A few weeks back I went out with some new friends, one of whom opened up about her relationship difficulties. The thing was, it wasn’t the more common beefs about partners – lack of contribution to domestic duties, annoying choice of bread, difficulties with intimacy, weird sexual preferences in the bedroom – this was descriptions of subtle, yet recognisable emotional abuse.
There’s been a (massively warranted) increased awareness of the amount of domestic violence cases that are reported each year, with at least one woman in Australia being murdered by their intimate partner each week. Many more cases of physical violence go unreported. Emotional abuse often precedes violence, yet is rarely discussed. According to research, one in four Australian women have experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner. Both men and women emotionally abuse others, and unfortunately, many don’t even know it.
Emotional abuse can be difficult to identify. It can be subtle. Because the perpetrator often blames their victim and they may claim to have no insight into why the victim is upset. Additionally, when someone has been treated this way in past relationships it can become familiar. And thus more difficult to recognise.
But over time, the effects can be seen. The self-esteem gets eaten away. Feelings of guilt can increase. The victim can doubt themselves and their place in the world. And eventually distrust their perceptions of things. Including the relationship.
Emotional abuse, distinct from physical violence (including shoving, cornering, breaking and throwing things etc.), is generally defined as any speech and/or behaviour that is derogating, controlling, punishing or manipulative. Emotional abuse – like other forms of domestic violence – is all about power control. Withholding love, communication, support, or money are indirect methods of control and maintaining power.
Some emotional abuse can be obvious and direct. Some forms of verbal abuse, like threats, judging, criticising, lying, blaming, name-calling and raging, are pretty easy to recognise. However, there are other forms of verbal abuse that may be more subtle and insidious. These verbalisations may be spoken in a loving, quiet voice, or they may be indirect, or even concealed in a joke. Whether more overt, or disquised as play, jokes or teasing, when experienced over time they can have a seriously insidious, deleterious effect. The victim begins to doubt and distrust themselves.
If this sort of behaviour goes on for a while, we’d see a mind that would be bruised and cut and bleeding.
If we’re subject to this sort of behaviour in an intimate relationship, over time a number of feelings and experiences might creep up on us.
We might feel small. Whether through humiliation, embarrassment or blatant insults, language or behaviour. Maybe we’re constantly spoken over. Maybe we are made to feel like our opinion doesn’t count. Maybe compliments or positive reinforcements always come with a “but…”.
Eventually we might feel controlled and isolated. We might not wear the clothes we used to like wearing. Perhaps we don’t see our friends as much as we’d like. If we do things independently, there may be a lot of passive-aggressive, aggressive or guilt-tripping messages that come with that. Because of love, of course. The result is controlling. And lonely.
We can feel ignored. By our most loved partner. Perhaps there is a withdrawal of affection, a refusal to communicate, moodiness, or just a complete and utter disregard for our needs and feelings.
But most significantly we can feel afraid. This is one of the most pervasive, and damaging feelings within an emotionally abusive relationship. Fear of the partner’s reaction. To anything – our needs, our opinions, our feelings, our actions and our happiness. When we are modifying our behavious – whether playing down our concerns, not speaking to our feelings, apologising for our emotions, or shrugging off the things that make us happy – we are no longer in control. Someone else is. Instead, we’re ‘walking on eggshells’ in an attempt to keep the peace. We may second guess ourselves so much that we can feel lost. Without a sense of who we are. And when someone has control over who we are, or who we should be - that’s abuse.
And this is where my new friend was. Living the fear. And it was distressing.
We all rallied around her. We were encouraging. We called the behaviours out for what they were. Abusive. We attempted to reassert her own feelings, memories and opinions as valid and true. We constantly repeated that this was not her fault and that in no way does she deserve this. And we checked she had the support of professional experts around her, should she need them.
But, in a long-term relationship where our self-esteem has been eroded and our reality has been impaired and we’re in a hole of guilt, leaving is going to be bloody challenging. And terrifying. In such a state, abuse in the name of love, can seem better than no love at all.
I haven’t given up hope though. I hope that one day soon, she takes back her independence and freedom and opinions and personality. Because she, like all of us, deserves to have her own power.