Reading Time: 8 minutes (Andreas Fickl.)
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Hi and welcome back! I find inspiration in the strangest places sometimes. Case in point: this story from Cheat Sheet about a TV show called 90-Day Fiance. In it, an unpopular star repeatedly calls his ex-girlfriend ‘sweetheart’ in one of this show’s ‘tell-alls.’ And the show’s fans exploded in outrage. They were right to take offense at his use of this pet name. If a target’s not familiar with this tactic, unwanted pet names can be a potent control-grab. Today, let me show you this tactic — and why controlling people love it so much.

(Andreas Fickl.)

(Filed Under: In B4 Dad Jokes Department. Today’s post regards the pet names used for people. As for the actual names of animals that are pets, we’ll cover that some other time.)


90 Day Fiance is a silly, long-running TV show with a passionate cult following. This reality show follows the stories of Americans who’ve fallen in love with foreigners as they progress toward marriage — and beyond. The show’s title refers to the time limit placed upon the foreigners: once they arrive in America, they have exactly 90 days to get married to their American lovers — basically, the duration of an American tourist visa. If no wedding has taken place by then, they must go back home.

The clock is ticking! Will they or won’t they? OMG!

I’ve heard that American stars get paid by the show’s producers for their time, while the foreigners get only TV exposure. It’s something legal, apparently. But that exposure can be powerful in and of itself — especially for foreigners in desperate situations in their home countries. As we’ll see, one show’s star is currently enjoying the fruits of that exposure.

As you might expect, the vast majority of the show’s couples don’t actually work out well. Some have been in perma-engagement limbo for years, while others break up without ever getting married. Of the marriages that take place, many seem happy.

Indeed, on an update piece on Women’s Health, the writers subtitled their update “Get ready for a rollercoaster ride.” It wasn’t quite as roller-coastery as they claimed, but still, wow, it contained a lot of drama.

Larissa and Colt and Jess.

On that Women’s Health piece, in fact, we get a brief look at one such unhappy couple: Larissa and Colt. They appeared on Season 6 of the show. Larissa Dos Santos Lima, a Brazilian, met American Colt Johnson on social media. They soon married, but divorced quickly afterward.

And oh, what a truly disastrous couple they were. I’m sure the series’ producers thought they’d hit solid gold with these two drama llamas. They fought often — seriously and in public. Making matters considerably worse, Colt was still firmly tied to his mother Debbie’s apron strings. Debbie rarely hesitated to insert herself into her son’s relationships.

Nobody was surprised when that union didn’t last. The authorities charged Larissa with domestic battery some few months into the marriage, and Colt filed for divorce shortly afterward.

Colt soon moved on to another Brazilian woman, Jess Caroline. (What can we say? He’s obviously got a type. Too bad he is in no way emotionally capable of handling that type.) Thankfully, that new relationship ended about a year ago and before Jess could make the mistake of marrying him.

For her own part, Larissa moved on as well. She’s living the American dream with various side gigs, one of which got her “released” from the show recently.

I am firmly convinced that Colt is one of those guys who doesn’t need a wife so much as a mommy stand-in he can fondle.

In general, fans of the show have never liked Colt either — for a variety of reasonsAnd recently, they got yet another reason to dislike him — this time regarding his second relationship with Jess.

The Tell-All.

On the 27th, 90 Day Fiance ran one of its tell-all episodes. Larissa, Jess, and Colt (and, of course, his mom) appeared on it, along with various other past-and-present stars.

In a tell-all, reality-show stars just sit around and answer questions from a host. The questions usually center around their time on the show and what happened after they left it. I reckon that reality shows like doing these episodes. They’re inexpensive to film and provide endless drama for fans to enjoy.

Well, this one proved to be no disappointment to its makers. Between another star, Elizabeth, calling Larissa a “f***ing stripper” and her husband Andrei snarking her plastic surgeries, Colt apparently decided to get in on the action with Jess.

Jess accused Colt of lying to her and generally being a “terrible” boyfriend (probably referring to his extremely unsavory antics during their relationship).

At that point, Colt went on the full offensive. I was impressed. He dropped all pretense of being easy-going and better-than-that, and he went right for her throat.

Anyone who’s done hard time with a narcissist can probably recognize the retaliation attempt he pulls — and the control grab as well.


Colt immediately hitches up his preacher eyebrows (to show extra sincerity). He whines that Jess “wanted to change [him]” during their relationship:

You wanted to change the way I lived, the way I looked, and everything about me. You didn’t love me. And that’s fine, but don’t act like you were the best girlfriend.

It’s an interesting reach, as well as a deflection away from the antics previously mentioned. He’s positioning her attempts to change him (which might be valid; I neither know nor care) as being way worse than him lying to her and sending dick pics to other women while dating her. If he thought all his accusations against her were “fine,” he wouldn’t have brought them up at all. Instead, he’s positioning her perceived sins against his own — and finding her wanting in that equation.

Worse, he casts aspersions upon whatever words of love she gave him while they dated. That’s a good example of gaslighting — and a common tactic for abusive people generally, and narcissists in particular. They recast reality in a way intended to get their victims off-balance.

Gaslighting can be a powerful control-grab, especially if it works and the victim begins to doubt her own perceptions, feelings, and memories. But if the intended victim realizes what’s happening and rejects it, it can blow up in the narcissist’s face.


What happens next cemented my impression of Colt as a narcissistic loser. Jess protests that she did genuinely love him. Any narcissist would fully expect her to do exactly that, especially after slamming her as Colt did. It’s like she set up his return shot on the tee for him.

He replies, still with the preacher eyebrows and barely able to conceal his glee at unleashing his biggest gun:

What did you love about me, sweetheart? What did you love?

That wasn’t the only time he used that false pet name, either. He also ended up blaming Jess for his own decision to send those dick pics — yes. She wasn’t being affectionate enough. So he just had to do it. That’s another example of standard-issue narcissism on display.

But that first one, right there, already had me exploding with the rage of a million fiery suns — along with a whole multitude of the show’s fans.

Nobody Calls Me That But My Parents.

Obviously, names are important to us. They are the thing that first delineates me from the sea of not-me around us when we’re young. Teachers know the importance of pronouncing a child’s name correctly and learning it quickly. Deliberate mispronunciations, on the other hand, become a weapon in the hands of those who wish to show hostility and aggression toward their targets.

YouTube video

Obligatory Key & Peele sketch. Interestingly, I used “Shaughnessy” as a handle for a while. I only stopped because literally nobody could spell it. 

In that same vein, pet names open up a whole other field of hostility for awful people. Officially, pet names are an example of hypocorism. People who care about each other invent and use pet names as a way of showing affection and closeness. Someone’s even done a master’s thesis on the pet names used by longtime-married couples, discovering that their use of pet names dwindled as time went on and that more happily-married couples used them more often than those who weren’t as happy.

Controlling people use pet names in a variety of ways — inventing them, deploying them, and even refusing to use them as appropriate to their plans right then.

YouTube video

A scene from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” Here, we see Charlie Sheen’s character refusing to use Jeanie’s newly-invented nickname. He also negs her a few times. Quite a charmer, that one. Interestingly, a bunch of guys told me in the 1980s that they viewed the name “Shawna” very negatively. I never saw a problem with it though.

You can spot a control-grab using pet names very quickly and easily just by asking if the target enjoys great emotional closeness right then with the controller.

In this case, Jess had broken up with Colt amid much drama. So she was extremely unlikely to find his whiney sweetheart invocation amusing or genuinely affectionate.

The Dynamics of Power.

A long time ago, I read a roleplaying essay that asserted that usually, the powerful people in any given scene weren’t the ones wandering around nearly naked.

YouTube video

A scene from “Flash Gordon.” Theory checks out so far.

In similar fashion, the person using an unwanted, unmerited pet name usually either is the controlling partner or really wants to be so. They’re positioning themselves as a powerful person, and the person receiving the new nickname is therefore the one being controlled.

This all reminds me of my time as a Pentecostal. We used to say that the power to name something or someone, like the power to define a word, was a sign of ownership — of the person, concept, whatever.

Here, it seems like Colt sought power over Jess — and he did not seem to react well when she simply didn’t acknowledge it. She rose above his control-grab and kept the conversation on his behavior, where it belonged.

(Eventually, Jess even called him a narcissist — and he reacted even more poorly to that! One Redditor got really creeped out at how his face “twisted” when he heard that.)

In the Wild.

Watch out for terrible people who use diminutives to belittle their opponents. It’s one big reason why I explicitly don’t allow that behavior here.

I haven’t spotted toxic Christians doing that for a while around here. However, at one time it was quite common for male toxic Christians in particular to show up here and start up the “honey/baby/sweetie” routine with female commenters (and me, of course). Maybe they got tired of us throwing it back in their faces along with detailed speculations about exactly what kind of loser needs to emotionally manipulate people to feel superior.

But you can still see people doing it in many places. In 2018, a young woman objected to unwanted pet names — and got called them many times in the comments to her opinion post. In 2016, the American Bar Association actually formally disallowed that behavior in members. That link comes to us from a female pastor who says male congregants frequently use unwanted pet names on her, probably to minimize or negate her power over them. And still another post from 2014 has a man marveling at how many people don’t seem to like pet names.

(Here’s the search I ran for it.)

So in summary:

Watch for the power dynamics in that person’s mind shifting as they use the pet name — and see how often those dynamics seem to move in their favor and out of the other person’s favor.

Unwanted pet names can be a powerful way to equalize power differentials and seize control. As such, terrible people reach for them as a matter of course.

Learn to recognize them — and reject them.

NEXT UP: It’s always ten seconds to doomsday in evangelical-land. See you tomorrow for THE TIPPING POINT.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...