It is hard to imagine a compliment being abusive. After all, we expect that a compliment will make us feel really good about ourselves. We expect that a compliment is given in sincerity, but very often a compliment is given for completely different reasons. An abuser often offers a backhanded or an abusive compliment as a sneaky way of hurting and undermining the victim. It really is rather unexpected and rude to offer a compliment to someone while at the same time throwing in a rude, unkind, sarcastic or untrue insult at the same time. It is really easy to ignore and twist abusive compliments because they are hidden insults.
An abusive or backhanded compliment is not really a compliment at all, in fact, it is an insult in disguise. Abusive compliments are always degrading and always hurtful. It is delivered in such a way as to draw into question the very thing the compliment is about. For the abuser, who chooses to use abusive compliments, it is all about making him feel superior. His feelings are of the utmost importance and if he thinks that you are ‘showing him up’, then he will quickly shoot you down.
I used to receive abusive compliments from my ex-fiancé. He’d say things like:
“You look great, even though you’ve had 3 kids!” or “That outfit is perfect for the concert.” Then when we got to where we were going, “Everyone will think I’m having dinner with a prostitute!”
He enjoyed poking fun at my body shape with comments like “Don’t worry about your boobs, they are just fine, but did you hear there is a new breast implant procedure in Utah?” or “Don’t worry about your tummy, you’ve had 3 kids! I can just turn off the light.”
He’d offer abusive compliments regarding my housekeeping:
“WOW! This place looks great! Too bad you couldn’t keep it this way all the time.” or “Great job on supper! for someone who doesn’t know how to cook.”
These comments were always so hurtful. I never knew if I should say “Thank you” or confront him regarding the insult. He always seemed so sincere and polite. He always delivered it with a smile on his face. These backhanded compliments kept me off balance on a daily basis. I hated them. I once heard someone refer to these compliments as a way of maintaining control in an abusive relationship, noting that “They give you enough compliments to keep you happy and enough criticism to keep you insecure.” Every time I’d confront the insult, he’d act offended and feign ignorance. He’d pretend to be so surprised that I had taken offence since ‘he was just trying to be nice!’ and that, in turn, would lead to shaming and blaming me.
Living with backhanded, abusive compliments eroded my self esteem. I began to rely on his opinion of me, and encouraged me to believe that I was inferior to him. If only I’d consult him first, then I wouldn’t mess up all the time. It doesn’t work that way, however, it took 3 years and 3 broken engagement dates before I finally saw the light. His abusive compliments, coupled with many other abusive behaviors, sent me into a spiral that took a lot of work to fight out of. I never really told my friends either, because first it was so hard to explain and second, I was ashamed of the insult hidden in the compliment.
Today, I am free. My husband is truthful if I ask him about an outfit, but never hurtful. He is kind and honest and generous. He is funny and his compliments to me are sincere. I know how abusive, backhanded compliments can degrade and insult you. I understand how difficult it is to sort out the truth when all you hear are lies masked and shadowed. I encourage you to educate yourself regarding all the different kinds of tactics abusers use to hurt you so that you can combat what is being done in your relationship. I also encourage you to turn to the author and creator of you. Ask Him who you are and what He thinks of you and then be still while He speaks to your deepest hurts; redefining your self esteem.