Emotional abuse is behavior that controls and manipulates another person through fear, humiliation, intimidation, guilt and coercion. The victim’s feelings, needs, thoughts and desires are trivialized and made to seem inconsequential in comparison to the needs of the abuser.
Ellen’s husband, Mike, yelled obscenities at her after she forgot to pick up his dry cleaning. He told her that she was lazy and stupid. When he found her treating herself to chocolate for dessert, after she single-handedly cleared the dinner table and cleaned the dishes, he would go on a tirade about her weight and disgusting appearance. Mike would say, “Why can’t you look as sexy as the other women? I’m ashamed to be seen with you. I deserve better than this.” She would cry and sometimes that made him stop, other times it egged him on.
When I met Ellen, my first impressions were that she was petite and shy. It took her several sessions to start talking about some of Mike’s tantrums and nasty comments. She felt like she was betraying him. None of Ellen’s friends knew anything about Mike’s behind-the-scenes abusive behavior. To them he seemed quite charming and charismatic. Ellen felt alone and deeply ashamed.
She did not know how to go about changing the dynamic of their relationship. They had three children aged four through nine and Ellen refused to compromise their “beautiful family.” She began to internalize her husband’s malicious comments and toxic behavior and developed a sense of self-blame. She was at a crossroads and did not know how to make things better.
She shared, “It wasn’t always this way. Mike was loving and indulgent with me the first few years we were together. It’s the stress of his business and the demands of our family that gets him frustrated and angry. We were so in love back then. Even now after he yells at me, I know he feels guilty. Sometimes he brings me a beautiful piece of jewelry or gift after a fight, because I know he feels so bad.”
At first Ellen did not think of herself as being emotionally abused. She felt deeply saddened and shamed by Mike’s comments as well as guilty for not being able to appease him. She convinced herself that if she could only learn to get things right, their relationship would improve.
Emotional abuse is a kind of “brainwashing” which systematically wears away at the victim’s self-confidence, sense of self-worth and trust in their own perceptions. Constant berating and belittling cuts to the core of the victim and destroys her ability to see things clearly and to perceive a true sense of self.
Often a victim becomes so beaten down emotionally that she blames herself, as did Ellen, for the abuse. In an attempt to justify her husband’s actions and rationalize his ruthless behavior, Ellen drew all of the responsibility away from her guilty spouse, enabling the nasty criticisms to continue. It is not unusual in these circumstances for the victim to then cling to her abuser.
Emotional abuse leaves no physical scars or broken bones. Still its’ victims experience it as perhaps the most powerful and deeply injurious form of abuse.
What have you witnessed as the impact of emotional abuse?
How do you suggest dealing with this kind of suffering?