Women who live with domestic violence often tell me they prefer hitting to the emotional torture their abusers put them through. The Power and Control Wheel calls it emotional abuse, and while some may not agree with the terminology, there is definitely an emotionally destructive element to these relationships. “Emotional abuse systematically degrades, diminishes, and can eventually destroy the personhood of the abused.”[i] Tactics include: putting her down, making her feel bad about herself, name calling, mind games, making her think she’s crazy, humiliation, and making her feel guilty. Several years ago, I watched a woman in a store ask her husband if she could purchase a three-dollar item. Rather than saying yes or no, her husband began to put her down in front of everyone present. He asked her how she could be so foolish as to want to buy something that cheap, and indicated that she probably wouldn’t even use it. As he was criticizing her for her stupidity, he looked over at us and chuckled. It was clear he enjoyed taunting his wife, and that he saw her as inferior. Her face turned red as she tried to mumble out answers to his questions, and finally she put the item back to avoid further humiliation. It seems silly that something so small could ignite such a fury, but that’s the nature of domestic violence. Molehills become mountains on a regular basis when you live with an abuser.
One woman at the shelter told me that sometimes she would purposely do something to get her husband to hit her, just because she knew that once the abuse was over there would be a break in the verbal assaults for a while. Victims are made to feel they are constantly wrong, incompetent and worthless. No matter what the issue, and no matter who is right or wrong, everything gets turned around and the victim ends up getting blamed for everything. The sad thing is that abusers are often skilled enough to convince counselors and pastors that their wives really are to blame for most of the problems in the marriage. They’re so skilled at these mind games that often their partners even start to blame themselves. Abusers go to great lengths to portray themselves as morally superior and intellectually more reasonable than their victims, and by the time they get to counseling many victims are so overwhelmed, and insecure about themselves, that they do seem unstable.
Abusers love to isolate their victims from people and situations that might provide them with support. I have had women tell me that, after getting married, they eventually lost every single friend. My friend Kathy was rarely allowed to see her family- even on holidays. On several occasions, her husband reached out to her friends and family and told them it was her decision to cut off the relationships. He led them to believe that she was mentally unstable, and he was doing his best to make things easier on her. However, he was the one controlling her contact with others. She was basically allowed to go to church (with him), and to the grocery store as long as she wasn’t gone too long, and came home with a receipt to prove her whereabouts.
Abusers use isolation to try and make sure their victims have nowhere to turn when things get tough. Most controlling people live in fear of losing control, so they go to great lengths to maintain it. Linda’s husband, Dave, bought a 17-acre farm 20 minutes from the nearest town, and he had the only car in the family. He was retired, so Linda had him as her constant companion. Dave controlled what she ate, what she read, and even her opinions. She was not allowed to disagree with him in any way. When I met her, they had been married over 30 years, and up until just before she came to the shelter, he had never laid a hand on her. Although Dave did not allow Linda to have friends, he had several, and when he invited his friend Carl out to visit, he brought his wife, Lucy. This was the first friend Linda had been allowed in years, and she was grateful. One day when the men were out hunting, Lucy told Linda she needed to stand up to Dave’s bullying, and let him know she had a right to her opinion. Shortly afterwards, she did just that, and Dave went ballistic. He beat her so badly she nearly died, and he ended up in prison. For all the years they had been married isolation had achieved its goal. When she completely isolated, Linda was too afraid to refuse any of Dave’s demands, but as soon as she found some external support she found courage to challenge him. Unfortunately, by the time she did, it nearly cost her life.
This article is part 4 in a 5 part series on recognizing the signs of an abusive relationship. Many victims do not even realize their relationships are abusive. The intent of these articles is to show that domestic violence is far more than physical abuse.
[i] Vernick, Leslie, The Emotionally Destructive Marriage (Colorado Springs, Waterbrook Press, 2013), Kindle Version Location 256.