How Emotional Abuse Takes Its Toll

August 2018

Geri Spieler

Geri Spieler


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Nadine (not her real name) never thought she would fall into an abusive relationship. After all, she was well-educated, professional, strong and independent.

“I thought I had walked into a fairytale romance. I was overwhelmed with the glamour [of] hanging around with [a] powerful crowd,” she told me.

“He took me out to expensive dinners and high-class events. … He was smart and very successful, and he constantly complimented me, saying I was the most beautiful woman he had ever met.”

Before long, her new partner asked Nadine to move in with him, which she said was a surprise. “I really didn’t want to move in, but I was getting a new job and the lease on my apartment was expiring. … After about a month, things began to change … all the glamour and compliments began to disappear,” Nadine recalled.

x-xPokemonMasterx-x (CC BY-ND 3.0)
Nadine (not her real name) never thought she would fall into an abusive relationship. After all, she was well-educated, professional, strong and independent.

“I thought I had walked into a fairytale romance. I was overwhelmed with the glamour [of] hanging around with [a] powerful crowd,” she told me.

“He took me out to expensive dinners and high-class events. … He was smart and very successful, and he constantly complimented me, saying I was the most beautiful woman he had ever met.”

Before long, her new partner asked Nadine to move in with him, which she said was a surprise. “I really didn’t want to move in, but I was getting a new job and the lease on my apartment was expiring. … After about a month, things began to change … all the glamour and compliments began to disappear,” Nadine recalled.

“Instead of compliments, I was getting criticisms. It seemed I couldn’t do anything right. I challenged him early on and … he would apologize and back down. He said he thought he was helping me and didn’t mean to confuse me or be harsh.”

And things were fine—for a while. She thought they had worked through their problems, which she attributed to moving-in tensions.

Soon, however, the negative remarks resumed about her professional accomplishments, how she spent her money, how she did her hair and how she dressed.

Nadine began to find it difficult to make decisions. She came to feel that she wasn’t smart enough to have an opinion. She was walking on eggshells, fearful of her partner’s response to anything she said. She began to speak less and less.

Then he went too far. “The final thing that gave me the strength to leave was when he began criticizing my son for wanting to go to graduate school,” she said. “It was like, he was jealous of this 20-year-old kid? A light went off in my head, and my protective mother came out, and in a matter of days, I moved out.”

When she left, she put 3,000 miles between them. A course of therapy several years later helped her regain her professional and personal sense of self and understand the dynamics of that abusive relationship.

Nadine’s story is all too common. Many women suffer from devastating yet nonphysical abuse from their partners, which tends to take one of three forms: verbal abuse, involving constant belittling; emotional abuse, which involves manipulating the victim’s feelings of self-worth; and psychological abuse, which causes the victim to doubt her sense of reality.

Behavioral professionals are faced with the dual challenge of diagnosing the problem, which bears no physical evidence and is not easily identifiable, and then helping to bring the victim back to a healthy state.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses this working definition of intimate-partner abuse: “A pattern of abusive behaviors exerted by one individual in order to control or exercise power and control over his/her partner in the context of an intimate relationship.”

In “When is it Emotional Abuse?,” an article on Psychology Today’s website, author and counselor Andrea Mathews writes, “Emotional abuse is an attempt to control, in just the same way that physical abuse is an attempt to control another person … the perpetrator of emotional abuse uses emotion as his/her weapon of choice.”

“We worry about women in this situation, as it is an actionable crime,” Protima Pandey, director of the Office of Women’s Policy in Santa Clara County, Calif., told me. “We have to inform a victim that verbal abuse is an act of domestic violence. It doesn’t matter if someone never lays a hand on the woman. Verbally abusing them is harmful and damaging.”

According to Pandey, power and control are the primary issues in such instances of abuse. The victim will often be ensnared in a strong psychological dependence on the abuser. As her self-esteem diminishes, she comes to accept the blame for the attacks against herself.

In a study conducted by Community Solutions of Santa Clara County, the emotional effects of intimate-partner violence are a factor in more than a quarter of female suicides or suicide attempts. They are also a leading cause of substance abuse in adult women.

Janice (not her real name) shared her story with me:

“For women who haven’t experienced abuse, it is hard to understand why someone would tolerate it,” she said. “Why not simply walk away? And there is no easy answer to this question.”

I experienced poverty and abuse as a child. I never met my father. My mother was shamed because of her illegitimate child. She was uneducated and lived on welfare with four kids besides me. My brother was alcoholic, violent. I witnessed my sister’s vicious, drunken brawls with her husband. I do not believe that a child who lives with violence will necessarily repeat that pattern as an adult. I do believe, though, that violence can become a way of life.

I married when I was in college, 19 years old. I wasn’t in love, but my soon-to-be husband was five years older and more confident of his feelings than I. He was needy, and I needed to be needed. The perfect couple. Our first child was born 11 months later, right before my senior year in college. Two years later, our second child was born. My husband suffered from a mental illness that I knew nothing about. Later, I found out he had been sexually abused as a child. We divorced, and he had a nervous breakdown shortly after. I felt alone, very much a failure. And I had no close relative or even a friend who could help.

I was professionally confident. I applied for and got a job teaching at a local community college. Yet my self-image was rock-bottom, or I could never have teamed up with my abuser.

I was a tenure-track college teacher, and he was a community college student in my accounting class. He was bold. Persistent. Handsome. I was lonely. Confused. Depressed.

Once I agreed to go out with him, I could see that he was abusive. I, for whatever reasons, ignored those warnings. Some young kid cut him off in traffic and he followed him, stopped his car, pulled him out of the car, beat him up, then drove away. He was living with a rich, much older woman, managing her bar and driving her car and, I assume, satisfying her sexual needs. He was divorced. “Extreme cruelty” was the reason mentioned on his divorce papers.

With me, he was affectionate. He treated my kids, then 4 and 6, well. But he was a drinker. I was familiar with the habits of alcoholics but wanted no part of that life. I tried more than once to leave him after a fight. … He came to my house, broke a window, climbed through and entered my bedroom. He was tearful, words of love poured from his mouth, he was full of remorse and promised to quit drinking.

And he did. This scene I now recognize as manipulation, but then I thought it was love. I agreed to marry him, and we went to Las Vegas. He flirted outrageously with various women in the casino the night before we wed. We fought but went ahead with the wedding. …

A fight I particularly remember happened early on. He had cooked dinner, which included green beans. My son was 5, my daughter 7. During dinner, my son dawdled, lining up his beans on his plate. This, for some reason, made my husband furious, and he began to yell at my son. I tried to protect my child. My husband then became abusive with me. He called me a whore, a bitch, a cunt. I threw plates at him; he ducked, pulled me from my chair, knocked me to the floor, sat on me and struck me in the face, producing an instant black eye that covered half my face. I had to teach with that black eye. I told my colleagues I was in an automobile accident. I realize now nobody believed that.

My husband was 6-foot-3, weighed 210 pounds. I was 132 pounds.

Such scenes happened often. After each, he would cry, beg forgiveness, promise to change. One time after I left him, he swallowed a handful of pills, then drove away, leaving me terrified. I called [emergency rooms] all over town, finally found him. He drove himself there to have his stomach pumped. …

When I again left him, he called me, with a cocked gun in his hand, threatening suicide. I persuaded my preacher to go to him. … Later, he drove to the coast where we had some charismatic Catholic friends. He “accepted Christ” and returned home a “changed man.”

Only he wasn’t. I’d leave for church and he’d throw my Bible at me as I went out the door. When I shared my marriage problems with our pastor, he brought my husband in to a meeting with the church elders (I was not included) to cast the demons out of him.

That didn’t work, either.

I suffered from his frequent jealous rages. I never knew what to expect. I was taking 60 milligrams of Valium a day. I had three kids by then, was working full time as a teacher, writing textbooks, keeping the books for our very successful 24-hour-a-day restaurant, and working a shift if a waitress didn’t show up. I had no free time. No time to think.

The thing that finally forced me out of the marriage was his infidelities. He lied repeatedly when I confronted him, but finally confessed, told me to “get over it,” and I would just have to accept it. After 13 years, I rented a house and moved out.

My greatest regret is the harm he did to my kids. To this day, they suffer the effects of living with violence in the home. He was not physically violent with them, but they had to live with his filthy mouth, his erratic behavior, knowledge of his frequent illicit love affairs, and the violence against their mother. And he hurt them by mentally abusing them, by being critical.

As any mother will attest, your children are the thing that matters more to you than anything else. To allow harm to come to them, even unintentionally, even if you yourself are confused and emotionally distraught, to not have put them first when that was obviously the thing to do, is the hardest thing to come to terms [with].

As Janice came to realize, the tactics used by an abuser to diminish the partner’s sense of self and even her sense of reality may include some combination of repeatedly referring to a person’s past mistakes; expressing negative expectations and distrust; or threatening violence against a person and/or her or his family members. Yelling, degrading, swearing and name-calling are also common, as is lying and withholding important information. Abusers may also show an approach-avoidance tendency with regard to intimacy.

If the abuse is continuous, repeated and vicious, leaving the relationship may be the only option. Sadly, by the time it becomes clear that leaving is the proper option, the abused person’s strength and ability to make clear decisions and carry them out has usually been significantly diminished by the abuse.

It is often not easy to leave, especially if the victim is financially dependent, has dependent children, or is in a work situation where the abuser is a colleague.

Three contexts in which nonphysical abuse can occur are on the internet, in stalking situations and within the home.

With the growth of the internet and social media, an added virtual context for verbal, emotional and psychological abuse has evolved.

A Pew Research Center study of online harassment, titled “Witnessing Harassment Online,” by Maeve Duggan, found that about three-quarters of internet users have witnessed online harassment. For example, one person might initiate an intense group barrage of comments attacking a person’s reputation, appearance, personality and/or behavior. In another type of attack, a threat is made to post personal, often intimate, pictures as a means of controlling someone. Name-calling and purposeful embarrassment are the most common types of harassment people witnessed against women. At the more extreme end, 24 percent of respondents said they had witnessed someone being physically threatened; 19 percent said they had witnessed someone being sexually harassed; and 18 percent said they had witnessed someone being stalked.

Stalking, in which there is sometimes no physical contact, is another form of psychological abuse. The victim’s sense of security is attacked when someone threatening continually shows up where the victim works, lives or attends school.

Stalking can include excessive text messaging, notices on social media platforms and constant phone calls. This is yet another attempt to demonstrate power and establish control.

But the most egregious setting for abuse is within the home.

A former client of Pandey’s was denied both food and the ability to leave home. Her abuser accused her of failing to contribute to the household and the children, so he emptied the refrigerator and pantry and forbade her to leave the house. At the same time, he told her that if she wanted food, she had to get a job. She believed she had to listen to him because she didn’t have any resources of her own. Help from the police was needed to resolve this situation.

Another example Pandey shared took place in a home in which the wife was deaf. The husband wouldn’t allow the children to learn sign language, isolating the mother from her children.

Often, the person committing the abuse has the financial power in the home. Victims may feel they have no ability or resources to counter the abuse. Threats can include physical harm, separation of children from their parent, isolation of the victim, “outing” a partner in a homosexual relationship, or, in the case of migrants, turning the victim in to immigration authorities.

Emerging Legal Help

A recent change in California has expanded the statutory definition of “disturbing the peace” to “disturbing the peace of the other party.” “Conduct that destroys the mental or emotional calm of the other party” is a violation of the law.

The change in the definition now includes nonviolent behavior such as stalking; threatening; telephoning, including making annoying phone calls; unwanted contact, either directly or indirectly, by mail or otherwise; and coming closer than a specified distance to another person. Now that some courts are recognizing verbal, emotional and psychological abuse as being as destructive as physical abuse, victims are finally getting their day in court.

In one case, the court held that a husband’s actions of accessing, reading and publicly disclosing his wife’s emails without her permission destroyed her mental and emotional calm.

In another case, the court held that a victim’s peace was disturbed when her boyfriend emailed, sent text messages and showed up unannounced at his ex-girlfriend’s home after she made it clear that she wanted to cease all contact with him.

And in Evilsizor v. Sweeney, the court held that a husband destroyed his wife’s mental and emotional calm when he downloaded the contents her cellphone without her permission and threatened to disclose the personal information.

Often, it is a challenge to get victims to understand that what they are experiencing is not just a family squabble but an attack on their well-being and their ability to function as an equal in the relationship.

Dalena Powell, manager for a domestic violence program in Southern California called Healthright 360, says it is important to let victims know there is hope.

“You can regain your self-esteem,” Powell says. “You can replace those negative thoughts. Recovery is possible for healthy communications.”

Powell says survivors must be prepared to give themselves the time they need to remove the negative narrative. “It didn’t happen overnight, and they won’t be back to themselves overnight. We care for survivors as long as is necessary, and that can be three months, three years or longer. But it can be done. They just need to reach out. We will get them back to normal.”