The Other Kind of Abuse: Emotional and Verbal Abuse, Part I
by Nancy S. Tessler, Ph.D.
Some time into the courtship, they went ice skating. He, being a more proficient skater than she, took her hand and together they circled the ring. A couple seemingly in love and in tune with each other..... suddenly, with no hint of forewarning, she fell hard, rigidly flat on the ice, unable to move. Meanwhile, her "caring" boyfriend laughed heartily and continued skating
right over her fallen body. He had already skated past her once when a more chivalrous stranger helped her to her feet and comforted her.
Subsequently, this young woman married her boyfriend. Over the course of the 15 year marriage, their skating scene became a vivid metaphor for their relationship: his abandoning her every time life's forces pushed her down. The emotional, as well as the physical, support was not there as she went through a series of traumatic events: the deaths of her mother and brother, a breast cancer scare, several inpatient procedures for which she had to drive herself to the hospital. He was a competitive and passive-aggressive man, subtly driving a wedge between her and their children, so that all the pervasive tension and anger in the family was targeted towards her. When he tried turning their youngest son into a mouthpiece for his unexpressed anger, she finally left him - salvaging whatever self-esteem and vitality he had not managed to diminish. What may have led this woman to even enter into such union? Not surprisingly, she grew up with an emotionally unavailable father and an immature, narcissistic mother whose own needs usurped her daughter's, particularly undermining this woman's sense of self-worth.
Women are not the only victims of emotional abuse. Another couple was in an uncommitted relationship for years, living together and sharing everything before marrying. Even before the marriage, the woman revealed herself to be very controlling and verbally abusive, rejecting any sexual advances. They had just enough sex for her to get pregnant and the pressures mounted. As he continually tried to please her, meeting her impossible demands, he was the object of her rage. She subjected him to persistent attacks on his manhood and made cold remarks about his inadequacies. By the time I saw this couple in therapy, they had not had sex in years and he was thinking of leaving the marriage. In reviewing his family history, he acknowledged that he grew up with a cold, critical and abusive father, who would push him down the basement stairs. He continued to play out this childhood role with his wife, and saw no other options; her past also revealed that she had been a victim as well, with a cold withholding mother and an alcoholic father, with her projecting all her rage onto her husband.
These are all examples of emotionally abusive relationships, but we can learn from them. What are the warning signs foreshadowing this kind of relationship? The clues are invariably there, almost from the start. Some of the indicators, beginning with the most common, are:
- abusive anger
- accusing and blaming
- judging and criticizing
In analyzing these behaviors, it is the abusive anger, often combined with accusing and blaming, that is the most disturbing. Victims are often blamed for the abuser's anger, pushing them into thinking that they are responsible for what is amiss in the relationship. Reality becomes distorted, with the abused partner thinking that they are the "culprit." often looking within themselves for what is "wrong" with them.
The abuse is often capped off with the spouse's withholding behavior, a very effective weapon in the abuser's arsenal. He or she is unwilling, and often incapable, of exploring the source of problems in the relationship. Denying any responsibility for the couple's conflicts further serves to frustrate the victim--finally leading to the partner's sense of powerlessness and ultimate immobilization. Thus, there is no opportunity to explore and discuss interpersonal issues and resolve such problems.
Finally, when denial is also employed (e.g., "It never happened at all!"), there's no possibility for resolution. Denial is often expressed in a myriad of ways, including, but not limited to, the following:
"That's not what you said."
"That's not what I meant"
"That's not what you felt."
"I never said that."
"We never talked about that."
"You are always bringing up and harping on imaginary problems."
Examples of behaviors that contribute to the partner's diminished sense of self include: belittling, laughing and smirking, sarcastically mimicking the partner, patronizing (scornful, contemptuous), "knowing it all," "last wording," running on, insulting your partner, purposely misleading and confusing your partner, and repeating what you say to your partner as though she/he were too stupid to understand you. There are also threatening behaviors, such as grimacing and glaring, speaking with a commanding or scathing tone of voice, invading your partner's personal space by getting in his/her face or blocking his/her movements, and sudden movements to startle and scare one's partner. There are further verbal threats, including the following: whispering or muttering to the partner, swearing and cursing, threatening to hit something or someone, talking about the possibility of an affair, threatening to take away the children....the list goes on.
Abusers' victims often internalize their rage and it is common for them to suffer depression, including feelings of hopelessness, disturbed sleep, poor concentration, low self-esteem, markedly diminished energy, lack of sexual interest, anxiety, significant weight loss or gain and recurrent thoughts of suicide.
In the next part of this series, we will examine some ways of coping with and limiting such behaviors, maintaining your self-esteem and in extreme cases, the option of leaving such relationships, guilt-free with your pride intact.