emotional abuse

Most people, especially ones in abusive relationships, do not understand what emotional abuse is. If you feel so moved, I encourage you to send this article to friends, colleagues, relatives and, if appropriate, to post it at your workplace.

When I was a facilitator for The National Domestic Violence Hotline’s Decade for Change Summit, I became aware of the strong role that many businesses are assuming in educating employees and assisting victims in the workplace. The annual cost of lost productivity due to domestic violence is $727.8 million. This estimate includes work days missed as well as the employee’s inability to function properly while at work.

One aspect of domestic violence that is rarely discussed is emotional abuse. The following article helps people identify if they are in an emotionally abusive relationship. If you or someone you know is the target of emotional abuse, please seek help from someone highly qualified in this area. Initially, two books might be helpful: Emotional Abuse by Marti Tamm Loring and Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse by Gregory L. Jantz with Ann McMurray.

The following article is about a marital situation. The unfortunate truth is that emotional abuse occurs in the workplace as well. Abuse of any kind should never be tolerated and abusers should not be protected, no matter how important their title or, in the case of marriage, how much you love them. If you witness a pattern of ongoing abuse or are the target, report it to the proper person at work or take action to change your situation at home. Emotional abuse should not be taken lightly. It is a silent killer, destroying your spirit, your health and eventually your life. Be on the alert for it in your personal life as well as your work life.

Wishing you healthy relationships, Dr. Paula

The Life Doctor  

Are You Being Emotionally Abused?  

Emotional Abuse is difficult to identify. It is insidious, resembling brain washing. The abuser gets inside your mind, bit by bit altering your reality. It is not concrete like a bruise. When you’ve been hit, you know you’ve been hit. You may not know what to do about it, but at least you know what’s happened. With emotional abuse, the victim usually does not know what has happened. People who have been both physically and emotionally abused, say that the emotional abuse was worse. The physical bruises heal; the emotional scars were etched into their self-esteem, creating damage that was much harder to repair.

We have a lot of “nice” words to explain away abuse. We say things like: “Oh he’s just a control freak;” “She’s manipulative;” “He has a bad temper.” These are constructs that make abusive behavior socially acceptable and that protect abusers, letting them off the hook. It’s time to hold their feet to the fire and call their behavior by its real name, Emotional Abuse.

Many couples, as in my own case, spend years in therapy dealing with issues that are smoke screens. An abuser can go into marriage counseling and spend session after session taking the therapist and spouse off on tangents, deflecting attention from the real issue. Unless everyone knows what they are dealing with, no progress is possible. Even then, unless you are at the beginning of a relationship, abusive patterns are very resistant to change.

Emotional abuse usually occurs in the privacy of one’s home where there are no witnesses. The victim is so busy trying to maintain some semblance of self-esteem that she isn’t processing what is happening to her. What makes it more confusing is that the abuser is often a highly paid, well-respected, and/or likeable person outside of the home. Both partners participate in this public charade, pretending that everything is wonderful. I was such a good actor that I had myself convinced that I was happy. When I left him, many people even said, “But you were the perfect couple.”

Contrary to stereotypes, abuse happens to men as well as to women and is prevalent at all levels of education and financial status. Abused people, like myself, often have advanced degrees, are attractive, competent and successful in their careers. It is mind-bending to even entertain the possibility that someone with such a profile could be the victim or perpetrator of abuse. Consequently everyone gets thrown off-track. The victim, her close friends and, unfortunately, often the professional help she seeks all have difficulty believing that there could be abuse in that kind of marriage.

Through individual counseling, I finally got healthy enough to realize that my progress was so slow because I was constantly being beaten down, put down and verbally attacked in my marriage. Although the source of my difficulty had its roots in my past, it was clearly current, on-going and ruthless.

Now that I had the right diagnosis, I had to decide what to do. I had lived with the hope of a happy marriage for a lot of years and had worked hard to achieve that goal. As I wrestled with the concept of giving up hope, I confided in a Catholic friend who had spent her life trying to save marriages. I said, “How do I know he won’t change?” Her response was telling, “You have all the years of your marriage as evidence.”

I had been so busy trying to “save” him that I had lost sight of saving myself, which was really the only life I could save. I “Chose Life,” said “good-bye” to a lot of friendships, possessions and the life that I had known. As difficult as it was, nothing was as difficult as being in that marriage. The most incredible blessings have been the peace and freedom of my own space, my own life and the healthy new relationships that I have developed. I have never had a second of regret about my decision. The counseling and support that I received was essential to the successful ending of my old life as a victim and the creation of my new one with self-respect at the core.

Although the focus of this discussion is on the marital relationship, abuse can exist in any relationship. Abuse can come from parents, children, siblings, friends, bosses, co-workers, business cultures, apartment managers, clients, sales personnel, etc. In fact, if one of your relationships is abusive, there may well be others. Learning how to not be a victim is part of the healing journey. As we say “no” to what we don’t want, we get more of what we do want.

I am sharing this information in the hopes of helping others discover the reality of their own situation. My prayer is that, as individuals and as a civilization, we stop abuse now and prevent this from going into yet another generation. Below are some questions to help you identify whether you, a loved one, a co-worker or a friend is in an abusive relationship. If you suspect that you are in an abusive relationship with a male or female, please seek advice from trained professionals before you take any action. Even emotional abuse can become physically dangerous, especially when the victim is leaving. Thus, it is essential that you be fully informed about your situation and make appropriate preparations for your safety.

1.      Does he act like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

I believed that he was a nice guy with a good heart. I would explain away unpleasant behavior by making excuses for him, like “He means well.” “He had a difficult childhood.” “He had a hard day at work.” I always tried to be understanding and forgiving. I saw his negative behavior as temporary lapses. The intermittent good times were often fun and felt even more so because of the absence of abuse. He never apologized for any of his ugly behavior. According to him, he was a great guy and never did anything wrong over the decades of our marriage. Any problem we had was my fault. Some abusers beg for forgiveness, buy jewelry and flowers and swear never to do it again. They are very convincing, but they do not mean it and the pattern repeats itself over and over again. Eventually, I allowed myself to see that he was mean to me and that there was no good excuse for cruelty to anyone, let alone to someone who you claim to love.

2.      Does he isolate you socially? Are your couple friends all friends of his? Does he disapprove of your going out with your girlfriends?

He found something wrong with everyone I liked. If I did make a friend, he would undermine the relationship by “forgetting” to tell me that she called, interrupting my phone conversations, making me late to appointments. The techniques would continually change, but the effect was always the same.

3.      Are you often sick or tired (“sick and tired!”)?

I often felt hopeless, helpless and drained, while he was full of energy. He seemed like the energizer bunny, and I wondered what was wrong with me. I was so emotionally beaten down that I barely had the energy for the essentials of life. What energy I did have left, he would use up by sending me on errands to look for things and then reject whatever I found. My life juices were slowly being sucked away. By the time I left, I was sick half of every week and in danger of becoming what I refer to as “the walking dead.” Since I left him, my health and energy have been returning.

4.      Does he often make you feel badly?

He treated me with disrespect. He was the smart one, and I was the lowly one who was supposed to pay homage to his superior intelligence and knowledge. Every now and then, he would throw me a bone by saying “That’s a good idea.” His tone would be one of surprise that I actually said something that he deemed worthwhile. At different times he would be insulting, demeaning, chastening, berating, humiliating, devaluing, or threatening. At other times, he would ignore me or give me the “silent treatment.” I remember many car rides and meals that occurred in complete silence. Another tactic was to jump up and down during a meal to feed an animal, check the computer, answer the telephone—everything was more important than dedicated quality time with me.

5.      Do you feel like you’re always walking on egg shells, afraid you will say or do the wrong thing?

I would often be afraid to ask for help or bring up a topic that I knew he wouldn’t like. His response was never predictable, which always kept me on guard, never knowing when an explosion or a nasty tone or unkind remark would descend upon me. If I did ask for help, he might say “sure” in a friendly tone. Then he would talk so fast that I couldn’t follow him or else he would speak in a disdainful tone or say he was too tired to help. If I asked him to speak nicely, he would tell me that I was too sensitive or that I was just imagining that he was yelling or being rude.

6.      Is he controlling?

He always knew everything. My desires and opinions were not relevant or they were just wrong. We had money for what he wanted but not for what I wanted. He always knew what I should do, how and when. Everything seemed to revolve around his needs even when he made it seem like he was doing it for me. Sometimes he would appear to listen to me and then ignore my opinion and buy or do what he wanted. He always had convincing logical arguments as to why his decision was the right one. If I did buy or do something I liked, he would control how I felt about it by saying so many mean things that he sucked out all of the joy. He also controlled my emotional state by setting me up for disappointment time and again. He would establish an expectation, like watching a movie together every Sunday night. After one or two times, he would end the interaction without saying anything or with some “logical” or unkind excuse, leaving me feeling rejected and deserted.

7.       Is he manipulative?

He would use language in a distorted way to create some kind of illusion. He would often say “I don’t know how to get you to do …” I would say, “You don’t have to get me to do it, just tell me what you want.” That wasn’t part of his way of doing things, though. Open and honest communication was not an option. He wanted to trick me into doing what he wanted. He would withhold information, give me partial information or lie to get me to make the decision and take the action that he wanted.

8.      Does he tell you what to eat?

When we were out to dinner, he would pretend to be helpful by reading me select items from the menu. In effect, he was limiting my choices and sending me the message that I couldn’t even decide what to eat without him.

9.     If you talk about divorce, does he threaten to take the children and/or to leave you penniless?

These are two common manipulative techniques that my x-husband did not use. He did, however, use both the children and the finances to hurt me.

During the marriage, he created a situation in which the children were his allies. They followed his lead and usually treated me with the same disrespect that he did. More often than not, I was humiliated, isolated and scapegoated by all of them. Since I left him, my relationships with my children have constantly improved to the point where now I have good relationships with each of them.

During the divorce, he tried to make it look like he was giving me a generous financial deal. Behind the scenes he was actually trying to take money from me that was rightfully mine. Had I not discovered his ploy, he would have left me in a financially vulnerable position with fewer assets than the law required.

10.      Is everything an emergency?

When he wanted to do something or to discuss something, everything had to stop. It didn’t matter what I was doing or what my needs were. His emergency took precedence. The problem was that everything was an emergency, especially if I was tired, particularly rushed or doing something I enjoyed.

11.      Does he physically hurt you or the children?

He would “playfully” wrestle with me and then use his strength to hurt me. Sometimes he would bump into me or step on me and claim not to see me or tell me I got in his way and should be more careful. Knocking me in the head “by accident” was another common occurrence. Somehow it was always my fault. There were a few years when I wouldn’t leave him alone with the children because I wasn’t certain that they would be safe.

12.      Does he engage in win-lose thinking?

Abusers think win-lose while the victims think win-win. I was certain that we had the same world view and were both working for win-win. Since we weren’t, he always had the upper hand. I wanted peace, harmony and cooperation. He wanted to win and was not happy unless I was losing. I would compromise and accommodate in order to maintain peace.

13.      Is he respectful of your sexual sensibilities?

If I said I didn’t like something, he would “forget.” If he was impotent, it was my fault. If I initiated, he didn’t feel like it that night. There were always subtle ways to use sex as a weapon. Many men actually rape their wives, engage in “rough” demeaning sex or totally withhold sex.

If anything here raises a question in your mind about whether you might be in an abusive relationship, please call me. Allowing yourself to see that the person you love is abusing you, is very difficult. I can help you determine if you are dealing with emotional abuse and if so, support you as you heal.

For individual or group coaching, speaking or workshops, contact Dr. Paula: paula@paulajoyce.com

Best-Selling Author    Leading Expert    Radio Show Host