Connie was forty-three years old and miserable. She didn't have any energy and was depressed all the time. Her life seemed to be one long black tunnel. She thought it was because her children had grown up and left home. She kept telling herself she just didn't have enough to do anymore to keep busy. She had married young and never held a "real" job; instead, she had stayed at home and raised her children. After the last child moved out, she had occupied herself at first by compulsively cleaning the house and using up her days on little projects. But lately even that was becoming pointless. The energy to keep up an empty house had dissipated along with her joy.
Some of Connie's friends urged her to go out and get a job or volunteer her time at a library, school, or hospital. But Connie was convinced she could never handle a "real" job since she had always stayed home. Her husband's reaction to that suggestion had been immediate—she had no skills, and who would want a fat, middle-aged woman for anything. Besides, lately she couldn't even do her housework or have a hot meal on the table when he got home. He was really afraid for her. If she did get a job, he knew she would be fired in no time at all.
At first Connie's husband's words had hurt her feelings, but deep down she knew he was right. He was just trying to save her from the embarrassment of failure. All the time growing up she had heard how she was stupid and slow, that all she would ever be good for was having babies. She knew then that her parents hadn't really meant to hurt her; they were just trying to save her from having unreal expectations about what she could do with her life.
And they had been right. She had never been good at anything except raising her kids. That was the only thing she had ever done right, the only thing she could take any pride in, and now her kids were gone.
Finally, Connie had sunk so low she sought help for her depression. If someone could only help her figure out what to do with the rest of her life, she would be happy and able to function again. But instead of looking at what to do with her future, Connie was guided by her therapist into looking at her past. For every example, past or present, that she could think of in which she had been emotionally abused, Connie was able to come up with a perfectly good reason to deny the negative and destructive nature of those messages, to excuse the abuse and, by extension, the abuser. After all, those who had been the most abusive to her had also been those she loved.
Since childhood, Connie had denied the truth about herself. She had denied the truth about her parents and how they treated her. She had even denied the truth that her children had always been more important to her than her husband. To her children she was somebody, but to her husband she was nobody. In order for Connie to truly get on with her life, she had to rethink her pattern of denial and recognize that what she had experienced as a child and as a wife was wrong, even if everything she had ever learned said otherwise.
Central to this ability to outwardly ignore emotional abuse is the denial of its true nature and negative impact. Often two negative, abusive messages that reinforce the emotional abuse are passed on to children:
1) Whoever is in authority over you (be it parent, spouse, or boss) can speak to you however he or she sees fit, no matter how negatively. Not only is it that authority figure's right to address you as he or she desires, but it is probably for your own good.
2) "Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you."
These messages are delivered not only by power-hungry individuals bent on subjugating all those around them but also by everyday people who learned those messages themselves and never thought to question conventional wisdom.
Many of those I have worked with over the years learned to accept the world as it was given to them. They learned to accept relationships as they came to them. They looked around and saw the same thing happening to others, so they accepted what happened to them as simply part of life.
It's time we stopped ignoring the emotional abuse that goes on around us. It's time we stopped denying that what we have experienced or practiced ourselves is really destructive behavior. It's time we stopped accepting abusive treatment of anyone, no matter who is doing it or to what degree is it taking place. It's time we stopped perpetuating the abuse that has been so destructive to ourselves and our relationships.
In thinking about emotional abuse, how does ignoring it, denying it, or accepting it lead to perpetuating it in your own life? If there are hurtful patterns you're perpetuating, are you ready to let go of them and change? If you find you're not ready to do that, what needs to happen for you to be ready?
2009 Gregory L. Jantz, PhD, Healing the Scars of Emotional Abuse, Revell.