The Subtle Face of Emotional Abuse
Surviving an Emotionally Abusive Relationship
One thing I have discovered in my study of abuse is that we are ignorant. Even those of us who have been in abusive relationships are ignorant. We may not recognize the signs and know we have been abused.
If the abuse isn’t physical where we are being hit, beaten, thrown against a wall or trapped by our mates, we may dismiss it as “just an incident”. Relationships where there is an imbalance of power over a continued period of time are abusive.
Abuse is about “power and control!” Abusive men need to be “in control” and have power over their mates. They will minimize, compete, belittle, confuse, suppress, ridicule and a variety of other behaviors in order to slowly break down the self-opinion of their mates, thereby giving them the control they seek in the relationship.
The other thing we don’t realize about emotional abuse is, it is very seldom ever witnessed by an outside party. Emotional abuse is secretive leaving the abused woman confused about what is happening.
It may be difficult for her to talk about with an outside party because putting the incident into words that would describe the impact it has had on her could be next to impossible. She may try and sort out the incident with her mate only to have him either deny the experience ever happened or make her feel as if she is crazy for having a reaction to it.
One of the obstacles to recognizing chronic mistreatment in relationships is that most abusive men simply don’t seem like abusers. They have many good qualities, including times of kindness, warmth, and humor, especially in the early period of a relationship. An abuser’s friends may think the world of him. He may have a successful work life and have no problems with drugs or alcohol. He may simply not fit anyone’s image of a cruel or intimidating person. So when a woman feels her relationship is spinning out of control, it is unlikely to occur to her that her partner is an abuser. Lundy Brancroft, “Why Does He Do That?”
One thing I discovered after my own abusive relationships is that although most of my friends understood and supported me, a few were very ignorant and displayed abusive behavior themselves.
I had a woman tell me that she believed it wasn’t as bad as I made it out to be and came to the defense of my abuser. This can be very damaging to someone trying to leave an abusive relationship because we are already confused and distraught over what has happened and we are looking for clarity and understanding. When we are faced with people who tell us what we think happened to us didn’t really happen we are just getting more of what we have been getting during the relationship.
Lundy Bancroft who wrote the book “Why Does He Do That?” has been working with male abusers for fifteen years and as part of his program he gets to know the woman who have been abused. He comments on the many cases where men claim they never really abused their mates but were falsely accused. He found most women who claim they were abused actually had been.
Women will seldom cry abuse when it hasn’t actually happened. Although some men are also abused by women, it is typical for male abusers to project their abusive sides onto their mates and act as if they are the victims of abuse.
It is easy for bystanders, mutual friends and the community at large to discount the abused women’s stories because the abuser is often a friendly, charming and even sensitive man. You can never detect an abusive man because of appearances. Abusers are Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. He has a different face reserved just for his abusive side.
Also abusers are so adept at distorting the reality of what happened that they can easily get others, especially their new mates to see them as the victims and their ex-mates as the perpetrators. I know I have been guilty of buying my ex-boyfriends victim stories.
Initially my abusers seem so innocent, loving, caring, and sensitive it is hard for me to believe they could have ever been abusive. My last abusive mate actually went to jail for physically abusing his wife and I believed during most of my relationship with him that he was the victim and she had wrongly accused him of abuse.
I felt so bad for my ex when he told me his victim story that I shared his dislike and anger for the woman who made his life hell. In fact this particular mate had quite a long history of being the victim of abuse, just like me, so I really empathized with him. I believed his innocence and I supported him in his beliefs.
He may remain on good behavior with his new girlfriend even longer than he did with you because he is motivated by his campaign against you. Of course, his other side will slip out sooner or later, but by that time he can blame it all on how badly you have hurt him. His girlfriend thus gets sucked into breaking her back trying to prove that she’s a good woman—unlike you. By the time his selfish and abusive side finally gets so bad that his new girlfriend can’t rationalize it away any more, she’s in pretty deep. She may even have married him by that time. For her to accept that he is an abuser, she would have to face what a terrible wrong she did to you, and that would be quite a bitter pill to swallow. So what tends to happen instead is that his new partner becomes angrier and angrier at you for the way she is being treated by him, believing that you”made him this way” by hurting him so badly. Lundy Bancroft
I never really had a frame of reference for a healthy relationship. I spent most of my life in relationships that were abusive however I didn’t know they were. Why? I had learned to perceive abuse as “normal”.
I took responsibility for my own downfall blaming it on depression, chronic fatigue or possibly some unknown mental illness. I did everything I could to take care of myself, eating healthy, exercising, reading all the self-help books, going to seminars and support groups, taking classes and still the symptoms prevailed.
I would discuss my symptoms with my mates and give them the power to define my reality. My energy and life force slowly dwindled until it took more and more to keep up with my life. The more I lost energy the more dependent I became on my mate.
I began questioning my sanity and searching for reasons why I felt like I was going crazy, but never did I look to my mate as the source of my issues. I was a “new age” woman. We don’t blame our partners! We look inside ourselves for the answers! Yet the cruel discovery was: the abuse was not about me at all, it was about my partner. I didn’t cause it or create it and I couldn’t fix it.
I was continuing to take responsibility for the issues in the relationship because he gave me that responsibility and I shouldered it. The issues were never resolved but swept under the rug.
The relationship kept continuing as if nothing ever happened and the longer this went on the more I deteriorated. I was unable to resolve anything with him. I could tell him “when you do this, I feel this!” and instead of listening to my feelings and taking an active interest in my experience he would counter with what I did that caused him to do what he did. Therefore it was always about my behavior.
Because I could never come out ahead on an argument I very seldom ever expressed grievances. I knew somehow it would all come back to something I did. So instead of expressing my grievances with my mate I went back to work on myself.
The abusive man’s goal in a heated argument is in essence to get you to stop thinking for yourself and to silence you, because to him your opinions and complaints are obstacles to the imposition of his will as well as an affront to his sense of entitlement. If you watch closely, you will begin to notice how many of his controlling behaviors are aimed ultimately at discrediting and silencing you. Lundy Bancroft, “Why Does He Do That?”
My ex-abuser and I were friends and able to have conversations about almost any topic under the sun except the real issues in the relationship. The relationship was unable to progress to any true depth of intimacy because there was always that wall of unresolved issues between us.
I knew the wall was there but I didn’t understand how it had slowly been erected. I would talk to him about how I would like to feel closer, to have more true intimacy and he would tell me he couldn’t get too close to me because I had hurt him too much in the past and it didn’t feel safe.
I believed If I could be more consistent in my affections toward him and show him my commitment without his constant fear of my breaking up with him, he could build trust in our relationship again. So once again I took responsibility.
It was true I had broken up with him on several occasions in search of my sanity but I wasn’t ever gone long enough to find it. I thought if I could just find out why I always wanted to run, I could salvage my relationship.
I would delve deeper and deeper into myself in search of clues as to why I was sabotaging my relationship. The responsibility was completely on my shoulders and I truly believed it was my fault.
At one point we went to couples counseling in attempt to salvage our relationship. We had a counselor who separated us and spoke to each one of us individually.
During our first session when the counselor sent him out of the room she looked me straight in the eye and said. I can see he has some big issues and if your relationship is to survive he will have to do most of the work. I was floored! If he had to do most of the work, I thought, I would lose the illusion of believing I could create the relationship I wanted by working on myself.
The counselor asked me to think about what my needs were in the relationship and to make a list and talk to him about it. My needs? Talk to him about my needs? There was a part of me that felt what she was asking of me was impossible. My needs were not the issue! I had learned to take care of my needs myself and I didn’t want to have to start involving him.
We went to counseling twice and I lost interest because I knew it was a futile effort. She blew through my whole distorted reality that our relationship was founded on. He wasn’t ever going to change. I didn’t even really give him a chance to look at his issues of abuse.
It all seemed so overwhelming to me at the time. I also really didn’t understand at the time what the counselor meant by “my needs”. I had learned my needs really weren’t important and I was the one responsible for them anyway. But now that I am out of the relationship I understand what she meant.
I have the need to be treated with respect, to be honored, to be valued, to be listened to, to be heard, and to be supported. These needs were not being met in my relationship.
I was in a relationship where issues between us could not be resolved because my voice was stomped out. What I had to say about what was happening was invalidated. His views of reality mowed right over mine and took precedence; therefore he defined the reality for both of us.
If I raised my voice out of anger or frustration in attempt to express myself he would shut me down asking me not to raise my voice to him. I could not express myself with him! The focus quickly became me raising my voice rather than what I was attempting to express.
I was not allowed a voice in the relationship! Music was my only voice. This was the only place I could express my sorrow, my pain, my feelings, my fears, my frustrations and my desires for something greater.
One of the basic human rights he takes away from you is the right to be angry with him. No matter how badly he treats you, he believes that your voice shouldn’t rise and your blood shouldn’t boil. The privilege of rage is reserved for him alone. When your anger does jump out of you—as will happen to any abused woman from time to time—he is likely to try to jam it back down your throat as quickly as he can. Then he uses your anger against you to prove what an irrational person you are. Lundy Bancroft
Finally I left for good! The crazy making and abusive behavior had finally escalated to the point I knew I had to run. I just knew for sanity sake, I had to get away from him.
Getting away is always the hardest part when finally ending an abusive relationship. The gig is up and at this point we usually realize there is no going back, no more resolutions, no more buying back into his distorted version of reality! It is over!
When an abuser comes to the realization that it is actually over, their abusive behavior normally escalates whether it be downright violence or severe passive, aggressive gestures. In my case we had purchased a house together and he tried to get me to believe it wasn’t my house and I didn’t deserve any of the profits from it.
He tried to convince me that he did all the work on the house and I did nothing, therefore I didn’t deserve anything. It was the typical abusive behavior of assigning himself all the value in the relationship and assigning me none.
I tried to explain to him the concept of market appreciation but that concept didn’t fit his agenda so he didn’t buy it. His agenda was that it was his house, he did the work on it and he should be entitled to most of the profit if not all. He was willing to give me a little token just to get me to sign off on title, but that was it.
He then tried another angle of manipulation which was to accuse me of having been in the relationship just for the money and I was profiting from his hard work. In the past I might have attempted to prove him wrong by giving up my interest and letting him have it. This way I would be showing him how much I really loved him. But it wasn’t going to work this time.
He could believe I was in it for the money if he wanted to! This was his view of reality! But his view had actually become so distorted that even I knew better than to buy it. When the man stood in front of me yelling at me to get out of his house I knew without a doubt that he wasn’t seeing it straight.
By this time I became acutely aware of the abuse. His anger had escalated to the point I was afraid of him. In fact the fear I experienced at the end was a reminder of the fear I had experienced all throughout the relationship when I did something “bad”. He would punish me with his domination over me. He would bully me, come into my personal space, get in my face, and be just on the edge of exploding. I feared he could snap at any moment and completely annihilate me.
An abuser sees his (ex-) partner’s growing strength and independence as a sickness rather than as the harbinger of health that is actually is. Lundy Bancroft
I had to fight harder than I ever had to get out and get what was rightfully mine. Yet the confusion and craziness was wearing me down. By this time he was completely projecting all of repressed issues onto me.
He actually seemed to believe I was doing to him all the things he was doing to me and was punishing me for it. I was no longer able to talk to him because nothing made sense. Yet he would tell me he could no longer talk to me because my version of reality was distorted.
He believed I was going to rip him off so he ripped me off first. He completely silenced me by refusing to communicate at all forcing me to bring in a mediator to resume the communications between us.
He was so nice, polite, gentle and kind with the mediator she believed I was the one who had lost it because of my complete emotional breakdown. She was right! I had lost it! I finally broke! I had cracked wide open and there was absolutely nothing left of me but a blubbering mess of emotions.
Meanwhile he was cool, calm, collected and made complete sense to others. He would not show me the rational, cool side of himself but he displayed it proudly to others in his agenda to get them to see the truth about me…that I was hysterical and crazy!
Hundreds of women have told me: “It’s as if he could flick a switch. The police arrive, and he’s suddenly cool as a cucumber. Meanwhile, I’m freaking out, so of course they think something is wrong with me.” Lundy Bancroft
The mediator, who was a friend of mine, added fuel to the fire of my abuse by completely invalidating my experience. She told me she listened to his side of the story and he isn’t as bad as I believe.
She questioned my hysteria and told me I needed to get a grip. After I was out of the house she told me it was over now and she didn’t understand why I was still so emotional and upset about everything. I got my life back, now go live it!
I started feeling there was something major wrong with me. She was right! I was out of the house now and he couldn’t hurt me. So why was I still so devastated? We agreed to a settlement and I was going to get some money from the house but I still lost the home I loved dearly.
My relationship with a man I had traumatically bonded with was violently severed without my ever being able to talk to him about it. There was no closure! I was just expected to say “Whew, its over, now pull yourself up by your boot strings and get on with it!”
People don’t seem to understand that when a woman leaves an abusive relationship she begins to actually see what has happened to her and often has symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. She slowly begins to wake up because now it is safe to see the truth, but the truth is still difficult to face.
It may take years to sort out her own reality from the abusers reality that had been imposed upon her for so long. The anger that had been so masterfully suppressed for so many years now begins to rise to the surface and she doesn’t understand why she is so angry.
Besides the anger there is also the horrific experience of grief. She has lost someone that had been a major part of her life and although he was abusive, there were still lots of good times and she loved him.
She may waiver between grief and anger, belief and disbelief, his reality and her own. There is a lot to sort through in the aftermath of abuse. But in order to truly heal we must be able to call it what it is…ABUSE!
Abuse can make you feel straitjacketed. You may develop physical or emotional reactions to swallowing your anger, such as depression, nightmares, emotional numbing, or eating and sleeping problems, which your partner may use as an excuse to belittle you further or make you feel crazy. Lundy Bancroft
After a lifetime of living in an abusive environment and protecting my abusers I have decided to speak out! I loved my abusers! I cared about them! But I am not serving them with my silence.
Abusive men will never grow out of being abusive! However, according to Bancroft, they can learn how to stop being abusive.
If women don’t speak out about their abuse the abuse becomes acceptable. If our communities remain silent we are accepting it! If we witness abusive behavior or hear stories about incidences that are abusive, we need to speak out.
If we have friends who are still in or coming out of abusive relationships we need to support them in accepting the reality of their abuse! If we try to get them to move on with their lives too quickly before they process the abusive experiences and the accompanying anger and grief, we are shutting them down, just as their abuser has done.
The absolute worse thing we can do to a woman who says her mate was abusive is to deny her experience. He may seem like the sweetest, kindest, most loving and caring man on the surface but this doesn’t mean he wasn’t abusive to his mate.
As a counselor of abusive men, I have dozens of times been in the position of interviewing a man’s former partner and then speaking with the new one. The new partner usually speaks at length about what a wicked witch the woman before her was. I can’t tell her what I know, much as I wish I could, because of my responsibility to protect the confidentiality and safety of the former partner. All I can say is “I always recommend, whenever their are claims of emotional or physical abuse, that women talk to each other directly and not just accept the man’s denial.” Lundy Bancroft
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