Key Feature #4: Right about now are you wiping your brow in relief? Whew, escaped that one–no physical violence in my relationships. If so, that’s good, real good. Let me ask you this, though. If your relationship is free of physical violence, is it also free of emotional violence? Do you and your partner agree on what is emotional violence? Do you both commit to having a relationship free of it? To have a relationship that feels good, you must have agreement on these three questions–three ‘yes’ answers.
The absolute number of women in physically violent relationships with other women is smaller than the number of women who are in a relationship that has emotional violence. Emotional violence is very common. In fact, if you have been in a relationship, chances are you have experienced emotional violence. Hell, if you grew up in a family you are likely to have experienced emotional violence from someone at some time. It is very, very common. People are cruel to others when they feel angry, afraid, disrespected, threatened, entitled, judgmental, jealous or full of shame and self loathing.
You may have noticed I use the term “emotional violence” rather than “emotional abuse,” the more familiar term. I do that because I believe the behavior should be recognized for what it is. It is violence toward a person’s wellbeing, sense of self, sense of safety, reputation and peace of mind. It has the same function as physical violence–to cause pain, to relieve the perpetrator’s anxiety and to assert control. For whatever reason. It doesn’t matter why. You can have hurt feelings, or unintentionally cause another to have hurt feelings, but that’s not emotional violence. Emotional violence is intentional–even if the perpetrator regrets it later.
In case you are uncertain about whether something you’ve experienced, or something you’ve done, constitutes emotional violence, here’s a partial list: Emotional violence includes behaviors like spitting on another person, breaking a treasured possession, “accidentally” hurting a pet, burning or slashing the other’s clothes or property, or calling the other person hurtful, degrading names, with or without profanity. Emotional violence includes attacks on property, reputation or a person’s sense of safety and wellbeing. Acts such as slitting your tires, hacking your FaceBook, betraying you by revealing things that are absolutely private, or betraying some other kind of trust. It includes overt racism and racial, sexist, ageist, or homophobic slurs. It can also include threats, emotional extortion, as well as threats to withholds love, sex, money or time when those things are important or meaningful to the withholdee. It also includes the practice of what I call “guerrilla infidelity,” which is having sex with as many people as possible in order to cause the maximum amount of pain. Emotional violence occurs when the perpetrator shames and humiliates the other person in front of others, or says the most painful thing she could possibly say, and oh, so many more wounding, hurtful things. Things that can hurt so much you wish you’d been hit instead. This can never be a relationship that feels good, because even when emotional violence isn’t happening, aren’t you always waiting for the other shoe to drop?
Why is emotional violence any more acceptable than physical violence? Maybe it isn’t, but don’t we act like it is? Is it worse to be a battered woman than it is to be the victim of deep emotional wounds? Both are difficult to recover from. Emotional wounds leave much bigger scars, however. Women who believe they would never put up with violence in a relationship, can find themselves in a relationship with someone who has become emotionally violent. If you’re one of them, you may find it more difficult to leave an emotionally violent relationship because it is harder to point to this kind of behavior and recognize it for what it really is–violent and abusive. There have been completely capable, intelligent women who have trouble getting out of an emotionally violent relationship for some very familiar reasons. Reasons such as, “but I love her, and I don’t give up on the people I love.” Or because maybe you feel you participated in it, too. Or the real mind bender–“it’s not really abusive–she’s not hitting me or anything.” How heartbreaking is that?
Key feature #5: If you have been the victim of emotional violence, do you also feel ashamed of that fact? Many women do. It’s part of the package we deliver to ourselves in the aftermath. You tell yourself you should have known better. You feel weak for falling for such a person in the first place. Perhaps you find yourself wondering if that’s all there is for someone like you. You feel bad for wanting what few good memories there were. And so on. If you are ashamed because of the way you’ve been treated in a relationship, it is not a relationship that feels good, even if there are also times where you can ignore your more painful feelings.
Here’s what I know: The only cure for shame is the bright light of day. If you talk about your experience, you will be taking direct action to heal yourself. Yes, I know, making yourself vulnerable again is that last thing you feel like doing. And if you feel you cannot talk about feeling ashamed because it would mean telling secrets about the other person’s behavior, you are the proud owner of the double whammy–damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Be as pissed off about it as you want to be, but take the cure. I promise you, talking about it with a trusted other will be much, much better than stuffing it down where you can pretend you’re not going to think about it. Whether it happened in the past or it is happening in your current relationship, don’t keep it a secret. It will fester and continue to make you feel bad about yourself. It will continue to wound you. You have to talk about it in order for it to lose its power over you.
Here, listen, I’ll start: I was in an emotionally violent relationship. It hurt a lot. There were some good parts to the relationship, especially in the beginning. But not so much after about a year or two. I spent a long time trying to show my partner how I wanted to be loved. Making excuses for her cruelty. Denying to everyone who loved me that it was an abusive relationship. I let a lot of people down, including our kids. It got really bad. I suffered a lot. But here’s the worst of it, the part I carried shame about: I stayed for seven years. I know. Sometimes I can’t even believe it of myself, but, yep, that’s what I did. I didn’t even understand how bad it was until it was over because I was numb by then.
There. Now you know. It doesn’t hurt any more because it isn’t my secret shame any more. I’ll probably write more about this life-altering relationship, but for right now, that’s all that is needed to let you know what I’m talking about, what I’m suggesting you do for yourself. Start just like I did, above. Here’s what was going on and here’s what I did. Here’s how I felt about the situation and about myself. That’s what you do with the shame and the fact that you were, or are, in an emotionally violent relationship–maybe even more than one. Talk about it with someone who can empathize without trying to fix you. You don’t need fixing because you aren’t broken. You just need someone who can relate, and who knows how to listen. Avoid people who will add to your burden by giving you advice, pity or scorn. Or the ones who respond by saying “you think that’s bad? Wait till you hear about my ex….” Don’t have one of those good listeners? Consider getting a therapist or a coach. Read Brene Brown’s book the Gifts of Imperfection. Practice admitting you are a human who is capable of making mistakes but who can recover from those mistakes. Practice telling yourself it is okay to be a human who is not perfect even when everyone else knows it, too. Try saying thank you for the gift of having eyes that are open from now on.