Sanctuary for the Abused

Friday, March 07, 2014

Are You Being Emotionally Abused?


The married couple worked together as partners in their store, but their partnership definitely was not equal. He called her “stupid” in front of employees, blew up when she made mistakes & kept her in the dark about their finances. He also pushed her around a couple of times.

But what hurt the woman most were her husband’s savage & belittling words. She became depressed, then frightened by what would happen if her husband ever left her. After all, he controlled the money.

There were no marks on her body, says Richard Tolman, an associate professor of social work at the University of Michigan who has worked with perpetrators of domestic violence & their partners. But she was a victim of domestic violence nonetheless.

Every year, an estimated two million to four million women in the United States are victims of domestic violence, a public-health problem that is difficult to track due to the shame & stigma still attached to it. Psychological abuse is even more difficult to quantify. No one goes to the emergency room after being humiliated. It’s difficult to file a complaint with law-enforcement agencies charging that your partner controls the family finances or isolates you from your friends. Further, the victims of psychological abuse may not even realize they are being abused. They may feel bad about themselves or their relationship, says Tolman, but they may not connect that feeling with their partner’s behavior.

Psychological abuse, often called emotional or verbal abuse, is the belittling, humiliation, intimidation or threatening of a partner. Isolating a partner from friends & family & controlling finances are abusive behaviors too, according to domestic-violence experts such as RosaLinda Garcia Gusman, a social worker with the Texas Council on Family Violence. While domestic violence, including psychological abuse, occurs to men & women, women are most often the victims, according to a recent study conducted by the National Institute of Justice.

“You can tell it’s emotional abuse when you start feeling bad about yourself & you’re afraid to say or do anything because it could be the wrong thing,” says Garcia Gusman.
Experts such as Garcia Gusman say that emotional abuse & battery share the same root cause: One person desires power & control over another. Often, psychological abuse leads to physical violence or sexual abuse.

A husband or boyfriend who is emotionally abusive often plays games with the victim’s mind — calling her names or telling her she’s a bad mother or a bad person, says Garcia Gusman. He may tell her how to dress, how to wear her hair, how to clean their house & may decide whether she can go to the store. Typically, he criticizes her, degrades her & humiliates her.

“With all these kinds of things, after a period of time when you hear them enough, you come to believe them, so it affects your self esteem,” says Garcia Gusman.
Often the abuser monopolizes his partner by making himself the center of her existence. He isolates his partner by being so rude in front of her friends or family that they don’t want to visit, says Tolman.

Withholding affection, approval or companionship is a form of psychological abuse, too, Tolman says. A 1990 study published in the Journal of Family Violence found that 72% of victims reported that emotional abuse, especially ridicule, was harder to bear than physical abuse. “There’s a sense that it gets you where you live when someone who loves you says terrible things & keeps you from your friends & people you care about,” says Tolman.

There’s also a sense of being kept off balance. After all, what is emotional abuse vs. simply a heated argument?

An abusive person uses hurtful words such as “You’re stupid” or “You’re no good” & repeats them again & again, says Anne Ganley, a psychologist in Seattle, Wash., who has worked with abusers & their victims. Typically, an abuser targets areas of a woman’s life that he knows are particularly sensitive, such as her parenting skills, her appearance or her sexual performance, says Ganley.

A person who is verbally abusive, but has not caused the victim physical harm, can still become violent. Ganley suggests that a woman ask herself if her partner has ever used physical force against someone else or property. Has he gotten into fistfights, smashed things or thrown a chair against the wall? These are signs, she says, that he has the potential to become physically or sexually abusive.

Being verbally abused is exhausting & emotionally draining for the victim.

Garcia Gusman calls emotional abuse “in-your-soul abuse” because the harm inflicted isn’t outwardly apparent, like bruises or broken bones. The damage goes much deeper.

A 1999 study published in the journal Violence & Victims showed that psychological abuse, particularly ignoring & ridiculing victims, contributed to depression & low self-esteem. Psychological abuse has also been linked to anxiety, panic attacks & suicidal thoughts. When the abuser has also used physical force, every verbal assault can trigger a response in the victim’s body & mind as if physical danger were imminent, Ganley says.

In relationships marred by both physical & psychological abuse, says Ganley, “Every time the verbal abuse happens, it’s really a double whammy. Even if the physical abuse doesn’t happen that time, it’s powerful. … A dirty look or a particular comment not only has the cut of the words, but it also carries with it the history of being shoved down the stairs.”
Each time the abuse begins, the victim’s body gears up as if to fight or to flee, which can result in long-term health consequences including high blood pressure, asthma, cardiac problems, auto-immune & other illnesses triggered by stress (including PTSD), Ganley says. Victims may develop a sense of helplessness & lose the ability to protect themselves. “They may be irritable, hostile & angry a lot of the time under this threat,” Ganley says.

There is hope, however. Once a woman seeks treatment, she may begin to realize the problems with her partner are not her fault, says Garcia Gusman. Individual therapy or support groups with other victims can help a woman increase her self-esteem & her ability to recognize potentially abusive behavior.

“As she spends more time in a support group talking to others or working with a counselor,” Garcia Gusman says, “her mental health has a turn around.”


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