Over three million incidents of domestic violence are reported each year, and that includes men as well as women. Nearly 20 people per minute are physically abused by an intimate partner in the United States. During one year, this equates to more than 10 million women and men. One-third of women and one-fourth of men will have experienced some sort of interpersonal violence.
One-fourth of women and one-seventh of men have experienced severe interpersonal violence. (For more statistics, visit NCADV.org.) What isn’t talked about, but is the widespread serious problem of emotional abuse that ranges from withholding to controlling, and includes manipulation and verbal abuse. The number of people affected is astronomical. Emotional abuse is insidious and slowly eats away at your confidence and self-esteem. The effects are long-term and can take even longer to recover from than blatant violence. (See also, “What is Narcissistic Abuse.”)
Myths about Abuse
Victims of abuse often live in denial, and people who haven’t experienced abuse are quick to judge and don’t understand. Here are some myths about abuse:
- Abuse is physical violence.
- Abusers are easy to spot.
- Partners who stay are weak, poor, or uneducated.
- Enough love can change an abuser
- Verbal abuse can’t hurt you.
- It’s easy to leave an abusive relationship.
- Abusers can’t control themselves.
- It’s your fault.
Facts about Abuse
Often victims minimize violence. This is their denial. Violence includes throwing or breaking things, slapping, shoving, hair-pulling, and forced sex. Here are some facts you should know:
- Usually, abuse takes place behind closed doors.
- Abusers deny their actions.
- Abusers blame the victim.
- Violence is preceded by verbal abuse.
- It damages your self-esteem.
- The presence of a gun in the home increases homicide rates by 500%.
- Two-thirds of domestic violence perpetrators have been drinking
- One-third of victims have been drinking or using drugs.
The Typical Abuser
You may not realize that abusers feel powerless. They don’t act insecure to cover up the truth. In fact, they’re often bullies. The one thing they all have in common is that their motive is to have power over you. This is because they don’t feel that they have personal power, regardless of worldly success. To them, communication is a win-lose game. They often have the following personality profile:
- Needy and has unrealistic expectations of a relationship
- Often jealous
- Verbally abusive
- Needs to be right and in control
- Possessive; may try to isolate partner from friends and family
- Hypersensitive and reacts aggressively
- Has a history of aggression
- Cruel to animals or children
- Blames their behavior on others
- Suffers from untreated mental health problems (including depression or suicidal behavior)
Psychiatrist Spiegel in the Depp v. Heard trial testified about risk factors of intimate partner violence: "I don't want to talk about all of them, but ... in particular are 1) having someone in the relationship who is jealous or suspicious; 2) having someone who has a higher than average acceptance of violence ideations; 3) someone who has rapid and extreme mood shifts; 4) someone who has limited self-control." 5) being under the influence of alcohol or substance use disorders. When under the effects of substances like alcohol, people lose their inhibitions (to restrain anger). "That is, I would say, right or wrong, or what I should act on and what I shouldn't act on."
Tactics of Abusers
These are common tactics that abusers use to further their dominance over their partner:
- Makes threats to harm themselves, the victim, or divorce or leave the relationship
- Intimates with a show of force, such as breaking property, stories of past or possible violence, or brandishing weapons
- Verbal abuse by blaming, shaming, gaslighting, or other forms of emotional abuse
- Isolates victims from relatives, friends, or help.
- Denies and lies when confronted and falsely accuses the victim
- Uses children as allies or threatens to harm them
- Withholds money and controls access to resources, employment, and money.
How to Respond
Most victims of abuse respond in a rational way. They explain themselves and believe that the abuser is interested in what they have to say. This lets abusers know that they’ve won and have control over you. You must design your own strategy and not react, thereby not rewarding the abusive behavior. You can do this by not engaging or by responding in an unpredictable way, such as with humor, which throws an abuser off-guard. You can also ask for the behavior you want, set limits, and confront the abuse. Most victims do the opposite and placate and appease an abuser to deescalate tension and risk of harm. It never works. Abuse continues. Read “Do’s and Don’ts of Confronting Abuse.”
The Truth About Violence
If you’ve experienced violence, then it’s essential to get support and learn how to set limits. Abusers deny or minimize the problem – as do victims – and may claim that they can’t control themselves. This is untrue. Notice that they aren’t abusive with their boss – when there are consequences to their behavior. They also blame their actions on you, implying that you need to change. You’re never responsible for someone else’s behavior.
You may recognize this Cycle of Violence:
- A build-up of tension
- The attack
- Remorse and apology
- A honeymoon period of loving gestures
Sometimes, the threat of violence is all the abuser needs to control you, like a terrorist. The best time to abort violence is in the build-up stage. Some victims will even provoke an attack to get it over with because their anxiety and fear are so great. After an attack, abusers say how sorry they are and promise never to repeat it, but without counseling to treat the underlying causes of the abuse repeat itself. DO NOT believe their promises.
Why Victims Stay
There are many reasons why victims stay in a relationship. Statistics show that victims of violence endure up to seven attacks. The dominant reason is dependency. Control by the abuser, shame about the abuse, and the dysfunctional nature of the relationship lower the victim’s self-esteem and confidence and often cause the victim to withdraw from friends and family, creating even more emotional codependency and dependency on the abuser. The abuse itself is experienced as an emotional rejection with the threat of being abandoned. This triggers feelings of shame and fear of abandonment in the victim, which are then relieved during the honeymoon phase. Then victims hope the abuser will change. After all, there are good times in between episodes of abuse. There are reasons why the person loves or did love the abuser, and often children are involved.
Abusers can have a moody, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality. Dr. Jekyll is often charming and romantic, perhaps successful, and makes pronouncements of love. You love Dr. Jekyll and make excuses for Mr. Hyde. (Sometimes, this can result from addiction or a personality disorder, such as narcissism or borderline personality disorder.) You don’t see that the whole person is the problem. If you’ve had a painful relationship with a parent growing up, you can confuse love and pain. Victims also stay for the following reasons:
- Nowhere to live
- No outside emotional support
- Childcare problems
- Fear of the all of the above and retribution by the abuser
- They take the blame for the abuse
- They deny, minimize, and rationalize the abuse
- Low self-esteem and confidence
- They love the abuser
If you’re a victim of abuse, you feel ashamed. You’ve been humiliated by the abuser and your self-esteem and confidence have been undermined. You hide the abuse from people close to you, often to protect the reputation of the abuser and because of your own shame. An abuser uses tactics to isolate you from friends and loved ones by criticizing them and making remarks designed to force you to take sides. You’re either for them or against them. If the abuser feels slighted, then you have to take his or her side, or you’re befriending the enemy. This is designed to increase control over you and your dependence upon him or her.
Steps You Can Take
It’s essential to build outside resources and talk about what’s going on in your relationship. A professional is the best person, because you can learn how to help yourself without feeling judged or rushed into taking action. If you can’t afford private individual therapy, find a low-fee clinical in your city, learn all you can from books and online resources, join online forums, and find a support group at a local shelter for battered victims. Do this even if it means keeping a secret. You’re entitled to your privacy.
To avoid getting involved with an abuser when you’re dating, beware of someone who:
- Insists on having his or her way and won’t compromise
- Has outbursts of anger
- Is rude to others
- Criticizes you or your family
- Is jealous or possessive
- Is paranoid
- Threatens you
Pay attention to these signs despite the fact that the person is pursuing you and expressing love and affection. An abuser won’t risk becoming abusive until he or she is confident that you won’t leave. First, he or she will try to win you over and isolate you from friends and family. Often, violence doesn’t start until after marriage or the birth of a child, when you’re less likely to leave. (See “Narcissistic Relationships.”)
Domestic violence fairly recently got more attention as a crime in the 70's due to the women's movement. However, emotional abuse is not often criminalized. Some states include it in domestic violence only if you reasonably perceive it as a serious threat and not simply words spoken in anger. So, it must be severe. Check the laws in your state.
If you’re threatened by abuse, call 1-800-799-SAFE. Some steps you can take to prepare for an emergency are:
- Open bank and credit cards in your own name.
- Have a safe place to stay with a friend or relative.
- Have a bag packed at that place with necessary valuables and important legal papers, passport, bank information, credit cards, phone book, and money. Also, pack clothes for your children and some toys.
- Alert neighbors to call the police if they hear loud suspect danger.
- Make extra car and house keys. Hide a car key outside so you can get away.
- If there is a weapon in the house, remove it.
Remember, by not confronting abuse to avoid the risk of losing someone’s love, you risk losing your Self.
(The following are affiliate links to the author's products, purchase of which beneifts the author). Learn to set boundaries in my webinar, How to Be Assertive, and discover strategic ways to confront an abuser in my book, Dating, Loving, and Leaving a Narcissist: Essential Tools for Improving or Leaving Narcissistic and Abusive Relationships.
©Darlene Lancer, MFT 2012, 2022