Friday, October 15, 2010

The realities of emotional abuse

The term “domestic violence” tends to bring up sharp images of physical and sexual assault. Granted, these are severe and frighteningly common tragedies (1 in 4 women experience rape or attempted rape during college), but the term doesn’t necessitate physicality. The problem is far more wide-ranging and covert than outright assault, and in the face of the most horrible cases of sexual violence, this fact is sometimes overlooked. Often, domestic violence takes on a more subtle or psychological form: Emotional abuse.

Every couple fights, and everyone has moments they regret. What distinguishes abuse from occasional mistakes is the repetition of the hurtful behavior. Ignoring someone once is one thing; ignoring someone on a regular basis to deliberately sabotage their self-respect is completely another.

Essentially, emotional abuse is the systematic use of emotional tactics to psychologically tear someone apart. These tactics include subtle diminishing remarks, angry outbursts, cold indifference, withering sarcasm, impossible demands, stonewalling and manipulation. Such repeated abuse kills confidence, self-esteem, self-perception, joy and vitality in the victim. Victims build a prevailing sense of inadequacy from countless accusations, even blaming themselves for their own pain.

In contrast, many abusers have a pathological need for power over another human being. If their partner opens up emotionally, they may interpret it as weakness, pride themselves for holding all the emotional cards and contemptuously get colder. If their partner sparks a conversation, an abuser may consider it a victory in the competition for attention and triumphantly shut their abused out. They may also regularly trivialize and downplay their partner’s accomplishments.

Emotional abuse is alienating. Clever abusers are personable to outsiders and careful to only deride their partners behind closed doors, adding to feelings of imprisonment and confusion. They may also attempt to drive anyone their partner turns to for companionship away through ridicule or anger.

Emotional abuse is unpredictable. One day the abuser is loving, but the next day they are cruel, leaving their partner “walking on eggshells,” living on hope.

Perhaps the worst part is the fact that emotional abuse is often starved of evidence. No outward bruises or scars remain, though victims have described emotional abuse as just as painful as physical abuse. If the victim is successfully alienated, there aren’t any witnesses either.

Emotional abuse is also often fiercely denied. Among countless other forms of denial, emotional abuse is commonly masked behind an attitude of “What’s wrong with you? I don’t know what you’re talking about! You’re overreacting!” These comments are meant to make the partner feel guilty or stupid for their own hurt feelings.

Is this really an overreaction? Not if we look at the statistics:

In a study of 1,000 women 15 years of age or older by the Women’s College Hospital in 1995, 39 percent reported being emotionally abused in a relationship within the past five years. Furthermore, 36 percent were emotionally abused while growing up and 43 percent had experienced some form of abuse as adolescents.

According to a 1998 Statistics Canada study, 35 percent of all women who were married or in common-law relationships experienced emotional abuse, whereas 29 percent of women have been physically assaulted by their male partners. The study also found that emotional abuse is the single greatest predictor of physical violence.

A focus group formed by Education Wife Assault in 1999 found that most women reported emotional abuse affects them as much as (if not more than) physical violence and attributed long-term problems with health, self-esteem, depression and anxiety to it.

Men are also victims of emotionally abusive relationships, but significantly less often than women. Research done by the American Psychological Association in 1996 has shown that being female is the single largest risk factor for being a victim of abuse in heterosexual relationships.

For someone mired in a toxic relationship, emotional abuse can actually be incredibly difficult to recognize. Obstacles to its recognition include the victim distrusting their feelings or perceptions, intermittently forgetting the abuse while the abuser is friendly, believing their pain is their fault, feeling invalidated or stupid without any witnesses, being preoccupied in a career or raising a family or considering the abuse too insignificant to start an argument over. One of the greatest difficulties is the painful realization that someone you love and care about may be more devoted to a pathological power game than reciprocating your love.

Emotional abuse is devastating to lives, relationships and families. If you or someone you know is being abused, it is widely recommended to look for a nurturing, supportive and qualified professional counselor.

-David Zietlow