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.

Emotional abuse is a repeated pattern of coercion and control using manipulation. Every person occasionally acts snappish or hurtful. Emotional abuse is 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.

“We’re talking about power and balance,” said Ellen Brauza, executive director Western New York Anti-Violence Project in Buffalo. “It’s not about housekeeping, money or sex or anything used as an excuse. It’s about one partner, usually in order to shore up their own ego, taking power over the other.”

Brauza said that instead of a relationship of equals, an emotionally abusive relationship is about control. Brauza said that emotional abuse is usually a precursor to physical abuse. “It’s damaging enough as it is, as it makes people less sure of themselves, less autonomous and able to live their own lives,” she said.

Of course, few would willingly enter such a relationship. But the power and control comes by small degrees. Brauza said that it’s usually under the guise of love and helpfulness, but these steps are really about disempowering the other and isolating the victim from others that would help.

Mary Murphy, CEO at Family Justice Center in Buffalo, said that abusers gain control initially through emotional abuse and as they discover that’s not working as well, they often resort to physical violence. Forty survivors sit on the organization’s board.

“They tell us when they were in the midst of classic domestic violence, they never would’ve identified themselves as a victim of domestic violence,” Murphy said.

Oftentimes, the abuser is an active substance addict or has a personality disorder such as psychopath, pathological narcissist, or borderline personality disorder. It’s ineffective to compare interactions with an abuser like this with interactions within a normal relationship.

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.

Initially, victims are treated very well. In fact, abusers sweep them off their feet in a whirlwind romance. It’s like a storybook. Victims feel 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.

“By the time it goes physical, they’re so broken down psychologically, and sexually, and verbally, and via social media,” Murphy said. “They just remember the fear and the overwhelming emotions that can trump fear: shame and embarrassment. ‘What did I do to make this person who called me soulmate to do this? Finally, someone in the world ‘got’ him and that was me?”

She added that 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.

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.

Hoping the abuser will change, staying for the children’s sake or thinking that couple’s therapy will help are all reasons victims stay. 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.

Goodtherapy.com states, “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. 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.”

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.

“It’s complex, dangerous business trying to get out,” Murphy said. “That’s why you need a domestic violence advocate. You didn’t cause it and it’s not your fault. We never tell our clients what to do and share with them the resources one piece at a time and it’s highly effective.”