Emotional Abuse: Women Are Often the Target

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

One in four women and one in seven men will be victims of at least one incident of severe physical violence by an intimate partner — not a stranger — in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many people do not realize that emotional abuse often precedes physical abuse.

Emotional abuse is far different than a spat between partners.

“We look at a continuum of violence as to different ways violence happens,” said Randi K. Bregman, licensed master social worker and executive director at Vera House in Syracuse. “It’s about power and control. It’s someone trying to use their power and control, like physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, financial abuse. Physical wounds heal but the emotional wounds are much harder to heal.

“All these years later, it’s hard to stop hearing the voice in your head that says you’re no good.”

Bregman added that emotional abuse is just as damaging as physical abuse, especially considering the life-altering and long-lasting effects of the former.

Emotional abuse is a repeated pattern of coercion and control using manipulation. Every person occasionally acts snappish or hurtful. Emotional abuse takes place when a partner gains dominance through consistent use of intimidation, bullying, cruelty, name-calling and humiliating. Gaslighting is yet another tactic. With gaslighting, the abuser contradicts the victim’s memory of the past to cause the victim to doubt the memory of past comments or events for the purpose of undermining confidence and others’ trust. (“You’re forgetful — as always” or “That’s crazy; it’s not what happened at all.” Or “You must have misheard me; that’s not what I said.”) Using gaslighting helps the abuser “rewrite” the past to gain the upper hand by downplaying their offenses, appearing as victims and presenting the true victim as a wrongdoer.

Of course, few would be willingly to enter such a relationship. But the power and control come by small degrees.

Geoff Hopkins, board-certified child psychiatrist at the outpatient child and adolescent clinic at St. Joseph’s Health, said that many people don’t even realize they’re victims of emotional abuse.

“You might have excessive criticizing or negating everything you say or trying to humiliate you,” Hopkins said. “It could be signs of emotional abuse.”

Either partner in a romantic relationship can be victimized — even in couples not living together. Size and emotional needs generally make women easier targets for abusive men.

Abusers aren’t just anger prone, substance abusers or people with mental illness (although people with these issues can abuse, too). Abusers are often capable of maintaining a socially acceptable veneer of self-control when it matters.

“Research shows that men who are abusive often lash out at their partners or spouses with the intent of enforcing what they believe to be their rights, but that they are generally able to keep from reacting in an abusive manner when individuals other than their wives or children do not meet their expectations,” states goodtherapy.com. “This behavior is rooted in logic, demonstrating rationalization that makes it less likely that battering behavior stems from a mental illness, although it may in some cases.”

Hopkins said that emotional abuse is “a prime risk factor for eventually being a victim of intimate partner violence. Identifying this is important for one’s own safety.”

Initially, victims are treated very well. In fact, abusers sweep them off their feet in a whirlwind romance. It’s like a storybook. Victims feels so lucky and dazzled by how attentive and thoughtful the abusers are, lavishing with expensive gifts and flattery. It feels like the love of a lifetime. Abusers slowly begins to exert more and more control over victims and usually under the guise of “protecting” or “helping.” Abusers isolates victims from friends and relatives that would spot any problems or support victims’ considerations of leaving. Abusers do this by eroding the victims’ trust in others and even accusing them of wrongdoing to drive a wedge in any other relationships.

If the emotional abuse begins to lose effectiveness in controlling the victim, that’s when physical violence usually begins.

Simply leaving seems an easy solution; however, on average it takes several attempts to leave. Many victims feel as if it’s their life work to rescue the abuser, as if they are uniquely qualified to be the only one who really understands. They still love their partner and want it to work out. They may be financially dependent and have children together. They also fear escalated violence and stalking should they leave.

At this point, victims are in the most danger. They need to build a network of people to help. That may include repairing relationships that the abuser has damaged and seeking help with a trained counselor. Well-meaning friends who want to “patch things up” between them likely will make things worse. Abusers are very likely to retaliate against victims in this situation in private and since they cannot see anything they’ve done wrong, they will blame victims “causing problems” in the relationship.

Many think that couple’s therapy will help, but abuse is not a marriage problem; it’s one-sided.

Anger management classes won’t help either since anger doesn’t cause the problem.

“One thing that’s really important is we don’t use our concern for the person to justify ways of acting to show control over the other person,” Bregman said.

Telling victims what to do doesn’t empower them. Instead of diminishing them, Bregman advises sharing supportive statements, like “I’m here for you if you want to talk; I love and care about you.”

Most of the time, leaving the relationship is the only option when abusers have a personality disorder. Among those who are chemical dependent, only those who are willing to complete rehabilitation have hope of stopping battering.

Leaving is usually the only safe choice long-term, yet it’s also fraught with peril in the process.