Would you know if you were being emotionally abused? We hear a great deal about domestic violence these days and the statistics in the UK are shameful: two women are still murdered every week by their partners or spouses. But what about someone who is being emotionally abused?
If you are on the receiving end of this type of torture – and I consider all domestic abuse to be a kind of torture for the victim – you will experienced the most horrendous drop in self-esteem. You will start to believe that you are so worthless, that no other person could ever love you again. And that’s just for starters. Emotional abuse is hard to recognise, because we live in a culture where shows like Big Brother allow us to witness people abusing each other verbally and emotionally and accept it as entertainment. Well, it may be entertainment when we see it on TV, but in the confines of a relationship or a marriage, it certainly isn’t.
Everybody should keep a weather eye out for changes in a relationship that are affecting one or other of the partners in a toxic way. For instance, is your partner very demanding? I mean VERY. So much so that you have to put everything on hold to look after their needs. This demand for constant attention makes you spend all your free time with that person and yet, no matter how much you give, it’s never enough. And when you stray from the path, you are subject to constant criticism and are continually told off, because you aren’t fulfilling their needs in the way they think you should. Sounds familiar? Yes it might, if you were dealing with a toddler, but if it applies to your adult partner, then he or she is being emotionally abusive.
Another form of emotional abuse is constant arguing. No questions is ever given a straight forward answer. It always becomes an argument that can go on for hours and is never adequately resolved. The abuser is in constant conflict with everyone and in particular, with their partner. This can be a horror story without an ending for the victim. Of course, the opposite can be equally damaging. Have you ever been on the receiving end of ‘the silent treatment.’? I don’t mean a short sulk after a dispute about the football, I mean all out denial of another person’s emotional needs. One way to do this is to withdraw communication, affection and most cruel of all, sex. If this behaviour is carried out with the intent of hurting, punishing or blaming the victim, it is very nasty indeed.
I have a good friend; middle-class, well-heeled with a husband who is a university lecturer. He’s a brilliant academic, but a complete emotional abuser. He constantly denies her version of events – in the nicest possible way, of course. When ever she challenges him, he always replies: ‘I think you’ll find you have got that wrong, dear…” or ” I simply don’t know what you are talking about…” My friend knows her facts are accurate, but her husband remains adamant. He has even been known to suggest that she is going a little insane, or that her memory might be fading, if she continues to fight her corner. Another little trick he keeps up his sleeve, is to overrule any view she might have. When this is done in company, she feels so embarrassed, that these days, she hardly goes anywhere with him. His denial of her intelligence and status, has lowered her self-esteem and creates unnecessary conflict between them on a day to day basis. His invalidation of her feelings, her reality and experiences has led her to mistrust her own perceptions and at times, to think she might indeed, be going crazy. My friend is now, with the help of her family, seeking a divorce. This charming, clever man can’t understand why. He is shattered. He can’t change because he doesn’t want to. He likes being emotionally abusive. It’s a power thing, although he would never admit it.
Another form of emotional abuse that I have seen in couples I know, is that of domination and I don’t mean the type that involves high heels and whips! When one of you wants to dominate the other by controlling every action, that’s abusive. If your partner HAS to have their own way or if not, will make life hell for you, you will start to lose respect for yourself. If this behaviour is teamed with emotional blackmail, that’s a double whammy! Everyone has buttons that if pressed, will lead to a reaction. If your partner knows how to press the right button to unleash your empathy, your fear, your compassion, to get what they want, then that’s emotional blackmail. Every one fears rejection in some form or another. But to be constantly told that if you don’t give, you will be abandoned, totally rejected or receive the ‘cold shoulder’, then they are using fear tactics against you.
To live with someone who is emotionally unpredictable, who has sudden and unexplained mood changes, reacting differently at different times to the same behaviour from you, can be like living in a nightmare. I think that constant unpredictable responses can lead to insanity. You are always on edge, always waiting for the next change of mood or outburst. This behaviour is seriously messing with someone’s head!
So emotional abuse can be hard to understand, or recognise. And like physical abuse, it can cross all social classes, ethnicity and religions. I remember some years ago, when I attended a conference on domestic violence, listening to the speakers winding up, after what had been an amazing and informative day, the last speaker, a woman in her fifties who was a barrister and one of the organisors, started to say the usual goodbyes and thanks to the contributers, when she suddenly stopped and appeared to be unable to speak. Another woman went up to ask her if she felt unwell. The woman burst into tears. After a moment, she stopped crying and said in a soft, beautifully spoken voice: “I have to tell you all something. If I don’t, I will be a fraud. I have been abused for all of my married life. Both emotionally and physically. My husband is a judge.” You could have heard a pin drop. Stereotypes encourage us to believe that domestic violence, either physical or emotional only goes on in certain types of homes; the Wayne/Waynetta scenario. It doesn’t. It’s everywhere.
Emotional and physical abuse in relationships is something no civilised society should tolerate. It is going on as I write this, in the UK and all over the world. We have to do everything we can to help the victims of this brutal crime and find ways of stopping it happening.