by Pamela Brewer MSW, Ph.D., LCSW-C
Are you anxious and worried about what will happen when you and your significant other are together? Apart?
Are you the subject of name-calling?
Are you the subject of yelling?
Are you the subject of screaming?
Are you the subject of threats?
While these are not all the examples of emotional abuse - they are intended to provide you with a start off point from which to consider your own circumstance. If you determine that you have/are in an abusive relationship - you may wish seek assistance in trying to consider what you should do now. Emotionally abusive relationships can often result in a difficulty with self-advocacy. You have learned at the hands of your abuser to question your self and your value. As you move to make decisions and observations about yourself - you are likely to seek out validation for much of what you think and do.
This is an option you have. You do not have to do this - but you can choose to do this. The most important thing is that you allow yourself the gift and the right to only be in environments that are respectful of you.
One of the most difficult things about emotional abuse is what it "looks" like. Unlike physical abuse - there are no visible scars. Unlike sexual assault - it can be difficult to describe or explain. Unlike verbal abuse - it can sometimes be difficult to know what is happening. But just like all abuse - it hurts. It hurts a lot - it can hurt a long time - and it can cause a great deal of damage to the self-esteem. Emotional abuse can almost seem like the mystery hurt - once in it - you can become so much consumed with it and subsumed by it - that you do not even know what is happening. You can certainly have a hard time naming the experience.
Naming the behavior is the first critical step to escaping the behavior - and the trap of low self-regard and hopelessness.
Just what is emotional abuse?
It is the ongoing emotional environment created by your abuser for the purposes of control. It's sort of like a search and destroy mission. In this war, the abuser experiences your self-esteem, your individual self, your energy, your ability to feel and question and want and need and be.... as the enemy. Your ability to be separate from your partner - an alive and thinking human being - is what your abuser most fears. At least, that's what it feels like to your abuser. Unable to tolerate you as you are - your abuser sets out to create an artificial self that he/she is then able to mold. The undertow in this dynamic is the abusers low regard for him/her self. His unspoken - intolerable fear the she/he is not "good enough". You are taught to feel and believe all those things the abuser was taught to feel about him/her self.
You become the walking, talking embodiment of fear, anxiety and remorse that she/he has struggled with for much of her/his life.
Here are just a few of the "lessons" an emotionally abusive person can teach:
You are always wrong.
Everything is your fault.
You are of no value in the relationship.
You are intrusive when you ask how your partner's day was. They have every right to know exactly how you spent your day, however.
You are "suspicious" when you question why you have not heard from him/her in the way you usually communicate.
You are so stupid you cannot even _________________ (fill in the blanks).
You are fat, you are stupid, you are ugly, no one wants you, no one likes you or ever will.
You cannot handle life without your partner.
You cannot try anything new.
You would not be anyone if you did not have your partner.
You are nagging or stupid if you disagree.
The affair he/she/you is/are having is your fault.
All types of abuse leave you frightened. The fear may not be limited to a fear for physical safety. The fear can more amorphous. You know you do not feel strong. You do not feel as if you can take risks. You do not even believe it is acceptable to try.
The abuse can start slowly, and perhaps not even feel like abuse - just a simple "it's all your fault" here and there. Be warned that emotional abuse is often the precursor to more.
Consider this example:
"I've been married for 26 years ... at first it wasn't really anything but as the years progress ... everything is my fault ... conversation is 0. K. if I can figure out what kind of answer he is looking for ... he has become increasingly physical ... pinning my arms .. to the point of bruises ... pulling my hair ... making me do things that cause me to cry... it only seems to increase his excitement ... sometimes I am really scared because I am afraid that he will break my neck one day."This writer tells, unfortunately, a classic tale of emotional abuse, then physical abuse, and then sexual abuse. And typically the cycle is that the abuser, at some point, apologizes for the abuse. Then comes the honeymoon period during which things are relatively fine - and then the abuse starts all over again.
People who have grown up in abusive homes can easily duplicate those experiences in their adult lives. If you grew up in an abusive family, you know how frightening and hurtful the experience was. Do all you can to protect yourself and your children in the way that your family did not or could not when you were a child. If you were the victim of abuse as a child - you know only too well how much that hurt - you do not have to reenact your childhood pain in your adult life. You do not have to treat others as you were treated.
Typically abuse, once begun, only escalates. Unless the abuser accepts responsibility for his/her behavior and seeks professional help - it is quite likely the abuse will continue and worsen.
However, if the abused person demands that the abuser participate in counseling or else - even if the abuser agrees to the counseling, it is likely to be short lived. The abuser will be able to benefit from counseling when the abuser believes and acknowledges that counseling is critical to recovery. Why? Until the abuser owns the behavior and his/her obligation to end the abuse, the behavior continues. Sometimes the courts demand counseling. Sometimes the legal weight of mandated counseling does have an effect. Sometimes the awareness that a loved one will leave the relationship in one way or another will jolt the abuser into an acceptance that the behavior must stop. And sometimes not.
"My husband is a very abusive person, We have been married for eight years now and it doesn't get any better and it doesn't improve. ... He calls me a nut, humiliates me in front of my children".The emotional abuse, indeed, so often leads to escalating abuse and feelings of hopelessness.
"I could divorce him, but I can not afford to give up my current lifestyle" When the "current lifestyle" includes violence of any kind - emotional, physical, sexual, verbal - you can not afford not to look for healthier alternatives.There is help. There is support. No one deserves to be frightened, terrorized or helped to feel hopeless and helpless about themselves and their lives.
When you find yourself climbing out of the fog, tentatively at first - or perhaps with a rush of energy long buried, you begin to notice that all the things your abusive partner said you could not do - you can do! You can survive! You can find a counselor, make a plan and get out! Do try to access the many sources of help available to you ... the bookstore and library are good beginning resources.
Here are a few more:
National Council on Child Abuse and Family Violence 1-800-222-2000
National Resource Center on Domestic Violence 1-800-537-2238
National Women's Resource Center - 1-800-354-8824