When people think of domestic abuse, they often picture battered women who have been physically assaulted. But not all abusive relationships involve violence. Just because you’re not battered and bruised doesn’t mean you’re not being abused. Many men and women suﬀer from emotional abuse, which is no less destructive. Unfortunately, emotional abuse is often minimized or overlooked—even by the person being abused. Emotional abuse is, in many ways, harder to deal with than physical abuse. There are no telltale scars, yet the internal bruises left by emotional abuse are just as devastating as – if not more than – physical battering.
When Melissa ﬁnally married her high school sweetheart Jack, she was elated. “I have known him for years and felt like our marriage was guaranteed to work. How could it not, with us being such good friends all along?” Yet her hopes were dashed when after two weeks of her marriage, Jack began calling her names. “He insulted me with regards to my weight. From ‘piggy’ to ‘fatso’, he even said things in front of guests and would laugh out loud. I was really hurt and could not believe it. Here was the man of my dreams taking the most insecure part of me and hurting me…” Melissa says it slowly went from teasing to outright cursing when he disagreed with her. “Needless to say we are separated now — until he goes into therapy, I refuse to live in the same home [as] him.”
Tips to help
- Take your own happiness seriously.
- Know that emotional abuse can also lead to physical violence.
- Know that you are not to blame for your partner’s abusive behaviour.
- Find people to talk to who can support you.
- Recognise that you have the right to make your own decisions in your own time and that dealing with any form of abuse may take time.
- Trust yourself and believe in your own strength
In an emotionally abusive relationship, partners try to impose their will by resorting to negative criticism. Lisa Biasini, Psychoanalytical Psychotherapist in Dubai’s Human Relations Institute says, “Emotional abuse is diﬃcult to name or even talk about because you cannot see it the way you would see bruises or broken bones.” Signs of emotional abuse include when you feel your partner controls your life and doesn’t value your feelings: “When he puts you down, intimidates you, gets angry and jealous if you talk to someone else and accuses you of having aﬀairs, justiﬁed by the fact that no one else would want you, are also signs,” says Lisa. Other signs of emotional abuse include an obsessive control of the victim’s whereabouts; whether it be how their time is spent or where they spend their time. The key sign of a man who is emotionally abusive is his use of mind control to degrade his victim.
Diﬀerent types of emotional abuse include outright rejection using verbal criticism, insults or name-calling (as well as the use of gestures) and expressions or body movements – which also can squash the victim’s self-esteem. This is crucial for the abuser as it helps maintain his control over his victim. Lisa adds that by isolating the victim from her family, friends or any social group, the perpetrator also ensures the victim is not under any other inﬂuence aside from himself.
A few other strategies include preventing a partner from getting or keeping a job; making the partner feel guilty; making her think she is abnormal or crazy; playing games with her mind or humiliating – or criticising – her in public, in front of family, or among friends. It could also be that he insists on spending time only with the spouse and/or isolates the victim by moving a long way away, in order that she has no contact with her near and dear loved ones.
Beyond name-calling, emotional abuse is a web of fear, misery, loss, mistrust, humiliation and despair.
The big question remains: why would any man act this way? Lisa says that every person has his own reasons for reacting in a certain way and that many factors can come into play. But some of these reasons; those related to low self esteem and insecurity, can explain why a man can become abusive: “He was abused as a child, or witnessed it in his own family; he cannot tolerate minor frustrations and therefore always wants to be in control; he is afraid of being abandoned, so he is extremely possessive and jealous; or he only feels like a man if his partner is totally submissive and dependent on him,” says Lisa. She also says he may have rigid expectations of marriage and will not compromise: “He has diﬃculties to bring himself into question and only sees the others’ mistakes – or he is experiencing momentary stress and diﬃculties in his life, so he projects his anger and frustrations onto his wife and family,”.
Emotional abuse can escalate to physical violence – or death. Despite what anyone thinks though, very few people just ‘snap’ and commit murder. Signposts leading to murder are usually present to some degree, but are missed or intentionally disregarded by the victims of spousal homicide. Apparently there are some signposts which indicate that a husband is the
killing kind, says Dr. Robi Ludwig, psychotherapist and author of Till Death Do Us Part: Love, Marriage and the Mind of the Killer Spouse. Ludwig lists some traits you should be aware of in your signiﬁcant other. Traits of a potential spouse killer include intense controlling behaviour; explosive feelings of rage; diﬃculty forming intimate relationships; poor impulse control; inability to understand feelings; absence of emotions such as remorse and sympathy; searching out easy thrills; intense feelings of victimisation and rejection; devaluing human life and pathologically idealising their partner.
Psychotherapy, Lisa claims, can help some people understand their situation and overcome the negative eﬀects of abuse in a comfortable and safe environment.
Lena has been married for over 20 years to her husband Alex, but says she wishes she had walked out a long time back. “I have never been beaten or hit by Alex. In fact he has never laid a hand on me in a violent manner — but still, I am not happy. From day one I have been the brunt of his anger, disappointment and bitterness towards his job, his life and towards his family. From the moment he gets home from work, he starts on me; how ugly I am, how stupid I am and how I waste his money, not to mention how fat I am. He’s even started being suspicious of me and accused me of having an aﬀair with our neighbour, who is a friend of his. In fact, to anyone who has the courage to walk out, I would say go for it. It is deﬁnitely not worth living a life of hell and misery.”
Recognizing abuse is the first step to getting help
Domestic abuse often escalates from threats and verbal abuse to violence. And while physical injury may be the most obvious danger, the emotional and psychological consequences of domestic abuse are also severe. Emotionally abusive relationships can destroy your self-worth, lead to anxiety and depression, and make you feel helpless and alone. No one should have to endure this kind of pain—and your ﬁrst step to breaking free is recognizing that your situation is abusive. Once you acknowledge the reality of the abusive situation, then you can get the help you need.
Why do women suffer?
Daily mail UK’s popular news daily reports that ‘a THIRD of British women have suﬀered abuse at the hands of a partner and believe it be a ‘normal part of a relationship’ according to new research’.
- Almost two ﬁfths of women suﬀering domestic abuse tell no-one
- More than third of women say if abused they would keep it private
- Almost a quarter say they wouldn’t know how to help a victim
- Two thirds of women believe abuse is result of parter losing temper.
Educated and well paid women ‘more likely to suﬀer domestic abuse’
Women who have a higher income or education than their partners are far more likely to suﬀer psychological abuse and domestic violence, a study has found. Research which looked at thousands of couples found the stereotype of powerful men abusing their socially weaker partner did not stand up. Women earning more than 67 per cent of the total household income were seven times more likely to experience psychological and physical abuse compared to women who earn less than 33 per cent, the study found. “Whenever power is unevenly allocated in a relationship the chance of physical and psychological abuse increases,” said sociologist Heidi Fischer Bjelland who carried out the research. Bjelland believes that where a woman earns more or is better educated men can feel emasculated which leads to stress and frustration. “Men with lower status than their partner may feel that they are not living up to the traditional gender role,” she said.
Voice out your pain
Options available to people affected by domestic violence:
If you are the victim of an abusive relationship, you should get advice on your options, which may be to:
- report the violence to the police
- leave home temporarily
- leave home permanently
- stay in the present home and get the person who is harming you to leave
- stay at home only if you think this is safe
- stay with relatives or friends till you make other arrangements
- take legal action.
- Financial abuse happens where a perpetrator uses ﬁnancial means to control you and may include any of the following:
- stopping the victim working
- controlling the household ﬁnances including wages, beneﬁts and bank accounts
- forcing the victim to hand over wages and money
- restricting you to an allowance
- persuading or forcing the victim to take out loans and credit in her/his name.
Is it possible to spot a potential abuser?
While not all abusers act in the same way, it is sometimes possible to predict the likelihood of the person you are currently or are about to become involved with being abusive, since many, if not most, display some common tendencies. These may include excessive jealousy, controlling behaviour (often disguised or excused as concern), quick involvement and pressuring their boy/girlfriend to commit to them early on. They may have unrealistic expectations from either their partner or the relationship itself, may try to isolate their partner from family, friends or other social interactions, and are often hyper-sensitive, getting easily hurt or oﬀended. Very rarely will an abusive person accept responsibility for any negative situation or problem, but will tend to shift the responsibility onto other people or situations in general. In a similar way, abusers will shift the blame/ cause of their feelings outside of themselves, seeing their emotions as a reaction to other people or situations rather than stemming from themselves.
Tactics to manipulate you and exert their power:
Dominance Abusive individuals need to feel in charge of the relationship. They will make decisions for you and the family, tell you what to do, and expect you to obey without question. Your abuser may treat you like a servant, child, or even as his or her possession.
Humiliation An abuser will do everything he or she can to make you feel bad about yourself or defective in some way. After all, if you believe you’re worthless and that no one else will want you, you’re less likely to leave. Insults, name calling, shaming, and public putdowns are all weapons of abuse designed to erode your self-esteem and make you feel powerless.
Isolation In order to increase your dependence on him or her, an abusive partner will cut you oﬀ from the outside world. He or she may keep you from seeing family or friends, or even prevent you from going to work or school. You may have to ask permission to do anything, go anywhere, or see anyone.
Threats Abusers commonly use threats to keep their partners from leaving or to scare them into dropping charges. Your abuser may threaten to hurt or kill you, your children, other family members, or even pets. He or she may also threaten to commit suicide, ﬁle false charges against you, or report you to child services.
Intimidation Your abuser may use a variety of intimidation tactics designed to scare you into submission. Such tactics include making threatening looks or gestures, smashing things in front of you, destroying property, hurting your pets, or putting weapons on display. The clear message is that if you don’t obey, there will be violent consequences.
Denial and blame Abusers are very good at making excuses for the inexcusable. They will blame their abusive and violent behavior on a bad childhood, a bad day, and even on the victims of their abuse. Your abusive partner may minimize the abuse or deny that it occurred. He or she will commonly shift the responsibility on to you: Somehow, his or her violent and abusive behavior is your fault.
While these potential warning signs may be helpful, the best defense against ending up as a victim of abuse may be to maintain a strong sense of self and ones’ personal boundaries, while at the same time realizing that if one does ﬁnd oneself in an abusive relationship, it is not ones’ own fault, and there is help available to escape.
The cycle of violence in domestic abuse
Abuse Your abusive partner lashes out with aggressive, belittling, or violent behavior. The abuse is a power play designed to show you “who is boss.”
Guilt After abusing you, your partner feels guilt, but not over what he’s done. He’s more worried about the possibility of being caught and facing consequences for his abusive behavior.
Excuses Your abuser rationalizes what he or she has done. The person may come up with a string of excuses or blame you for the abusive behavior—anything to avoid taking responsibility.
“Normal” behavior: The abuser does everything he can to regain control and keep the victim in the relationship. He may act as if nothing has happened, or he may turn on the charm. This peaceful honeymoon phase may give the victim hope that the abuser has really changed this time.
Fantasy and planning: Your abuser begins to fantasize about abusing you again. He spends a lot of time thinking about what you’ve done wrong and how he’ll make you pay. Then he makes a plan for turning the fantasy of abuse into reality.
Set-up Your abuser sets you up and puts his plan in motion, creating a situation where he can justify abusing you.
Your abuser’s apologies and loving gestures in between the episodes of abuse can make it diﬃcult to leave. He may make you believe that you are the only person who can help him, that things will be diﬀerent this time, and that he truly loves you. However, the dangers of staying are very real.
The Full Cycle of Domestic Violence: An Example
A man abuses his partner. After he hits her, he experiences self-directed guilt. He says, “I’m sorry for hurting you.” What he does not say is, “Because I might get caught.” He then rationalizes his behavior by saying that his partner is having an aﬀair with someone. He tells her “If you weren’t such a worthless whore I wouldn’t have to hit you.” He then acts contrite, reassuring her that he will not hurt her again. He then fantasizes and reﬂects on past abuse and how he will hurt her again. He plans on telling her to go to the store to get some groceries. What he withholds from her is that she has a certain amount of time to do the shopping. When she is held up in traﬃc and is a few minutes late, he feels completely justiﬁed in assaulting her because “you’re having an aﬀair with the store clerk.” He has just set her up.
Source: Mid-Valley Women’s Crisis Service
How to help a friend experiencing abuse
If a friend conﬁdes in you that they are experiencing domestic violence, there are various ways in which you can help them. Here are a few suggestions:
- Believe what they are telling you and be understanding – the chances are that you are hearing only about of the tip of the iceberg.
- Be supportive toward your friend, reassure them that the abuse is not OK and not something they have to put up with, but don’t try to tell them what to do about it, let them make their own decisions knowing that you will be there for them regardless of their choice at that moment in time, even if it is staying with their abuser.
- You can provide practical assistance by accompany them to their GP or local hospital if your friend is hurt and needs medical assistance, or by oﬀering your address for info packs or your telephone for phone calls.
- Help your friend to plan a safe strategy for leaving, bearing in mind that they will know what is and what is not safe, while ensuring that you don’t pressurise them into doing something which they may have doubts about.
- Remember to look after yourself while supporting your friend!