Part 4 – Are You In Denial About Verbal Abuse In Your Relationship?
Key Feature #4: Are you both committed to having a relationship free of verbal and emotional abuse? Right about now are you wiping your brow in relief because there is no physical violence in your relationship? If so, that’s good, real good. What about verbal abuse or emotional violence? Do you and your partner even agree on what is verbal abuse? How about emotional violence? Have you ever talked about either of these when you aren’t in the middle of an argument?
In order to have a relationship that feels good, you must have agreement on all of these questions–they must all be emphatically ‘yes’ answers in order to ensure your relationship is free of emotional and verbal abuse.
The number of women in a same-sex relationship with emotional violence or verbal abuse is greater than the number of those in a physically violent relationship. Emotional violence and verbal abuse are very common. In fact, if you have ever been in a relationship, you have a pretty good chance of having experienced at least some emotional or verbal abuse. Healthy disagreements never include verbal abuse, but many people think they are having “normal” disagreements when, in fact, they are being verbal abusive to each other.
For many of us, growing up in a family with alcoholism or other kinds of dysfunction meant experiencing emotional violence from someone, at some point. Like I said, it is very, very common. People are cruel to others when they feel angry, afraid, frustrated, disrespected, threatened, entitled, judgmental, jealous or full of shame and self loathing.Read on...
You may have noticed I use the term “emotional violence.” It means using words to harm another person’s wellbeing, sense of self, sense of safety, reputation and/or peace of mind. It has the same function as physical violence–to cause pain, to relieve the perpetrator’s anxiety, and to assert control. The reasons for emotional and verbal violence are the same as for physical violence, in my opinion.
A partner is emotionally violent or abusive when she uses threats, bullying, fear, or coercion to hurt, intimidate or control her partner. Controlling what her partner does, where she goes, or who she talks to is emotionally abusive. Emotionally violent partners can act possessive, jealous, controlling, and manipulative. These behaviors tend to start fairly early in the relationship. They should be considered red flags. They only get worse the longer the two are together. These behaviors never get better unless there is a deep commitment on the part of both partners to change it. Both partners must get out of denial about it before any changes can be made.
An emotionally abusive or violent partner tends to tell her partner that it is the partner’s own behavior that caused the abusive partner to have the abusive behavior (as in, “If you wouldn’t push my buttons, then I wouldn’t get so angry.”). Such a partner often insists that the other person is “being dramatic” or “making a big deal out of nothing” or is accused of being abusive first.
Nothing justifies behaving in an emotionally violent manner toward a partner who is supposedly beloved. There is no behavior that a partner could do that makes being emotionally violent or verbally abusive.
If your partner has done something hurtful, whether it is infidelity or gambling the rent money away, or anything else, it will not be resolved by name-calling, demeaning, threatening, or any other form of emotional cruelty. If what she did was unforgivable, end the relationship. If it is a tangled mess and you aren’t sure you can trust her, get some professional help for the relationship, or end it. Don’t stoop to emotional or verbal cruelty. You are better than that.
Emotionally abusive partners may swear they can’t control themselves. They may say that when they get so angry they black out.
When I’ve worked with women who say this, I have questioned each of them closely about this experience of “blacking out.” The conclusion I have drawn is this: They are so angry they make a conscious choice to let go of their impulses and just let ‘er rip.
Why don’t I believe it is an actual loss of conscious control? Because in almost all other situations in which they have been really angry, they have managed to hold onto their impulse control. When they are in a situation where acting on their anger will be very costly to them personally (such as blowing up at the boss, screaming in the face of a law enforcement officer, etc), they manage to control themselves. The other reason is, that most of these “blackout” events have alcohol, and sometimes drugs, involved in them.
It is true that people can black out when drunk. For those women who know they tend to lose control of their anger when they drink, to me it is a conscious choice to drink, knowing they are prone to exploding on their partners. Therefore, the emotional abuse, blackout or no, is a choice.
This is why I say that emotional violence or abuse is intentional. It is like throwing a knife with deadly aim, even if the knife is made of words, and even if the perpetrator regrets it later. Calling someone a “stupid bitch” is in no way unintentional. It has one purpose only, and that is to wound. If you are ever in doubt about whether something said or done qualifies as emotional violence, ask yourself “what is the intention of these words or this action? What is it suppose to accomplish?” You’ll get your answer if you are honest with yourself.
In case you are wondering whether something you’ve experienced in your relationship, or something you’ve done, qualifies as verbal or emotional violence/abuse, here’s a partial list:
• It includes behaviors like spitting on the other person,
• breaking a treasured possession of the other person or breaking a gift given by the other,
• “accidentally” hurting the other’s pet,
• burning or slashing the other’s clothes or property, or
• calling the other person hurtful, degrading names, with or without profanity.
Emotional violence also includes
• verbal attacks on the other person’s family members, her reputation or her sense of safety and wellbeing.
• Acts such as taking her phone,
• hacking FaceBook accounts or other social media accounts,
• betrayal by revealing things that are absolutely private, or
• betrayal of some other kind of trust.
• It includes controlling who your partner can see, talk to or have a relationship with; it includes jealousy and possessiveness.
• It can include overt racism and racist, sexist, ageist, or homophobic slurs and cruel remarks about the other’s body, ability, disability or culture.
• It can also include threats of any kind,
• emotional extortion, as well as
• threats to take custody of the children, to withhold love, sex, money or time when those things are important or meaningful to the other person.
• It also includes having sex outside the relationship in order to cause the maximum amount of pain to the other.
• Emotional violence occurs when the perpetrator shames and humiliates her partner in front of others, or
• says the most painful thing she could possibly say,
and so many more wounding, hurtful things.
This kind of abuse often includes words and behaviors that can hurt so much the victim often wishes she had been hit instead because that would hurt less. A relationship that continues to have verbal or emotional abuse can never be a relationship that feels good, because even when emotional violence isn’t happening, the victim is always waiting for the other shoe to drop and the abuse to start again.
Why is emotional violence any more acceptable than physical violence? 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. Both have profound, long-term traumatic effects on a woman. Both undermine her self esteem and her sense of safety, and both make her doubt her own perceptions because one thing that all abusers have in common is their penchant for blaming the abused woman.
Women who believe they would never put up with physical domestic violence in a relationship, can find themselves in a relationship with someone who has become emotionally violent, and not even recognize it right away. 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 many 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 maybe you feel you participated in it, too, so you hesitate to call it what it is for fear of being painted with the same brush. 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 to hang onto the few good memories you have. Or maybe you are afraid to be alone. 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 better times when you can ignore your more painful feelings.
Here’s what I know: The only cure for shame is the bright light of day, the clear light of the unvarnished truth. If you talk about your experience, you will be taking direct action to heal yourself. Yes, I know, making yourself vulnerable again is the 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. But listen, it is always a choice. Who are you going to take care of–the one who hurt you, or yourself?
There is only one way out of shame. Shame is like mold. It grows in dank, dark, closed up places. Sunlight kills it. Be as pissed off about it as you want to be, but take the cure. I promise you, talking about it with a trusted friend, a professional or your pastoral person or spiritual mentor, will be much, much better than stuffing it down where you 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 spread just like mold growing on an old potato. It will continue to make you feel bad about yourself. It will continue to wound you. You will get squishy and smelly and grow green and white hairs–just kidding, but I got your attention, right? 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 completely numb by then.
There. Now you know. It doesn’t hurt me any more because it isn’t my secret shame any more. I’ll probably write more later 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 you’ve been in 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 who specializes in relationships. Read Brene Brown’s book the Gifts of Imperfection or if you don’t like self help books, read a book of poems by Maya Angelou. 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. Practice saying you are sorry for any harm you may have done, and practice asking for, and giving, forgiveness.
If you have children who have been affected in the here and now, or the past, acknowledge (in an age appropriate way) the impact your relationship behavior and choices may have had on them. Make amends to them, not with words, but by living in a manner that they can be proud of you for.
Finally, practice saying thank you for the gift of having eyes that are open–from now on.
Part 5 coming soon…