It is heartbreaking when someone we know is on the receiving end of a psychologically abusive relationship. This article details the terror that those experiencing such abuse endure, and provides some strategies for gaining self-awareness and dealing with the situation.
I have augmented my own personal observations with content borrowed heavily from the references listed at the end of this article.
What is Domestic Violence?
Domestic violence, both psychological and physical, is a pattern of intentional coercive behavior used to establish and maintain control over an intimate partner, ex-partner, or family member through fear or intimidation.
Anyone can be victimized by domestic abuse. Victims can be of any age, sex, race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, education, employment, or marital status. No matter how nice someone’s house is or how intelligent they are, they can still be a victim of abuse.
Most domestic abuse is committed against women by their male partners or ex-partners, and in this article I will refer to the abuser using the male gender and the victim using the female gender. But it is important to realize that both men and women can be abused and can be abusers, in both mixed sex and same sex relationships.
Contrary to popular belief, domestic abuse is not caused by stress, mental illness, alcohol, or drugs. Nor is it due to the abuser’s loss of control over his behavior. The only true cause of domestic violence is the abusers’ deliberate choice to act violently and/or control their intimate partner.
Over three million incidents of domestic violence are reported each year. What isn’t talked about, but is serious, is psychological and emotional abuse, which is often overlooked, excused, or denied. The number of people affected is astronomical. You may think that physical abuse is far worse than emotional abuse, since physical violence can send you to the hospital and leave you with scars. But, the scars of emotional abuse are very real, and they run deep. Emotional abuse is insidious and slowly eats away at the victim’s confidence and self-esteem. The effects are long term, and can take even longer to recover from than blatant violence. Furthermore, emotional abuse usually worsens over time, often escalating to physical battery.
Noticing and acknowledging the signs of an abusive relationship is the first step to ending it, and this article provides a guide to doing just that. No one should live in fear of the person they love. If you recognize yourself or someone you know in the following warning signs and descriptions of abuse, reach out.
There is help available. The most telling sign of an abusive relationship is someone’s fear of their partner. If you feel like you have to walk on eggshells around your partner — constantly watching what you say and do in order to meet their approval, or to prevent a blow-up — chances are your relationship is unhealthy and abusive. Other signs that you may be in an abusive relationship include a partner who belittles you or tries to control you, and feelings of self-loathing, helplessness, and desperation.
Abusers can have a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality.” Dr. Jekyll is often charming and romantic, perhaps successful, and makes pronouncements of love. The victim will love Dr. Jekyll and make excuses for Mr. Hyde. They don’t see that the whole person is the problem.
There is a domino effect in play in the sense that abusers were often raised in families where abuse was typical. And those most likely to fall victim will often have had a painful and/or absent relationship with a parent growing up (with women, it is typically their father), one that causes them to confuse love and pain.
Additionally, once a victim starts accepting abuse from her abuser, and letting him convince her that she is guilty and worthless, the abuser typically buries her under a cascade of dominoes inflicting ever increasing amounts of control, emotional abuse and guilt. She becomes completely unable to dig herself out of the distortion and blame heaped upon her, effectively trapped in a situation that will eventually suck everything special and beautiful out of her. The abuser knows that if he can extinguish from the victim everything that makes her exceptional, then no one else will ever want her, and his hold over her will be complete.
Victims may stay in abusive relationships for many reasons:
- It would be financially difficult to leave
- They would have nowhere else to live
- They have no outside emotional support
- Leaving would cause child care problems
- They take the blame for the abuse
- They deny, minimize, and rationalize the abuse
- They have low self-esteem and confidence
- They love the abuser
What “love” actually means, and whether it means the same thing to each of us, is a difficult question that has been much debated. But I think it is fair to say that the love that one partner feels towards the other in a healthy relationship is nothing like the feeling that an abuser feels towards his victim. Despite their claims that they are acting out of love, the abuser is often incapable of feeling any kind of empathy towards others. The abuser acts out of a strong compulsion and need to control the victim and keep her under his thumb, and to treat her in an abusive manner. Love brings out the best in people, and drives them to act out of kindness and goodness. Abusers act out of hate and sickness. The feelings that they have towards their victims are the opposite of love. (Note added August 6, 2018: See the excellent article: What It Means When a Narcissist Says “I Love You”.)
And from the victim’s perspective, they can sometimes confuse feelings of love with Stockholm Syndrome, the psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending and identifying with the captors.
Recognizing Abusers and Victims
Victims of abuse typically feel ashamed. Humiliation by the abuser causes them low self-esteem and confidence. They will hide the abuse from people close to them, often to protect the reputation of the abuser and because of their own shame. The abuser will use tactics to isolate the victim from friends, loved ones, and anyone else who might help the victim see clearly the nature of the abuse they are receiving. The abuser will criticize these other people and make remarks designed to force the victim to take sides. The victim then has to be either for the abuser or against them. If the abuser feels slighted, then the victim has to take his or her side, or they are “befriending the enemy.” This is designed to increase control over the victim and their dependence upon the abuser.
Abusers often act as bullies in an attempt to cover up their core insecurities. Their personality profile is a person who is:
- Needs to be in control
- Blames their behavior on others
- Threatening and/or violent
Abusers may exhibit excessive jealousy, controlling behavior (often disguised or excused as concern or an attempt to “protect” the victim). They may try to isolate their partner from family, friends or other social interactions, and are often hyper-sensitive, getting easily hurt or offended. Very rarely will an abusive person accept responsibility for any negative situation or problem, but will tend to shift the responsibility onto other people or situations in general. In a similar way, abusers will shift the blame/cause of their feelings outside of themselves, seeing their emotions as a reaction to other people or situations rather than stemming from themselves.
People who are being abused may:
- Seem afraid or anxious to please their partner
- Go along with everything their partner says and does
- Check in often with their partner to report where they are and what they’re doing
- Receive frequent, harassing phone calls or texts from their partner
- Talk about their partner’s temper, jealousy, or possessiveness
Above all, it needs stressing that the victim of abuse is not responsible for the abuse and violence, but is being manipulated and coerced by the perpetrator.
Sometimes the victims of spousal abuse don’t know their own thoughts, opinions, ideas or even preferences and seem to exist as an extension of their partner. Psychologists call this tendency to adopt the opinions or behaviors and moods of others external referenting. External referenting refers to a person who takes his or her cues about what to think and believe or even how to talk and behave, from other people around them… usually whomever they are closest to at the time.
Not all Controlling Relationships are Abusive
Not all relationships that result from one person having power or authority over another individual are abusive. For example, teacher/student, employer/employee, and commanding officer/subordinate relationships all involve circumstances where one individual takes or gives up some degree of authority to another, and these relationships are not typically abusive. In some domestic relationships, sometimes called D/s relationships, two people can consensually agree to give or yield authority to each other for mutual satisfaction and benefit. One person can enjoy taking a role that focuses on providing leadership, guidance, security and protection to their partner, while their counterpart finds a strong degree of satisfaction in being mentored, protected, and providing acts of service in a structure specified by their partner.
For such relationships to be non-abusive:
- The exchange of power and authority must be self-aware, explicit and consensual between both people.
- Either party must be able to terminate the exchange of authority at any time and without any retribution.
- The exchange of power or authority must be driven by positive factors, such as personal growth and the enhancement of self-awareness and pleasure, rather than by negative factors, such as jealousy, a desire to isolate someone from others who are not harmful, or to convey feelings of superiority/inferiority.
It is not uncommon for people who have in the past suffered in abusive relationships to enjoy and benefit from having this kind of positive, structured relationship in their life. But it is also important to realize that claims of a D/s relationship can sometimes be used as a “false cover” by an abuser for situations that are actually abusive and harmful rather than consensual and beneficial.
Consent is key, and simply asking someone if they consent to their partner continuing a specific behavior or behaviors is not always a true indicator of actual consent. This is because 1) sometimes abuse victims are too scared to withhold consent or to tell others that they do not consent; 2) sometimes abuse victims have essentially been brainwashed into thinking that they deserve the abusive behavior, and will therefore want it to continue — consent that comes as a result of abuse is not true consent; 3) sometimes people are under the influence of substances which make them not of sound mind to be able to provide consent; and 4) sometimes abuse victims are not able to easily separate their feeling towards their abuser from their feelings about the actions of the abuser.
Presenting consent as a choice separate from the relationship can help deal with this problem. A person in a healthy relationship does very much want these kinds of behaviors to continue, has negotiated prior that these are the kind of behaviors that they want to experience, and has some power to stop things once they no longer want their relationship to include these kinds of behaviors. If a person indicates that they would rather stay in the relationship but, if given a choice, would rather not have these behaviors continue, then the behaviors are abusive. Unfortunately people who are abusive seldom change behaviors over the long term, regardless of the wishes of the victim. If anything, the abusive behaviors tend to worsen over time rather than get better.
Tactics Used By Abusers
Emotional or psychological abuse can be verbal or nonverbal. Its aim is to chip away at the victim’s feelings of self-worth and independence. If you’re the victim of emotional abuse, you may feel that there is no way out of the relationship, or that without your abusive partner you have nothing.
Abusers use a variety of tactics to manipulate their victims and exert their power:
Dominance – Abusive individuals need to feel in charge of the relationship, in a way that is unlike what happens in a healthy D/s relationship. They will make decisions for the victim, tell her what to do, and expect her to obey without question, because they want her to think that she is worthless and her opinion is worthless. The abuser may non-consensually treat the victim like a servant, child, or even as his possession. The abuser will often profess that they have special knowledge of the victim that others cannot possibly comprehend or relate to, and that others are therefore unfit to judge their actions as abusive. This allows them to dictate that they know what is best in the treating of their victim.
Humiliation – An abuser will do everything he can to make the victim feels bad about herself or defective in some way. After all, if she believes she is worthless and that no one else will want her, she is less likely to leave. Insults, name-calling, shaming, and public put-downs are all weapons of abuse designed to erode the victim’s self-esteem and make her feel powerless. The abuser will sometimes “forgive the victim” for things resulting from the abuser’s own causing, thereby shaming the victim into thinking it was her fault.
The abuser’s attempts to use guilt and shame to try to keep someone under their hold are often reinforced by friends and family members who, seeing only the victim’s reaction to the abuse but not the actual abuse itself, tend to place blame on the victim instead of on the abuser.
A feeling of guilt about the abuse is almost universal – the victim of abuse believing, and being told by the perpetrator, that they or their actions are the cause of the abuse. This has a double effect: it enables the abuser to continue to feel justified in continuing their destructive behavior, as the victim takes responsibility for the abuse, and also allows the victim to continue to believe that they can change the situation and can in some way control the abuse and stop it. Real change in a perpetrator of abuse however is sadly very rare.
Rewriting History and Projection – Domino Principle #1: Deceptive Perceptions teaches us that “You must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” The abuser seeks to prevent the victim from seeing clearly and without distortion at every opportunity. If reality does not correspond to the way that the abuser wants the world to be, then the abuser will often change facts or use them selectively to rewrite history, along with using diversion, deception and misdirection to manipulate the victim. When abusers defend themselves against their own unpleasant impulses by denying their existence while attributing them to others, it is a distortion technique psychologists call “projection.” Abusers are often masters at projection, falsely accusing the victim and others around them of the negative behaviors that they engage in themselves.
Isolation – In order to increase the victim’s dependence on him, an abusive partner will cut her off from the outside world. He may keep her from seeing family or friends, or even prevent her from going to work or school. He may have her delete email accounts and social network profiles, or restrict access to them by others. She may have to ask permission to do anything, go anywhere, or see anyone. The abuser will often claim that their relationship with the victim, such as a marital relationship, gives them life-long authority to treat the victim as they please (for the victim’s protection, of course), and that others have absolutely no right to judge their conduct or interfere. The abuser frequently claims he is acting to protect and defend the victim, but in actuality he is trying to protect himself from anyone who might help the victim understand the true nature of the abuse that she is experiencing and the falsehoods she is being fed by her abuser.
Stalking – In our electronic age, abusers can and do violate the privacy of their victim by tracking their cellular phone location, looking at phone call records, breaking into their email accounts, monitoring them on webcam, and putting spyware on their computer. Even the possibility of the abuser monitoring the victim can effectively make the victim a prisoner in her relationship with her “captor.”
Threats – Abusers commonly use threats to keep their partners from leaving or to scare them into dropping charges. The abuser may threaten to hurt or kill the victim, her children, other family members, or even pets, along with those who might try to help the victim see that they are being abused and that they should leave the relationship. The abuser may also threaten to commit suicide, file false charges against the victim or others, or report the victim to child services.
Intimidation – The abuser may use a variety of intimidation tactics designed to scare the victim into submission. Such tactics include making threatening looks or gestures, smashing things in front of her, destroying property, hurting her pets, or putting weapons on display. The clear message is that if the victim doesn’t obey, there will be violent consequences.
Denial and blame– Abusers are very good at making excuses for the inexcusable. They will blame their abusive and violent behavior on a bad childhood, a bad day, and quite often on the victim of their abuse. The abusive partner may minimize the abuse or deny that it occurred. He will commonly shift the responsibility on to the victim: Somehow, his violent and/or abusive behavior is always her fault.
The Cycle of Domestic Abuse
Domestic abuse falls into a common pattern, or cycle of violence:
Abuse – The abuser lashes out with aggressive, belittling, or violent behavior. The abuse is a power play designed to establish superiority and dominance.
Guilt – After abusing the victim, the abuser feels guilt, but not over what he’s done. He’s more worried about the possibility of being caught and facing consequences for his abusive behavior.
Excuses – The abuser rationalizes what he has done. The abuser may come up with a string of excuses or blame something the victim had done for causing his abusive behavior—anything to avoid taking responsibility.
“Normal” behavior – The abuser does everything he can to regain control and keep the victim in the relationship. He may act as if nothing has happened, or he may turn on the charm. This peaceful honeymoon phase may give the victim hope that the abuser has really changed this time. As previously noted, real change in a perpetrator of abuse is very rare.
During the honeymoon period, the abuser may do things to outwardly show both family and friends close to them, and the victim, that he is a “good person.” However, his actions are driven by a need to manipulate rather than by goodness. He might buy the victim nice gifts or take her on trips to wonderful places. These acts don’t come out of love… they come out of a desire by the abuser to create an appearance that the victim is well treated, and to try to convince the victim that they have truly reformed their abusive ways. After all, when the abuser is outwardly treating the victim so very well, how could he possibly be abusing her as well? If the victim should complain, the abuser can hold them ungrateful for the wonderful things that he has provided. And to external parties, it looks like the victim is living an enviable life. But the truth is that abuse can occur anywhere and relates solely to how the two people in the relationship interact. Even the wealthiest people living the most lavish of lifestyles can have abusive relationships.
Fantasy and planning – The abuser begins to fantasize about abusing the victim again. He spends a lot of time thinking about what she has done wrong and how he’ll make her pay. Then he makes a plan for turning the fantasy of abuse into reality. New periods of abuse can also be triggered by external events such as when someone outside the relationship tries to help the victim see the true nature of the abuse she is experiencing, or to help her escape the abuse.
Set-up – The abuser sets the victim up and puts his plan in motion, creating a situation where he can justify abusing her.
The abuser’s apologies and loving gestures in between the episodes of abuse can make it difficult to leave. He may make the victim believe that she is the only person who can help him, that things will be different this time, and that he truly loves her. However, the dangers of staying are very real.
Abusers are able to control their behavior—they do it all the time
Abusers pick and choose whom to abuse. They don’t insult, threaten, or assault everyone in their life who gives them grief. Usually, they save their abuse for the people closest to them, the ones they claim to love, and anyone who might explicitly challenge their ability to inflict continued abuse.
Abusers carefully choose when and where to abuse. They control themselves until no one else is around to see their abusive behavior. They may act like everything is fine in public, but lash out instantly as soon as they are alone with their victim.
Abusers are able to stop their abusive behavior when it benefits them. Most abusers are not out of control. In fact, they’re able to immediately stop their abusive behavior when it’s to their advantage to do so (for example, when the police show up or their boss calls).
Violent abusers usually direct their blows where they won’t show. Rather than acting out in a mindless rage, many physically violent abusers carefully aim their kicks and punches where the bruises and marks won’t show.
Speak up if you suspect domestic violence or abuse
If you suspect that someone you know is being abused, speak up! If you’re hesitating — telling yourself that it’s none of your business, that you might be wrong, or that the person might not want to talk about it — keep in mind that expressing your concern will let the person know that you care and may even save his or her life.
Talk to the person in private and let him or her know that you’re concerned. Point out the things you’ve noticed that make you worried. Tell the person that you’re there, whenever he or she feels ready to talk. Reassure the person that you’ll keep whatever is said between the two of you, and let him or her know that you’ll help in any way you can.
Remember, abusers are very good at controlling and manipulating their victims. People who have been emotionally abused or battered are depressed, drained, scared, ashamed, and confused. They need help to get out, yet they’ve often been isolated from their family and friends. By picking up on the warning signs and offering support, you can help them escape an abusive situation and begin healing.
Domino Principle #4: Distress Potential tells us that we should recognize and take advantage of the fact that the greatest opportunities often come out of times of crisis and distress. When an abuse victim is buried under the fear, stress and guilt of an abusive situation, it can be very hard for her to see the better future that awaits her if she can turn the corner, seek help, and get away from their abuser. By unlocking a door to escape from a life filled with darkness, she will find beyond it opportunities for more sunshine than ever imagined.
Note added October 26, 2017: Please read my sequel to this article, where I delve deeper into the topics of psychologically abusive relationships and the difficulty of leaving them:
References and Additional Reading
I have borrowed heavily from some of these references in writing this article:
Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT: The Truth About Domestic Violence and Abusive Relationships
HelpGuide.org: Domestic Violence and Abuse
Hidden Hurt: Domestic Violence and Domestic Abuse – An Overview
Get Domestic Violence Help: The Domestic Violence Cycle Phases 1 and 2 The Honeymoon Stage (Making Up and Calm)
Safety Net For Abused Persons: Domestic Violence Information
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