my triggers were (i.e. lying, breaking promises, not apologizing for his actions, being completely indifferent when I told him I might have uterine cancer, etc.) and how I would respond. This is abuse and as another commenter said, it's about intention. Your partner knew what your triggers were and how you would respond. Our marriage counselor said the same thing to my ex. He said repeatedly that I was not abusing him because it's about intention. At the end of our marriage, his behavior began to escalate. After I kicked him out of the house, he broke into the house and threatened my mom, who I take care of. He saw himself as an abuse victim, even compared himself to a rape survivor, and that he broke in and stole from me as a line of defense (as someone who is a DV and sexual abuse survivor this broke my heart into so many pieces and disgusted me).

I'm glad you got out when you did. I still get incredibly angry and frustrated by how my ex treated me. I have been in therapy for many years to help process what happened. During that time, I have been formally diagnosed with PTSD (abused as a child, DV/sexual abuse survivor, and pregnancy loss) and therapy helped me realize that my responses to my ex's behavior were PTSD-induced. Part of me wishes he knew that but I doubt that would have changed his behavior. Therapy has really helped me and I hope you are in place where you can access help.
posted by wasabifooting at 5:18 AM on July 24

First, fuck this guy, don't worry about anything he said.

With that out of the way, the way I think about this is that you aren't responsible for other people's emotions, but you are absolutely responsible for your actions, and another person's emotional response is information about how your actions were received. In this case, he was being shitty, you got angry. You could have responded in a million different ways; you could have cried, shut down, fled, etc. So he's not responsible for your anger in the sense that there's not a direct causal relationship - he didn't "make" you angry. But none of that means that he wasn't acting shitty! Really, he was doing a kind of sophomoric semantic dodging - yes, fine, technically he may not be responsible for your anger, but he's absolutely responsible for the thing he did, which is what he's trying to deflect from.

This, by the way, is something I've encountered as well, where narcissistic people weaponize therapy language to support their own behavior.
posted by Ragged Richard at 5:58 AM on July 24 [10 favorites]

This is so easy to disprove. like almost everyone, you must have deliberately tried to make someone happy sometime? to make them feel better, to reassure them? every time you give someone congratulations, a smile, a hug, an apology, you're trying to produce particular emotions in them. you don't always succeed, because you can't ever have perfect control over other people's feelings (or your own) and you can't determine their starting circumstances or willingness to accept what you want to give.

but if you take the abstract question away from cruelty and abuse and towards all the other emotions in the world, it's so easy to see that you can be responsible for other people's emotions. Most people, both good and bad, want to be responsible for at least some emotions felt by at least some people. and most people have an instinctual or learned understanding of what behaviors produce what emotions in those they know well.

Imagine bringing someone flowers after a tragedy, and they tear up and thank you for thinking of them, saying it brightened their day a bit, and you say "Oh exCUSE me, don't try to make me responsible for your own emotions!"
ridiculous, right?
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:08 AM on July 24 [3 favorites]

It's understandable to be confused about this, because it is a little complicated. Or he was making it more complicated than it should be, anyway.

First, it's common for people with narcissistic tendencies to project. A common example of course would be an abuser claiming to feel abused when their victim sets normal boundaries, right? But this could be a version of that, too. Because realizing that you're not responsible for others' feelings is a big part of healing from a relationship with a narcissist. At the same time, you can see how easily that can be twisted around and used to excuse harmful behavior.

But if you've done harm to someone, saying "your anger is not my responsibility" to that person is beside the point. Our responsibility is not to harm people.

One thing that can happen is that once we realize we've been dealing with someone like this, it can make us analyze our own feelings, expectations, and actions, worrying that we're doing harm without realizing it or being unfair to others, even our abusers. But remember that your feelings are valid even if they're not positive, there are a lot of things worth being angry about in this world, and narcissists very rarely worry that they might have narcissistic tendencies.
posted by lampoil at 7:26 AM on July 24 [3 favorites]

His argument is just more gas-lighting.

Anger is a natural reaction to this. You are responsible for dealing with it but you aren't responsible for creating the situation.

I wish you well on your recovery from this abuse.
posted by jclarkin at 7:32 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]

Your feelings and your life belong to you, but none of us live in a vacuum where we are unimpacted by especially the people closest to us. Like other people have said, this guy piled gaslighting on more gaslighting, deliberately upsetting you and then blaming you for it, thus causing you to spiral and doubt yourself, amusing himself with your distress and confusion.

Congratulations on getting away from him, and best wishes on your recovery and your future where he will be merely a distant memory.
posted by bile and syntax at 7:52 AM on July 24

One of the best framings I ever learned was "when you say X, I feel Y." It's not assigning blame or causation, it's explaining the correlation between X and Y. In a healthy relationship, a partner cares that you feel Y, even if they did not mean to make you feel Y, and together they say "what can we say/do differently instead of X?" It is often a good way to spot bad faith if you can immediately see that one person is instead insisting that Y is your problem, or nobody else ever feels Y, or they wouldn't say X if you didn't do this other thing, or whatever.
posted by nakedmolerats at 8:31 AM on July 24 [5 favorites]

Managing one's actions in response to anger is one's own responsibility in almost all cases. The idea that you're never the cause of someone else's feeling of anger is absurd.

For example, I sometimes caused my toddler to be angry by taking something of his away. That was fine because it needed to be taken. But my actions contributed significantly to him feeling anger. He was not entirely responsible for the actions he took in response to that anger because he was a toddler and I was also in control of a lot of his life/physical comfort/etc.

Now that he is older, I still sometimes do things that make him feel angry. For example, I tell him he can't do something that I know he wants to do. That is fine, it's not wrong of me, but it is reasonably a cause of his anger. Because he is older and controls more about his life, he has more responsibility for his actions in response to his anger. He is expected not to lash out physically, for example, and that is pretty much entirely in his control all the time (barring something unusual like an illness or something.) So in that sense, his "anger" is his responsibility.

I sometimes do things that make my partner, an adult, angry. Realistically if I were to, for example, push his mother down the stairs, he would become angry. I would be the cause. He would be responsible for his actions in response to that anger, barring unusual circumstances (e.g. illness).
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 9:16 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]

Also yeah there are some people who are extremely in control of their emotional responses or just really really not reactive. But most people can be provoked into anger and I think that saying that you "caused" that anger is, in many cases, reasonable. Like if you intentionally and randomly kick someone in the shin and they become angry, it's kind of hair-splitting to say that you didn't cause them to be angry--you hurt them for no reason!
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 9:19 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]

this anger is because of this dynamic

You really hit it spot-on, right there

I have two things to say:

1. In a Philosophy class I took years ago, we were discussing the difference between Philosophers and Rhetoricians at the start of Western Philosophy.

Rhetoricians were in it simply to win the argument. They would use every "HS Debate Club" trick (known logical fallacies, etc.) just because they wanted to win.

Philosophers, on the other hand, were there to learn from the "argument" (discussion really). A quote attributed to Socrates is, "In any philosophical debate, I don't want to win. I want to lose because, in losing, I have learned something new that day."

He was full on doing rhetoric.

Arguments in relationships stem from each side having a different need. What he was saying was his need was the only one that mattered. What you were saying was how can we meet both needs or how can we compromise.

Clearly, one of those is much better.

2. Wow. I am really glad you are out of that situation. I would like to think I would have left the first time I heard that BS line.
posted by a non mouse, a cow herd at 11:35 AM on July 24 [3 favorites]

You had righteous anger. Meaning, you were right to be angry because of his misconduct towards you. He was denying that your anger had any validity so he could avoid responsibility for his wrongdoing. This is a standard tactic of abusers: minimize, deny, blame the victim, play the victim, etc.

Righteous anger is a signal to you, and a tool for you, to get out of the bad situation. By denying that your anger was righteous (had validity), he was working to keep you in the bad situation so he could continue to abuse you, for whatever sick reasons he had.

I'm sorry this happened to you. I'm glad you were able to extricate yourself. I hope you stay angry until you work through this and there is no chance, none at all, of your going back to him. I hope after that your anger dissipates so you can move on with a happy, positive life. Congratulations on getting yourself away from him.
posted by KayQuestions at 3:05 PM on July 24

Missed the edit window.

On preview, I see you say he "righteously said...blah blah blah load of gaslighting crap". Acting righteous is another technique of abusers. It does not mean he was right. It is just another form of gaslighting, abuse, blaming the victim, and preparing the victim to accept more abuse.
posted by KayQuestions at 3:11 PM on July 24

Yes. In exactly the same way that you're responsible for someone's bruises when you grab their arm, hit them with it, and taunt them by saying "why are you hitting yourself?"
posted by lucidium at 4:14 PM on July 24

Thank you all! The bits that really resonate are:
- the difference between causing and owning
- that this argument is just further gaslighting, mindfuckery, and inherently narcissistic
- that he was deflecting responsibility for his actions
- narcissistic people weaponize therapy language to support their own behavior.
- people with narcissistic tendencies project (oh yeah! it's taking me a lot of sorting and therapy to actually feel completely clear I'm not a narcissist or abuser!)
- arguing to win vs. arguing to learn something new (something he accused me of constantly actually)

The bit that doesn't resonate and is partly what confused me so much and made me stay is about intent. I'm certain he wasn't TRYING to abuse me. And in the rare moments that he stepped out of his defensiveness to see he'd hurt me, it was painful for him. He is just so disordered that most of the time he didn't care, and he found taking responsibility for his actions unbearable. And then he created a whole value system around it -- to be justified in not taking responsibility and never allowing himself to feel guilt. I think he hated the idea that anything he did had any impact on anyone else!
posted by miaow at 7:28 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]

I haven't really read everyone's responses so maybe I'm just repeating things, but just came here to say, I've had therapists tell me that "no one can make you feel a certain way," and I always felt like that was kind of a bullshit and invalidating thing to say because as you mention - the other person took certain actions that could predictably make me feel a certain way and they could have paused to think about that or consider my feelings, but they did it anyway and, as a result, I feel crappy.

However, despite my annoyance at the phrase, I feel like when a therapist has said that sort of thing to me it was really intended more as a way to encourage a perspective shift that might be useful to me in working through my feelings than to emphasize my cupability for my reactions. And even if I don't like that particular phrase I think the idea of shifting perspective in order to work through feelings is useful. What I came here to say essentially is that maybe instead of concentrating on whether you are responsible for your own feelings as you try to work through the aftermath of this relationship, you should think about the answer to the question, "What is a useful perspective to take on what happened, that will make me feel better?" Maybe it is a useful perspective to just think, "this guy is a dick who made me feel bad" even if that means you are not "taking responsibility for your feelings." I mean, ultimately that's what made you break up with him, right? The acknowledgement that he was a manipulative jerk? So being mad at him and acting on those feelings and the analysis that he was a jerk have helped you escape further harm and gaslighting. Seems like an effective reaction to him to me.

I think really you are just asking this question because he took a sort of psycho-babel phrase about taking responsibility for your feelings that is probably used completely in good faith by therapists or others and twisted it around in some way to escape taking responsibility for his actions. Don't confuse the way he used the phrase with how people using it in good faith probably mean it which I think is more about perspective shifts and gaining distance from your reactions than it is about lambasting yourself for completely understandable feelings.
posted by knownfossils at 10:39 PM on July 24

Btw, your description of some of his reactions remind me of my ex with whom I experienced a number of the things you are mentioning - we had kind of a cycle of,

1) He says something insensitive or gets angry at me for something pretty minor,
2) I ask him (in my view diplomatically) to be more sensitive/nice or change his behavior somehow and express that his actions made me feel bad,
3) He says I blame him for everything, I say I'm not blaming him, just letting him know how he made me feel and asking if we could work through it, then we have a giant fight in which he says even meaner things to me and gaslights me about what my reactions were or how I'd treated him in the discussion up to that point to justify his reaction.
4) This ends with me saying I'm breaking up with him,
5) He suddenly seems like a reasonable person again and apologizes and resolves to work through it, he's really (excessively) nice and accommodating to me for some period, and
6) Then the whole cycle repeats itself the next time something comes up, with his added anger and resentment that he had been "so nice" to me and worked so hard to make things up to me during the interim period which probably justifies him being meaner to me the next time around.

Sometimes in the midst of all the above I'd lose it and say something mean to him as well, and I then felt bad about it later on, or wondered if I could have just left whatever it was that sparked the argument alone. Like you said in your update I don't think he was consciously trying to feed into this cycle, he just convinced himself that I really was that mean or always blamed him for everything or whatever as a deflection technique.

I think for my own feelings of guilt after the final breakup, the best policy was to try to work on self-compassion. You seem like you empathize with him and want to have compassion for him, which is nice, but maybe it's more useful to redirect those feelings towards yourself.
posted by knownfossils at 11:06 PM on July 24

I think part of what makes this confusing is that abusers aren't perfectly one thing or another. They aren't scripted TV characters, and really abusive people can do nice things sometimes. It's super hard to untangle. But the truth is even really evil people do ordinary things . They still eat, they still give gifts, and they may occasionally even reflect on their own actions. But abusive individuals do not change their behavior. Even if they did, you don't have to be with them . he was abusive to you period, even if sometimes he was somebody you wanted to be around.
posted by AlexiaSky at 12:42 AM on July 25

He is just so disordered that most of the time he didn't care, and he found taking responsibility for his actions unbearable. And then he created a whole value system around it -- to be justified in not taking responsibility and never allowing himself to feel guilt.

There's your answer. The argument about responsibility was just a verbal maneuver to avoid having to consider the possibility that something he did hurt someone.

Even if they didn't intend to hurt you, an emotionally healthy person would care that you got hurt and would try to work with you to find different ways to handle the situation. If I say "no" and it hurts your feelings, it doesn't mean I should say "yes" but it does mean I don't deny that my "no" had an impact on you.
posted by metahawk at 2:46 PM on July 25 [2 favorites]

TELL ME NO LIES- ++++++1. Dead on point.
Might I add, asking a narcissist for ownership of abusive behavior is like asking a thief who's watch they have. You'll never get past their self serving modus operandi. Nothing they think or feel has any bearing on another persons comfort. That's the way they live. Unless you want to meet the narcissist in their head you dont need to correct your reactions.
posted by The_imp_inimpossible at 3:09 PM on August 3

I'm certain he wasn't TRYING to abuse me. And in the rare moments that he stepped out of his defensiveness to see he'd hurt me, it was painful for him. He is just so disordered that most of the time he didn't care, and he found taking responsibility for his actions unbearable.

Not to be dismissive but: welcome to the patriarchy. Men are socialized their entire lives to believe that someone else will pick up their shit, that they are not responsible for jack, and that emotions are for women.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:35 AM on August 9

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