03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Obama Abuse

Say what you will about the content. The point is in the process, as we therapists say. I am referring to the tone of objections raised when our President won the Nobel Peace Prize:

• RNC Chairman, Michael Steel, rather than basking in the shared glory of a national honor, called it "unfortunate."

• Fox's Sean Hannity complained that Obama won the prize "for trashing America."

• RedState's Erick Erickson suggested that the Nobel Peace Prize had "an affirmative action quota for it."

Obama cannot win for losing. As Eugene Robinson noted in the Washington Post, "If Obama ended world hunger, they'd accuse him of promoting obesity." This is the classic dilemma faced by abuse victims. No matter what they do, they'll be criticized... or worse. The verbiage being hurled at President Obama sounds, to my twenty five years of counseling-trained ears, more like the rhetoric of abuse than of political discourse. Let's transfer this dynamic to another setting:

Imagine you're a social worker or a minister. A couple comes into your office because they can't agree how they should spend their money, or who should make dinner after a long day. It's the kind of garden-variety issue that any couple might need to sort out. But this couple can't. They argue about one thing then, without resolving it, fight just as furiously over something else. They throw emotional grenades for the sole purpose of wounding: "You won't take the garbage out because you're a lazy bum like your father," or "If you weren't such a pig we wouldn't have so much garbage!" Stuff like that.

One person is contemptuous, scornful, scolding; the other is back-peddling and defensive. The subject changes, but the way they talk to each other doesn't. Something else is going on here. If you want to know what it is, use a social work trick: forget what they're saying, and notice what they're doing.

In a healthy relationship, you'll see people, however ineffectually, trying to come to some sort of understanding. They disagree without impugning one another's character. They express their needs and acknowledge the other's concerns. They apologize, empathize, compromise, or failing all that, agree to disagree. They regard themselves as fallible, and the other as a whole human being acting in good faith, with a valid point of view, which may be different from their own.

In an abusive relationship, the dynamic is the opposite. It consists, not of respectful, or even heated, discussion between peers over an issue of mutual concern. Rather, one party puts the other down, and makes unfounded accusations regarding the motives, character, or abilities of their partner, which go far beyond any issue at hand. The accused party, confounded by the bizarre allegations, responds by attempting to answer, or appease, the accuser. When this happens, what the parties are doing is the dance of abuse and appeasement.

It goes something like this:

"How many times have I told you I like my meat well done? Don't you ever listen? Take this back and do it right, if you can, if you're not too stupid."

"I'm sorry, honey, I really tried to get it right this time. Last time you said it was burnt, so I tried to make it less done. Here, mine is perfect. Why don't you take mine?"

You've already put ketchup all over yours. You know I hate ketchup."

So the cook, ashamed, quaking in fear, or seething with resentment, returns to the kitchen and attempts to cook the steak "right." When she returns, do you think her husband says, "Perfect. Thank you, darling?"

Not likely.

He says "Now it's rubbery. You're useless, just like your mother," or "You know I hate beets, why the hell did you give me beets? You can't do anything right."

In this dance of abuse, the abuser will never acknowledge anything done "right", or accept any compromise. This keeps the victim off balance, walking on egg shells, never knowing which way to turn to avoid further criticism and humiliation. No matter what the victim does to try to please, it will not satisfy an abuser. That's because it's not about the dinner; it's about power and control. Abuse is unpredictable because the issue at hand is merely a ploy. The abuser does not want to be satisfied. He is looking for an excuse or justification to abuse.

We can see this dynamic in operation over health care reform. The Republicans called it socialized medicine. So the Democrats, trying to be reasonable, took single payer off the table and even removed the public option, in spite of the fact that their constituencies overwhelmingly supported it. To hell with what the citizens wanted. They were busy trying to appease the accuser, "See, what we want isn't socialized medicine -- look, we'll prove it. We'll remove anything that could possibly look like that."

That could have been a compromise in good faith, if the Republicans had accepted it. But they did not, because it was not the issue. Instead they did what abusers always do. They came up with another accusation," You're trying to kill grandma!" (Abusers often become increasingly irrational in their accusations, as each previous objection is answered.) They compared healthcare reform to a Nazi plan, and accused the Democrats of plotting to kill newborns and disabled children. Together, talk show pundits and the health care industry mobilized thousands of gullible, ill-informed consumers to attend town meetings carrying signs and slogans. While these had no basis in fact, they were successful in stirring up national hysteria.

Once more, the Democratic appeasers tried to calm things down using reason. "Oh, dear, you must have misunderstood. That was never my intention." And did their Republican opponents say, "Gosh, glad to hear it. I didn't think you would do anything like that, my fellow Americans?" Again, not likely.

In keeping with the cycle, they raised still more bogus issues to find fault with. The plan would increase the deficit, break the system, and give free healthcare to illegal immigrants ----anything they could find in the kitchen sink to throw at the Democrats who continued their appeasement tactics, still trying to get a bi-partisan bill. If you know anything about abuse, you know that was never going to happen.

Why? Because, from the point of view of an abuser, the other person is not just doing something wrong, which theoretically s/he could correct. They are something wrong - fundamentally wrong. Like black. Or female. Or gay. Or child. Or liberal. Or Hutu. Take your pick--it could be any "other." Wrong by definition. Irrevocably and irredeemably bad and wrong. And you don't compromise with someone who is bad and wrong.

Nor do you acknowledge their strengths or victories.

If someone is, de facto, bad and wrong, then anything positive they do or get must be a mistake. Ergo, the Nobel Prize is, paradoxically, both worthless and undeserved. If Obama got it, the logic goes, since he is worthless, the prize must be worthless. But if it has value, Obama is such a piece of shit that he should give it back - like a child caught shoplifting. Ask any abusive parent why he or she hit their child, and they will tell you "He deserved it," or "I need to whip the devil out of him." The RNC, Fox News, and Rush Limbaugh use the same sort of language about Obama. They do not merely disagree with the President's actions or policies. They impugn his character, his citizenship, his patriotism, and his very being. Obama cannot do anything right, because, from their perspective, who he is, is wrong. Period.

There is only one thing to do in the face of abuse: refuse to play your role. An abuser cannot abuse unless their partner is willing to appease, for the sake of the relationship, or for the sake of bi-partisanship, which is the same thing. That's the game. It takes two to play it. Of course, you can never appease an abuser enough. That, too, is the game. If you want to end the abuse, you must stand up for yourself. The best way for an abused woman to stop her abuser is to say, "You take one more step and I'm calling 911," and then do it. This is something Republicans understand. They are not afraid to stand up for what they believe in. They frequently and correctly wipe the Democrats' noses in their own wimpy behavior -behavior which, ironically, enrages the abuser more and adds to his disrespect. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, appeasement feeds the cycle of abuse.

To halt it, Democrats must say, "I'm sorry you don't like the public option, but Americans overwhelmingly want this. Moreover, it is necessary for the very thing you say is paramount: cost containment. If you don't want to sign on, that's fine-we'll do it without you," and then make sure the voters know, in no uncertain terms, who worked for the people and who worked for the insurers.

This is beginning to happen. Democrats are waking up to the fact that the opposition was never trying to reach agreement. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint told us that back in July, when he said "If we're able to stop Obama on this it will be his Waterloo. It will break him." That's pretty clear. What more would you need to hear to know you're in an abusive relationship?

An abuser is like a drunk. You don't argue with a drunk. Nothing you do or say is going to change them. You have to walk away, without appeasing or returning the abuse, and do what you think is right. Sure, it's a risk, but to allow such a cycle to continue unchecked can lead to catastrophe.

Abuse too often escalates beyond words. Jay Severin, Boston-based talk show host, already called on his listeners to "destroy" Obama before he causes "our doom as a nation." Fox News commentator Liz Trotta quipped, with a chuckle and a smile, that it would be nice to assassinate both Osama bin Laden and Obama. In Maine, a convenience store hosted a betting pool on when Obama will be assassinated, accompanied by a sign that read: "Let's hope someone wins."

How far must this go before the President sees the handwriting on the wall and stops his compromise and appeasement tactics? If he doesn't, we know too well where it could end.