More than 3 million incidents of domestic violence are reported each year, including both men and women. Nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million people. One-third of women and one-fourth of men will have experienced some sort of interpersonal violence, and for one-fourth of women and one-seventh of men, it's severe. (For more, visit NCADV.org.)
What is less talked about, though serious, is emotional abuse that ranges from withholding to controlling, and includes manipulation and verbal abuse. The number of people affected is astronomical. Emotional abuse is insidious and slowly eats away at your confidence and self-esteem. The effects are long term, and can take even longer to recover from than blatant violence.
Facts About Abuse
The Typical Abuser
You may not realize that abusers feel powerless. They don’t act insecure to cover up the truth. In fact, they’re often bullies. The one thing they all have in common is that their motive is to have power over their victim. This is because they don’t feel that they have personal power, regardless of worldly success. To them, communication is a win-lose game. They often have the following personality profile:
How to Respond
Most victims of abuse respond in a rational way: They explain themselves and believe that the abuser is interested in what they have to say. This lets abusers know that they’ve won and have control. Instead, one must design their own strategy and not react, thereby not rewarding the abusive behavior. You can do this by not engaging, or by responding in an unpredictable way, such as with humor, which throws an abuser off-guard. You can also ask for the behavior you want, set limits, and confront the abuse. Most victims do the opposite, and placate and appease an abuser to deescalate tension and the risk of harm. It rarely works, and abuse typically continues.
The Truth About Violence
If you’ve experienced violence—and that includes shoving, hair pulling, or destroying property—it’s essential to get support and learn how to set limits. Abusers deny or minimize the problem—as do victims—and may claim that they can’t control themselves. This is untrue. Notice that they aren’t abusive with their boss—because there would be consequences to that behavior. They also blame their actions on you, implying that you need to change. You’re never responsible for someone else’s behavior.
You may recognize the Cycle of Violence:
Sometimes, the threat of violence is all the abuser needs to control you, like a terrorist. The best time to abort violence is in the build-up stage. Some victims will even provoke an attack to get it over with, because their anxiety and fear is so great. After an attack, abusers say how sorry they are and promise never to repeat it, but without counseling to treat the underlying causes of the abuse repeat itself. Do not believe their promises.
Why Victims Stay
There are many reasons why victims stay in a relationship. Statistics show that victims of violence endure up to seven attacks. The dominant reason is dependency: Control by the abuser, shame about the abuse, and the dysfunctional nature of the relationship lowers the victim's self-esteem and confidence and often causes the victim to withdraw from friends and family, creating even more dependency on the abuser. The abuse itself is experienced as an emotional rejection with the threat of being abandoned. This triggers feelings of shame and fears of abandonment in the victim, which are then relieved during the honeymoon phase. Then victims hope the abuser will change. After all, there are good times between episodes of abuse. There are reasons why the person loves or once loved the abuser, and often children are involved.
Abusers can have a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. Dr. Jekyll is often charming and romantic, perhaps successful, and makes pronouncements of love. You love Dr. Jekyll and make excuses for Mr. Hyde. You don’t see that the whole person is the problem. If you’ve had a painful relationship with a parent growing up, you can confuse love and pain. Victims also stay for the following reasons:
If you’re a victim of abuse, you feel ashamed. You’ve been humiliated and your self-esteem and confidence have been undermined. You hide the abuse from people close to you, often to protect the reputation of the abuser and because of your own shame. An abuser uses tactics to isolate you from friends and loved ones by criticizing them and making remarks designed to force you take sides. You’re either for them or against them. If the abuser feels slighted, then you have to take his or her side, or you’re befriending the enemy. This is designed to increase control over you and your dependence upon him or her.
Steps You Can Take
It’s essential to build outside resources and talk about what’s going on in your relationship. A professional is the best person, because you can build your self-esteem and learn how to help yourself without feeling judged or rushed into taking action. If you can’t afford private individual therapy, find a low-fee clinical in your city, learn all you can from books and online resources, join online forums, and find a support group at a local battered women’s shelter. Do this even if it means keeping a secret. You’re entitled to your privacy.
To avoid getting involved with an abuser when you’re dating, beware of someone who:
Pay attention to these signs despite the fact that the person is pursuing you and expressing love and affection. An abuser won’t risk becoming abusive until he or she is confident that you won’t leave. First, he or she will try to win you over and isolate you from friends and family. See if he or she respects your boundaries. Often, violence doesn’t start until after marriage or the birth of a child, when you’re less likely to leave.
If you’re threatened by abuse, call 1-800-799-SAFE. Some other steps you can take to prepare for an emergency are:
Remember, by not confronting abuse to avoid the risk of losing someone’s love, you risk losing your Self. (See How to Be Assertive.)
©Darlene Lancer, MFT 2012, 2017