Chip and confuse is a subtle, sneaky tactic that toxic people use to trap and control others. Perhaps surprisingly, teen dating violence and abusive behavior in toxic relationships can be hard to spot not only from the outside but from the inside, too. People who have never experienced an abusive relationship often wonder why someone stays in a relationship that is verbally, emotionally, and/or physically abusive. Why not just get out? If it were indeed that simple, of course men, women, boys, and girls alike would run, fast and far, away from an abusive relationship and never look back. Unfortunately, toxic people often use words and behavior that aren’t always easy to interpret. Here’s a look at one toxic, manipulative behavior: chip and confuse.
A trick toxic, abusive people use to control others can be called chip and confuse. Abusers slowly and subtly chip away at their partner’s self-concept while simultaneously confusing them with tangled words and contradictory behavior. Excerpts from the middle grade novel Losing Elizabeth show what this chip-and-confuse trick looks like. While Losing Elizabeth is appropriate for middle schoolers, what happens in the story applies to abusive relationships at any age; further, while in Losing Elizabeth the toxic character is male and his partner female, in real life, it can be the other way around, too, and abuse can occur in same-sex partnerships as well.
The Chip and Confuse Trick
Inconsistency. The abuser’s behavior is inconsistent, bouncing back and forth between loving and caring, to controlling, to angry, to apologetic and pleading, and back again to loving. This creates a great deal of confusion for the person suck in the relationship as they attempt to keep up with and make sense of the partner’s changing demeanor.
Elizabeth felt numb. Her initial anger at Brad had cooled, and now she didn’t know what to feel.
Put-downs. Abusers use belittling comments to manipulate their partner so they get what they want. The comments are often embedded within loving statements, and this self-doubt coupled with feelings of love is confusing.
Look at how much of your time this it’s taking. It’s taking away from us. Why would you want to spend your time struggling with something you can’t do when you could be having fun with me?
Faulty Evidence. To chip away at their partner’s self-esteem, abusers list all sorts of “proof” that he or she has a lot of faults, tidbits taken out of context, to confuse him/her.
She didn’t think anything he had said about her was true, but she couldn’t deny it, either. The more she thought, the more she believed what he had said.
Back-handed compliments and mixed messages. Loving statements mixed with derogatory remarks are cleverly disguised chip-and-confuse methods of control. An abuser makes his partner feel loved and needed while implying subtly that she isn’t quite worthy.
Brad turned back toward her, smiled, and took her in his arms. “I’m glad to hear that, Liz. I guess sometimes you really don’t think, do you? At least you came to your senses about this. I forgive you.”
Seeds of self-doubt. Cutting quips thrown in here and there plant self-doubt and slowly chip away at self-esteem.
You might not be cut out for the play.
Subtle shaming. Abusers manipulate by exaggerating what someone already feels and using it against him/her in order to create a sense of shame and feelings gratitude that the person will “put up with” him/her.
Jeez, don’t you shower and change after practice? Now I understand why girls never what anyone to see them after they work out.”
It’s a Gradual Process
Early in an abusive relationship, most of an abuser’s words and actions are kind and loving. Gradually verbal and emotional abuse increases, but it’s sprinkled in among “normal” behavior. That’s why it’s confusing.
It happens so subtly that it’s hard to believe at first. For example, it’s easy to dismiss occasional cutting remarks can be dismissed as the result of a bad mood after a hard day. However, over time, the abuser increasingly chips away at his/her partner’s self-esteem. It’s a way of controlling a partner and trapping him/her in the relationship.
In any relationship, watch carefully for signs of the chip-and-confuse trick. Losing Elizabeth shows what abusive relationships look and feel like, including the chip-and-confuse behavior.
Discover Losing Elizabeth and the chip and confuse tactic in a realistic context: