Terms You Need to Know


In my articles and on my website, I use a variety of terms to describe the crazy, traumatic, and often dehumanizing tactics deployed by an abusive personality against his or her target. Many of my readers are familiar with these terms, since they’re common to nearly all abusive relationships. However, a refresher is always good, and if you’re just becoming aware of what’s going on in your life and determined to educate yourself as much as possible, a list of these terms can be very helpful.

However, this list is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg—there are so many more I could mention, but I don’t want the article to run too long. If you have any other terms you’d like to add to the list, please share in the comments.

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Abuse Cycle — The Abuse Cycle is a four-stage pattern of behavior that can be seen in many (but not all) abusive relationships. These four stages of the Cycle of Abuse are generally known as tension, incident, reconciliation, calm. However, some experts use different terms (for example, “honeymoon” instead of “reconciliation”).

Not all abusive relationships are cyclical, so the four-stage cycle of abuse isn’t accurate for everyone. Even so, it’s true in many toxic interactions, and it helps identify how the pattern of abuse can play out in some relationships. Keep in mind, though, that the cycle of abuse doesn’t take into account the individuality of each person or relationship, or how a victim might experience abuse from their partner. Read more about the abuse cycle: “Unwittingly Describing the Abuse Cycle”

Baiting — If you’re with someone who uses abusive tactics as a means of manipulating and controlling their relationship, you may have experienced “baiting.” This is when your partner provokes a strong reaction from you, pushing you beyond your limits until you respond in an angry or desperate manner.

Once you’ve taken the “bait” and reacted strongly, your partner has created a way to retaliate. You may be accused of being the abuser in the relationship, or told that you’re crazy and unhinged.

You’re none of those things! It’s important to renounce those lies. For example, you can pray, “In the name of Jesus, I renounce the lie that I’m crazy. In the name of Jesus, I take back the truth that I’m strong and I have my own God-given mind.”

Belittling — Pretending verbal abuse is “just a joke” and that sarcasm is acceptable is another distinct and damaging form of abuse. “Just a joke” and sarcasm are both covert attacks at your very personhood, and are demeaning to your dignity as a person made in the image and likeness of God. See “Under My Thumb: Coercive Control and the Sensitive Victim” and “Sarcasm as a Weapon: An Insidious Tactic of Verbal Abuse” for more information.

Breadcrumbing — Breadcrumbing occurs when an abusive individual drops small crumbs of tenderness, warmth, or positive attention into their relationship. The goal is that of keeping you hooked with the delusion that love and mutual affection can actually exist between the two of you.

This type of emotional abuse habituates you into tolerating toxic behavior—all with your perpetual hope of receiving some crumbs of love from time to time.

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Cognitive Dissonance — Cognitive dissonance describes the excruciating confusion of trying to grasp two contradictory beliefs at the same time. For example, if you’re a victim of domestic abuse, it’s likely very difficult to reconcile the “Dr. Jekyll” part of your partner with their “Mr. Hyde” side.

Cognitive dissonance is particularly distressing when we intuitively know the truth, yet we doubt our own reality (see “Gaslighting”). What we see at any given time isn’t necessarily what we get—and this is so painfully confusing.

Countering — The person in your life who is using abuse to control you opposes everything you express or try to communicate to them—even if it’s your own opinion or you have irrefutable proof of what you’re attempting to tell them. The abuser often says the same thing you were saying, then denies you were saying it and claims the opposite. This is crazy-making at it’s best!

It can be easy to confuse countering with simple disagreement, but there are crucial differences. People don’t always see eye-to-eye—differences of opinion are normal and even healthy when expressed in a constructive manner. However, countering is never healthy because the one countering tends to be irrational and hypocritical in what they say, with an underlying resentment and anger simply due to the fact that you’re expressing your own individual beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and opinions. When you hold fast to your own point of view, someone with an abusive part feels their control slipping away. They want to be the one to tell you what you believe and hold to be true. In other words, they want to control all aspects of your life—including your own thoughts.

Woman with facial emotions

(Andrea Piacquadio / pexels.com)

Crazy-Making — Have you ever been told that you’re crazy, that maybe something is wrong with your head (whether psychologically or medically), that you’re losing you’re grip on reality? Perhaps you feel you are. Yet deep down, your gut intuition says NO! Your perceptions are real, even if they are being constantly denied and countered (see above). Well, that’s crazy-making at its best. If you doubt yourself, your beliefs and preferences, if you can’t seem to do things on your own any longer, crazy-making may be at play. Crazy-making includes denial of things the abuser has done, claimed, or statements they’ve made in the past; twisting situations to place responsibility onto you in an attempt to prove your mental instability or sketchy memory; and outright lying to further convince you of how crazy you are.

DARVO Deny—Attack—Reverse Victim and Offender. DARVO an acronym for a series of manipulative tactics that a perpetrator will use to deny their wrongdoing by attacking the person they offended, then reversing the roles and trying to make themselves out to be a victim when in fact they’re the offender.

This powerful form of manipulation twists the focus away from whatever problem the true victim may have tried to bring up, thus enabling the perpetrator to completely avoid the issue as well as all accountability for abusive behaviors.

The DARVO tactic of manipulation generally plays out like this:

  1. Deny. The perpetrator intensely denies whatever concern the true victim is wanting to talk about. This form of gaslighting involves a twisting or reality in an effort to “get off the hook” and cause the target of the manipulation doubt their perception or memory of events, or even their own reality. The target often wonders if they’re “blowing things out of proportion” or “being too sensitive”—as the abuser claims. For example, perhaps the target found incriminating text messages of a sexual nature on her partner’s phone, so she confronts him about infidelity. He counters with a denial that the texts weren’t sexual in nature, claiming she “read them wrong.”

  2. Attack. The perpetrator twists the focus of the conversation, goes on the defensive and acts shocked to be “accused” of something which they did, in fact, do. For example, the perpetrator could attack by saying, “What were you doing snooping on my phone? You’re so controlling and ridiculous. I can’t believe you even did that! What’s wrong with you?” Which then sets the stage for ….

  3. Reverse Victim and Offender. The ultimate phase of the twisted tactic of DARVO is for the perpetrator insist they’re the “victim” in the situation, that they’re the one being abused and that they’re owed a groveling apology. They’ll then use their so-called “victimhood status” as a way to further abuse and manipulate their target into compliance—and they’ll also hold the situation against their partner in the future, at any time it suits them best. For example, “You always control me, and mistrust me. I can’t do anything right in this relationship. I try so hard, but you still doubt me. There’s no way I can please you, even though I try. Still, I love you and will put up with you because that’s just the type of person I am …”

Flying Monkeys — This is the term used to describe individuals who—knowingly or unknowingly—collaborate with an abuser in carrying out manipulative tactics. Named after the submissive slaves of the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz, flying monkeys seem to be held under the spell of an abuser, and do his or her bidding without question.

It can be very difficult to identify a flying monkey, since they may seem to be caring people who merely take sides in a certain conflict or relationship. Often they don’t understand that they’re being manipulated by a controlling personality. Instead, they faithfully assist the abuser by attacking the victim in whatever way they’re told—because they’ve been brainwashed to do so.

This common abusive tactic uses family, friends, and even members of your local community to spread lies and gossip about you, to spy on you, and to otherwise make you out to be the perpetrator.

Gaslighting — This tactic encompasses so much. For example, crazy-making, countering, denial … these are all forms of gaslighting.

Gaslighting happens when a person uses subtle ways to condition and convince his or her target that their own reality, feelings and beliefs are inaccurate. Typically, a gaslighter uses various covert tactics in order to consciously or even unconsciously brainwash their victim. For example, they might deny saying or doing something that they obviously said or did, or they might convince you that you heard wrong or that your memory is faulty.

If you’re a victim of gaslighting, you may doubt yourself and even your own sanity, which leads to greater dependence upon others—especially upon the person who is gaslighting you. You find yourself turning to them to define your reality, because you no longer feel strong enough to trust your own perceptions.

Hoovering — (see below, “Love bombing”) Once the relationship has been established and the toxic part of the individual shows up, the abuse cycle begins in earnest. After an abusive incident escalates, the person with narcissistic traits may afterward act contrite and begin another round of flattery, gifts, being extra kind, etc. This stage of the abuse cycle is designed to suck you back into the web of the relationship and is called “hoovering,” named after the Hoover vacuum cleaner.

Vacuum cleaner red top black bottom

(Pixabay / pexels.com)

Love Bombing — This is the phrase used to describe what typically happens in the initial stage of a relationship with someone who has a strong abuse part to their personality. A form of psychological and emotional abuse, love bombing happens when the manipulating individual goes out of their way to impress you by flattering you, buying you wonderful gifts, painting an amazing future for the two of them, telling you “I’ve never felt this way about anyone before,” and doing other things to make you feel as if they’ve met their soul mate.

Projection — Also known as blame-shifting, this tactic was first described by Anna Freud in 1936 when she recognized a self-defense mechanism that people use in order to avoid unwanted feelings about themselves, or to shift their negative thoughts and behaviors onto others. Chances are most of us have done this from time to time, but a major red flag starts waving when the tactic becomes a recurrent and unrelenting pattern in a relationship.

This form of manipulation becomes toxic when a person frequently shifts responsibility for something negative they’ve done—or for the personality flaws they have—in order blame their target for being the “bad guy.” For example, if they’re a neglectful parent, they’ll blame their spouse for being neglectful, even though the opposite is true. They refuse to admit any wrongdoing, instead blaming others for the specific thing that they’re guilty of. This helps them to both avoid shame and to feel superior.

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Trauma Bond — A trauma bond is when a victim forms a powerful, fiercely faithful emotional tie with their abuser, even though they’re enduring the suffering of cyclical and toxic mistreatment.

Although it may not feel like it, this is a psychological and also chemical bond, not an emotional one. It’s the cyclical nature of the abuse—one moment he’s Dr. Jekyll, bringing roses and gushing love (see “hoovering” and “love bombing”), and the next Mr. Hyde appears, spewing all sorts of verbal, emotional, perhaps even physical venom. From a psychological point of view, this is what forms a trauma bond (see “breadcrumbing”). Yet more is at play here. Our brain releases chemicals when we’re stressed, anxious, under threat … As well as when those feelings are relieved. When they’re relieved, we crave more of that brain chemical in order to feel safe. This is why the “good times” in a toxic relationship feel so very, very good. They ease the bursting pressure. They provide relief. See my article, “Sinking the Titanic: Drowning Under the Waves of a Trauma Bond” and “How a Trauma Bond Can Change Your Attachment Style” for more.

Triangulation — Triangulation describes a form of manipulation in which an individual tries to control an intimate situation by bringing in a third party, with the goal of attempting to verify or coerce their point of view.

This tactic is all about twisting a situation in order to create conflict and/or miscommunication. As with all other abusive tactics, this may or may not be intentional on the part of the manipulator—yet that doesn’t matter. The end result is the same, and it’s still abuse.

Some individuals with abusive tendencies use the manipulative tactic of triangulation as yet another way to seek control over their partners. In this tactic, abusers manipulate their victim by talking with a person outside of their relationship about intimate (and often false) details regarding their partner. They target someone who is close to their partner—a friend, family member, a co-worker, etc.—in order to create conflict and miscommunication. The goal is to make the abuser look like the “good guy,” because they can then be the mediator of the situation, or appear to be the one source of stability.

Trivializing — Patricia Evans, author of The Verbally Abusive Relationship, defines trivializing as “abusive behavior that makes light of your work, your efforts, your interests, or your concerns. It is done very covertly, often with feigned innocence.”

Examples of trivializing include:

  • “It’s great that you earned your master’s degree in visual art! But what can you even do with that degree, except teach? I only ask because I care about you and want what’s best …”

  • “I come home from work, and the house is so messy. What have you been doing all day?” (When, in reality, you’ve been homeschooling the kids, doing the laundry and dishes, changing diapers and … well, the list can go on and varies from person to person, but you get the idea.)

  • “You like to write short stories? That’s a great hobby. I’ve never been interested in fiction myself, though. I’m so busy, I don’t have that sort of leisure time to waste.”

Withholding — A form of emotional abuse in which the person who is acting abusively withholds affection, conversation, mutual self-giving, emotional support, or physical attention. Refusing to effectively or actively communicate is another form of withholding, and one that can be particularly confusing to the victim.

If you’ve a victim of withholding, you may feel ignored, lonely, isolated, or as if your life isn’t your own because you have no control over what’s happening. Confusion sets in and takes root in the mind, particularly because withholding is most often alternated with hoovering, thereby creating a solid trauma bond.

Feeling being lonely when not physically alone is particularly traumatic. By its very nature, an abusive relationship doesn’t allow for true tenderness, mutual self-giving, or “the intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state” (CCC 1603). The CCC further says that marriage “is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses” (CCC 1601), yet when one spouse withholds themselves from the other, they’re certainly not concerned with the good of their partner. They’re focused only on what they perceive to be the good of themselves. See “An Abusive Marriage is a Lonely Marriage.”

Word salad — This is when a manipulator craftily spins words into a confusing jumble in order to confuse their target so thoroughly that out of sheer exhaustion the target decides to believe whatever is being said. After all, it’s easier that way. Interestingly, this phrase originally came from the field of psychiatry, where it’s often used to describe the speech of those who suffer from mental health conditions such as schizophrenia.

In a situation when the tactic of word salad is at play, the conversation goes nowhere despite all your efforts otherwise. You try—and try, and try again—to explain your thoughts, feelings, etc., but all you get is a jumbled, convoluted response that folds words in on themselves, or scrambles them up into non-comprehension. What your partner is saying—and how they’re responding—makes no sense, despite the fact that you’re being so careful to communicate properly. Even so, you’re getting confusion in response, and blame that you’re the one with the communication problem.

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As mentioned before, this list of terms is just a tip of the iceberg. I could go on, and describe so much more in detail, but that would take an entire book (or a long series of articles) in order to cover it all. In the meantime, and as always, please feel free to contact me with any questions. Due to the volume of messages I now receive, I can’t always respond as fast as I’d like—but I do always respond to each and every person who reaches out to me.

And, if f you’d like a PDF of some of these abuse terms, please contact me so I can email it to you.



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