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Emotional Abuse

You’re Not Crazy⎯He’s (or She's) Controlling!

The heinous impact of psychological abuse.

During Domestic Violence Month the focus tends to be on one specific kind of abuse—physical violence. Yet, research indicates that the aspect of domestic violence that incites greater fear—and can be a precursor to violence—is psychological abuse. Psychological abuse, like physical violence, is used to gain power and control over an intimate partner. Unlike physical abuse, it is hard to see because it happens with words and demeanor, without physical contact—yet it is undeniable due to the psychological harm it causes.

The Impact

According to a study by the Center for Disease Control, nearly half of all women in the U.S. (48.4 percent) have experienced at least one form of psychological aggression by an intimate partner during their lifetime. Women identified verbal aggression such as their partner’s angry gestures that seemed dangerous, being degraded, insulted, or humiliated; or their partner’s use of coercive control.

During over two decades of facilitating recovery groups for women with controlling partners, I have listened to more than a thousand women speak about being psychologically overpowered by an intimate partner. Please note that, while I will continue to write about women as they are the vast majority of abuse victims, the information here pertains to emotionally abused men as well.

While each woman experiences a unique ordeal, together they tell the same saga: a slow, insidious, and nearly invisible condition of coercion entraps a woman within her most intimate relationship. So well hidden, this entrapment can go undetected even by the woman herself. The deceptive twist is that the person from whom she might also receive care and kindness creates conditions that slowly diminish her spirit and sense of who she is.

How Psychological Abuse Works

A controlling partner takes control by using psychological abuse tactics that coerce and persuade to his way of thinking. In her well-received book Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control, Kathleen Taylor (2004) explains that when an individual uses abusive tactics within a basic social structure, such as a couple or a family, it is possible to gain power over another human being. When this occurs, it is one of the most intense and damaging experiences for those involved.

The abusive tactics that coerce can include:

  • demeaning put downs that are meant to humiliate and shame such as being told, "You’re worthless" or “You’re crazy”
  • ridiculing personal traits such as attacking a person's appearance or personality style
  • intimidating gestures
  • ignoring
  • controlling behavior that causes isolation from family and friends
  • intensely blaming when things go wrong
  • intentionally doing or saying things even publically that cause embarrassment
  • withholding important information to undermine someone.

Ultimately, a controlling partner can make a person feel crazy when she’s not.

Psychological Abuse Harms with Hidden Injuries

According to research by Marshall, injuries from psychological abuse can affect one's life dramatically because the abuse targets a woman’s thoughts, feelings, and how she sees things—affecting her sense of self, her view of the relationship, and her connection with the world surrounding her. Also, according to research by Katz et al, psychological abuse impacts a woman's psyche and sense of wellbeing to the same extent as physical abuse.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence cites a number of studies that have shown that psychological abuse causes serious harm to mental health, with subtle abuse being more injurious than easily recognized psychological abuse or aggression. Those that experience psychological abuse are at risk for depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, and post traumatic stress disorder.

Psychological abuse causes a loss of trust in a woman's perception and judgment that makes her vulnerable to self-blame—moving her further from the truth.

Being unaware of an overall coercive pattern, a woman can naturally minimize or deny psychological abuse with her intimate partner. At times I hear women in support groups say, “I wish he would hit me, because I know that’s wrong and then I could do something about it.” I recall a woman who walked with a limp and wore a finger brace stating, “I’ve been beaten. I have a broken tooth and two fractured fingers—but the emotional abuse is far worse than this.”

Since psychological abuse is hard to see, and nearly one out of two women experience it in some form, we need to take it seriously by educating ourselves. In the United States, unlike the United Kingdom, one woman pointed out, “Psychological abuse is not illegal.” In the end, it’s up to each of us to take steps to protect ourselves, those we love, and, in particular, those we help by recognizing coercive tactics, the harmful effects, and the ways to heal.

More from Carol A. Lambert, MSW
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