Objectification and Dehumanization in Abusive Relationships

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Objectification is, above all, the alienation of spirit from itself.

Nikolai Berdyaev

Objectification and dehumanization are what make possible genocide, pedophilia, stalking, rape, torture, racism, war, serial killing and terrorism.

They also make manipulation, exploitation and abuse possible within personal relationships. How can you avoid such a relationship in the future?

Objectification is to see another person as an object. Sometimes only a certain person or group is objectified, based on some difference (religion, race, culture, nationality, disability, beliefs, lifestyle, sex, gender identity, socioeconomic status). This limited objectification is caused by the “us and them” function of our primitive reptilian brain, a structure located deep within the mid-brain that formed long before the cerebral cortex (but was not replaced by it). The reptilian brain perceives any difference with fear and mistrust, and as a threat to identity or survival that must be controlled or eliminated. Our cerebral cortex–the primary location of human thought, including the ability to form ideas and feelings into words–jumps in and creates rationalizations and justifications for these feelings and behaviors.

Dehumanization, which goes hand-in-hand with objectification, is the psychological process of depriving another of their humanity and individuality and demonizing them, making them seem less than human and thus not worthy of humane treatment and not deserving of moral consideration. Objectification and dehumanization lead to oppression, which is the exercise of authority or power in an unjust or cruel manner.

Unfortunately most humans are capable of this deplorable behavior, even if we have normal empathy for others in our own family and social group. This is a significant and ongoing problem–one that you can find innumerable examples of in the news, the upcoming election, in any history book, and perhaps in your own life–but it is not the subject of this blog post, which is about objectification and dehumanization in personal relationships.

 
Holocaust memorial

When someone lacks empathy in general, for whatever reason, they will not have empathy even for those closest to them, and they may objectify all people other than themselves. Psychopaths are but one type who see other persons as mere objects, and because of it they consider us to be the same as any other object in their environment: we exist for their use. There is no recognition of us as three-dimensional individuals, and therefore no regard for our feelings, rights, needs, boundaries, well-being or lives. When we are seen as an object, we aren’t considered a separate, whole, real and meaningful person with our own thoughts, feelings and perceptions. We are simply an object with no meaning except to gratify desires.

People are dehumanized in relationships through objectification, invalidation, domination, control, humiliation, ridicule, disrespecting sexual boundaries, and all other forms of emotional, verbal and physical abuse. To be objectified and dehumanized is to be treated without  dignity–the innate rights of a human being to be valued, respected, and to receive ethical treatment. Being treated as if we have no human worth lowers our own sense of self-worth. Victims tend to ask themselves what they did to deserve it, or what is wrong with them that would make someone treat them in such a way. In other words, they blame themselves for the abuser’s actions. Objectification and dehumanization says nothing about you or your worth–it is simply the act of a disordered person who lacks empathy.

Most of you reading this know what it’s like to be dehumanized by a supposed partner. How can you avoid having it happen again in the future? A person’s capacity for empathy is the most important factor in their ability to see others as humans and not objects, and in the ability to form emotional connections with others. Empathy is what connects people emotionally. Without empathy there can be no real connection, and thus no real relationship; and it is what makes abuse possible. This means that in our future relationships, the MOST IMPORTANT TRAIT we must look for in a partner is empathy. People who lack empathy can cover it up pretty well in the beginning of a relationship, but if you stay alert it will inevitably show itself. There is a list of examples at the end of this post.

“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
Brené Brown, Sociologist and Author
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One aspect of objectification in a relationship is treating a person as if they are interchangeable with other objects.

Empathy is an awareness of someone else’s thoughts and feelings, mutual understanding, caring, and expression of that care. It is made up of two distinct abilities: cognitive empathy (an awareness of someone else’s thoughts and feelings) and emotional empathy (mutual understanding, caring, and expression of that care). Psychopaths are capable of cognitive empathy, but not emotional empathy. This is what makes them able to manipulate others so well. Combined with their other traits, such as callousness, amorality, and lack of a conscience–the psychopath exhibits profound indifference to the suffering his actions cause others.

Anyone who lacks empathy is capable of objectifying and dehumanizing others; psychopaths aren’t the only ones. Narcissists, autistic people, sociopaths, people affected with psychotic disorders and those with borderline personality disorder can also lack empathy, and there seems to be some epidemic of low empathy in society in general in recent years. If you want to avoid another entanglement with a person low on empathy, psychopaths aren’t the only ones you need to watch out for! But you don’t have to learn how to diagnose all of these conditions; just look for a lack of empathy instead. That’s more than enough and all you need to know.

 

“At their core, all character-impaired individuals are to some degree empathy deficient, which is what impairs their conscience formation and allows them to do the hurtful things they do.”

George Simon, PhD, “Empathy and Character Disturbance”
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“Other aspects of objectification in relationships are treating a person like a tool for another person’s own purposes; treating them as if they are owned by, or are a slave to, the other person; treating them as if there is no need for concern for their experiences or feelings; treating them as lacking in autonomy or self-determination; and treating them as lacking in boundary integrity and as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, or break into.

Sarah Swenson, MA, LMHC, an Asperger/autism spectrum disorder specialist, describes cognitive empathy (also known as Theory of Mind) as “a person’s ability to imagine the interior life of another person. This includes understanding why someone else does something, how someone might feel in a certain circumstance, what might be important to that person; in short, it is the ability to put oneself in the mind of another person and see the world from that person’s point of view.” Without cognitive empathy–which is the core deficit in autism spectrum disorders, such as Aspergers–there can be no emotional empathy. Their partners suffer the same emotional and psychological trauma as those of psychopaths.

“In order to empathize with another person, you have to recognize that he actually exists apart from and without specific reference to you. You must understand that she has a distinct identity and an interior life of her own, with which you might possibly empathize.” Why Empathy Fails, Joseph Burgo, Ph.D., marriage and family therapist, clinical psychologist and author of The Narcissist You Know: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me World

“One doesn’t have to operate with great malice to do great harm. The absence of empathy and understanding are sufficient.”

(Charles M. Blow)

 

Emotional reciprocity, love and belonging are essential human needs. We seek relationships for the purpose of mutual fulfillment of these needs. If they are not being met, mental and physical health will suffer. People with little or no empathy can not meet these needs. Without empathy–and with objectification and dehumanization–we experience depression, low self-worth, constant anxiety, fear, shame, ongoing unresolved anger, physical illness, post-traumatic stress, loss of identity, and even mental breakdown and suicidal ideation.

In new relationships, never ignore the signs that empathy is lacking. Take them seriously as the huge red flags they are. Take an especially close look at how he or she behaves when you are most needy: when your insecurities flare up, when you’re ill, or when you’re in the midst of a tough circumstance. This can take time, especially with psychopaths, but a lack of empathy will reveal itself eventually.

 

“The true measure of a man is not his intelligence or how high he rises in this freak establishment. No, the true measure of a man is this: how quickly can he respond to the needs of others and how much of himself he can give.”

(Philip K. Dick)

Signs of a Lack of Empathy:

Does not respect your boundaries (emotional or physical). When someone doesn’t respect your boundaries, they don’t respect you and they don’t see you as a separate, autonomous individual with your own limits, needs, rights and feelings. This is a red flag that should send you running.

Makes invalidating comments when you share some difficulty or concern: It could be worse/ You shouldn’t feel that way/ Just don’t worry about it/ Stop taking everything so personally/ What about my feelings/ You’re making a big deal out of nothing. Denies your perceptions and emotions as wrong or foolish. Read more about invalidation 

Self-centeredness.

Seems to have plenty of empathy for you, but not for others. Watch out–you’re next.

Indifference to the suffering of others.

Sexism and womanizing.

Believes he is always right.

Judgmental.

Refusal to acknowledge that you have justification to be upset about something he or she did.

Expects you to fit into his or her schedule, without regard for yours.

Neglecting or ignoring you if you’re sick.

Doesn’t comfort you when you need it.

Feels he knows you better than you know yourself. When you tell him how you feel, he might tell you that’s not really how you feel. This is a sign that he or she does not see you as having a mind of your own. When someone denies your reality and tries to substitute another in its place, head for the nearest exit.

Arrogance.

When they say they’re “sorry” for something, they don’t act like they mean it. You do not see purposeful, deliberate efforts on their part to repair damage they may have done and to do better in the future. Instead, it just seems like a couple of empty words spoken to placate you.

Inability to imagine how their words and actions may make you feel.

Cheats, and then blames it on you.

Needs space (more than a day or two) and doesn’t care that it hurts you.

Isn’t interested in finding ways to soothe your worries.

Oogles or flirts with others in front of you, and then accuses you of being smothering, insecure or mistrusting when you ask him about it.

Becomes angry when you cry or get emotional.

Looks at you with a blank face when you cry.

Makes you feel out of control emotionally, and you’ve never felt that way in previous relationships.

You feel he just can’t seem to understand you, no matter how much you explain or defend yourself.

You feel he or she doesn’t know you, even though they’ve had ample opportunity.

You sense a lack of emotional connection.

There is drama and intensity, and when you look beneath it you find a lack of genuine emotional intimacy.

Treats his or your pets badly. For example, he may say he loves his dog, but he lets him run loose, neglects visiting the vet when the dog is sick or injured, gives the dog alcohol, or leaves it in a cage or out in the cold. Actions speak louder than words.

Tells you you’re too needy or too emotional.

Is hurtfully blunt and casually critical, and when you become upset he tells you he is “just being honest.” Honesty without kindness is cruelty.

Talks at length on a topic that clearly bores you, without noticing it.

Doesn’t ask you how your day was or how your doctor’s appointment went.

Forgets your birthday or other important occasions.

Brings up a sensitive topic even after you’ve asked him to stop.

Looks down on people for what he sees as their bad decisions, without taking into account how their life circumstances may have been different than his.

Expects instant forgiveness.

Censors and restricts your emotions.

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To Learn More…

Empathy: What it Is and Why You Need It

Reboot! 

How to Spot a Narcissist 

18 Ways to Spot a Narcissist 

♥ Love to all

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23 thoughts on “Objectification and Dehumanization in Abusive Relationships”

  1. Anita Dudek

    This post describes my husband of 8 long stressful years. I am afraid to divorce him.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      Anita, I’m sorry you’re in this very difficult situation of wanting to leave your abuser, but being afraid to do so. You need help from others in getting away from him, and in staying safe afterward. No matter what kind of abuse you’re suffering, please contact your local domestic violence organization (without letting him find out) as soon as possible. Start from there. I’m sure they will be able to advise you on what steps you need to take. I wish you peace and safety xx

  2. Linda

    “… profound indifference to the suffering his actions cause others.” … This jumped off the page for me. My mother, my husband and the psychopath who targeted me… what a roster of torturers! By God’s grace I am aware of my worth, I maintain good boundaries and I have a fine, fulfilling life, with treasured friends, and empathy flowing both ways! But it took me a lot of years to understand the cause of emotional pain and confusion I had experienced before I recognized who and what these people really are. This post is painful to read, and very valuable. Thank you Adelyn for another excellent resource. Knowledge is power, and you give us power every time you post these pages for us all! xx

    1. Adelyn Birch

      It was painful to write! No of us wants to think of ourselves as having been seen and treated as an object. It makes me queasy to look at it from that angle. You’re doing very well for having had a roster of torturers in your life, Linda, and I’m happy to hear it! It seems to me there’s rarely just one, and that the first one paves the way for others. My sister started it all. I think we just come to believe and accept that’s how people and relationships are. Now we know better. Knowledge is definitely power, and I’m so glad to be able to share what I’ve learned with everyone here!

  3. Deborah

    Thank you Adelyn, for all that you write and share. I’m not quite ready to share some of my experiences yet, but I know that I need to soon. I’ve been reading through your articles on the website for about a month now and I’ve really needed this.

    Deborah

    1. Adelyn Birch

      Thank you! When you feel like sharing is just the right time to share. I’m happy that what you’re finding here is helping you! All the best on the road to healing, Deborah.

  4. Totallybel

    Brilliant, thank you Adelyn. In my journey to recovery, I’d just like to share this. I now look on all our dealings in life as exchanges of energy. We do a job ( positive energy) we are paid money ( positive energy), all that we do in our social interactions is energy circulated, as in swings and roundabouts, win some, lose some, we keep moving and all balances out. With these psychopaths, it may ‘look’ as though they have much positive energy because they look and speak like us. But they are vacuums and they use our energy, purely for their benefit, they return or circulate nothing. All our positive energy they want focused solely on them, to share is anathema to them. This is still not enough, they get such a rush from causing negative energy ( hurt, fear, humiliation) they cause this on regular occasions as ‘top up’. They grow stronger, we grow weaker. And so it continues until a stop to their ‘feeding’ from us instigated. Then the ‘fun’ begins trying to force that energy from them and the energy is in material goods and assets all in their name, so at least some of it’s visible. It’s our positive energy and their capturing/hijacking of it, and in return all they can do is emit nothing, until they find another victim. I hope this makes some kind of sense to some. xxx

    1. Adelyn Birch

      It makes a lot of sense, Totallybel. As the one I knew said to me several times, “I’m a vampire.” Yes he was. And I thought he was kidding! Luckily, once they’re gone our energy and vitality builds back up within us. It takes a while, but it does. I remember right after it ended, I realized I looked like I was 10 years older, sort of pale and… desiccated. It was alarming, but it was temporary. My color–and my vitality–returned. I hope yours has, too.

    2. Linda

      Perfect Totallybel! That’s just how it feels and how it seems to work! As Adelyn says, they really are vampires, sucking our energy to fuel their useless lives. Fortunately our energy does regenerate, but it takes time and costs us dearly. Thank you for this thoughtful analysis! xx

      1. Dee

        Yes, it makes sense! I think what you have described is why they despise us so much. They need our vital energy to survive. Without it, they die.
        Psychopaths seek denomination and they fool themselves into believing they’re in control, but what they really are is dependent. Without a victim and/or an audience they’re nothing.
        I also was drained after I left. I not only looked warn and haggard, I looked contaminated. Unfortunately, the consequence of being with a sadistic deviant is that my association caused me to amass a lot of dark energy. That was the energy exchange: my light for his dark. Now, I’m back. It took a while, but I feel like myself again. : )

        1. Adelyn Birch

          Glad you’re back to yourself again, Dee. You’re right; they are dependent on us. Their control is only possible with a bag full of manipulative tricks. They’re the ones who have to wear the mask. They know that if they didn’t, they wouldn’t stand a chance.

          The Holy Grail of the Psychopath

          1. Dee

            The Holy Grail of The Psychopath is fantastic! From the mouth of a psychopath! How very sad for them. I can’t imagine such an existence. What must it be like to feel nothing at all. I think it must be hell on Earth. The post also explains why they have so much anger. When you’re onto them, they remove the mask and reveal all of that rage.

            1. Adelyn Birch

              It’s horrible, it truly is; but the author of the article the quotes are from said she felt nothing when she wrote it. I sure felt something when I read it! There’s a link to it on the bottom of the Holy Grail post, if you want to read the whole thing. Just be warned, there’s a lot of disturbing stuff on that page.

              Here’s what she had to say about empathy, since we’re on that subject here:

              “F**k empathy. I’m me and you’re you. F**k your feelings and f**k my apathy. What are we? Animals. Ruff ruff.”

              It’s still hard to believe that’s the way they think, but that’s the unvarnished truth.

        2. Totallybel

          That is exactly how it felt Dee, a contamination, and I get that, we had their dark (negative) energy amassed within us. I really was his ‘zombie servant’, prioritising him and doing his bidding most times without being told. He could and did always then say all the ‘stuff’ i did (positive energy) ‘I didn’t tell you to do A,B,C’ and of course he’d literally be right! The black hole to our humanity. And the scientists know there is ‘black’ energy in our universe, they need to discover the mathematical equation to demonstrate it. Seems like they are looking for the same answers as us!

  5. Nancy

    The experience for me was bewildering. I did not “want” this person for anything, I was much older and not looking for a relationship other than friendship. I was drawn in, seduced, and hypnotized by some strange, unexplainable insanity. I went no contact and was able to untangle myself. Recently he has resurfaced with subtle little communications, thank God I can now look at the sorry mess he is and keep moving ahead. These blogs made it possible for me to identify what the insanity consisted of. Thank you for helping me navigate this situation?
    N

    1. Adelyn Birch

      drawn in, seduced, and hypnotized by some strange, unexplainable insanity <<<Perfect description, Nancy!

      No contact works because it gives us the space and clarity to see the insanity we were involved in, which it's very difficult to do when they're continuing to influence us with their campaign of confusion. I'm happy to hear you've become untangled from it and are able to keep moving forward.

    2. Totallybel

      Hey Nancy, bewildering is right, but
      You did want him for something, it was ‘friendship’, a very human thing to want. And he ensured that was exactly what you wouldn’t and didn’t get!
      Think of them as the mirror in Snow White, that’s what they do to us, reflecting back the total negative opposite.

  6. Nancy oh Nancy W

    If anyone had told me, 22 years ago, that I would be reading this and nodding so emphatically that I might need a new pair glasses when I was done – why, I would have shown them the door and declared them bat poo crazy on the way out. My husband of almost 19 years ramped up his creativity, cruelty and began a mother lode of psychological abuse from June until December 2015. By December I was left thinking (because he is 65 years old), that he may have the beginnings of dementia or neurological decline. No, he admitted, that he did not have any neurological deficits but that his responses that were off-the-wall ludicrous and nonsensical were deliberate. They were Deliberate in an effort to drive me out. He could not simply ask me for a divorce or separation, heavens no that would be far too humane – now I am understanding how much he enjoyed his sadistic playground, which was (what was left of) my psyche. If I had not walked with my gaze pointed downward so often I might have seen the smirk on his face, the delight of making me sad, of dulling the brightness of a beautiful New England summer evening, of pushing me away. And what a playground I had! There’s the monkey bars, the giant slide, the sandbox, The teeter totter (that’s a seesaw, I believed to be his personal favorite – jump off when she’s way up top – BANG!, down she comes and slams into the ground). Of course he does not see this as anything other than, well a bad thing he did – he does not see that it is part and parcel of mental illness. Nope. It’s just the way I am, Nancy. And then would launch into all of the things that are wrong with you……. Oddly this past summer he asked a handful of questions about empathy – to the point where I turned and said, “would you like me to buy you a book?” He watched so many monster psychodramas over the summer I began to ask myself – I wonder if that is where he’s getting more of his characters? the lines he says? and then I thought myself foolish for thinking that – until I had read someone else had the same thought….. While this could easily turn into a novella, suffice it to say I have learned so very much…….. Learning every day! And I’m looking forward to some day recovering from all the little nasty twists and turns that live in my brain that color how I perceive the world and how I respond to it — got to have some faith, I found everything else maybe I’ll find some faith pretty quick!

    1. Adelyn Birch

      It’s truly awful what he did. I’m sorry you went through that. I can really understand your seesaw analogy! When I was in kindergarten, I was in love with a boy named David Watson. We went on the seesaw together every day during recess. And one day he actually did just what you said–when I was at the top, he got off and I dropped like a rock. Decades later, the psychopath did the same thing (sans seesaw). Your ex’s questions about empathy remind me of my ex’s questions about love. Now, if someone were to ask me questions they should know the answers to if they’re over age five and from planet earth, I’d run for the hills.

      Have faith, Nancy. Here’s a link to my very first blog post three years ago, when faith was all I had: Faith that you will heal is the key to healing

  7. Dee

    When my ex psychopath tried to lure me into his twisted sexual world, I asked him why he wanted to see me with another man? His reply, “Because I love you so much, It would make me happy to see you enjoy yourself.” When I told him this made no sense, he told me how lucky I was to be with a man who was not selfish and could “share!” At that time, I was in too deep to tell myself the truth. Eventually, I couldn’t take it anymore and I did leave him. Unravelling the lie I clearly saw how he was the opposite of what he wanted me to believe. He didn’t love me. He wanted to exploit me for his own pleasure. He was not selfless, but the most selfish man I have ever known. To a psychopath, all women are objects for their pleasure and control.
    When I left him, he told people I was misguided. Ha! That’s how he justified my choice to no longer be with him. Yes, in his eyes I probably was because I chose to leave and stop enabling his deviance and lies.
    Like you said, they claim to know us better than we know ourselves.
    Great post! Thank you Adelyn.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      That’s always their ‘last hurrah’–a claim that we were the ones at fault. Mine was the opposite of what he wanted me to believe, too. He came across at first like some generous, selfless and compassionate man, but in truth he was a contemptuous misanthropic scrooge.

  8. depressedempath

    Thankyou Adelyn. This post is the story of my relationship with a psychopath. It is why I am still stressed, depressed and anxious 2 years on. I still cannot believe how or why these creatures exist.
    If you are trying to work out if you’re in a relationship with a psycho, this is the most important single post to read.

    1. Adelyn Birch

      I wanted to write something uplifting for Easter and the beginning of Spring but this is the post that wanted to be written, so I’m glad you feel it’s an important one. I’m really sorry to hear you’re continuing to feel stressed, depressed and anxious! Is there anything I can do? I just tried to send you some positive energy; I hope you got it xo

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