why don’t we talk about emotional abuse?
Between the ages of 13 to about 16, I used to watch Law and Order SVU religiously every Thursday night. Recently, on holiday in Italy, I indulged in watching SVU while eating smallgoods and drinking wine with my best friend.
I saw an episode in which a girl who’d been raped two years ago had just recovered and started going out again. She was then raped again by a different guy. The girl started to blame herself and assumed she must give out some sort of signal to predators.
This got me thinking: there has been quite a bit of discussion in recent weeks about rape victim Daisy Coleman, who was raped at the age of 14 and left for dead (you can read more here) but it made me think – what about other types of abuse that make the victim feel as if they’ve brought it upon themselves? Emotional abuse is extremely debilitating but it is often not talked about in the same capacity as physical or sexual abuse. It can also be less obvious and develops over time.
Emotional abuse can be quite extreme and the perpetrator can make you feel bad in a number of ways. Essentially, they make you feel like you are not good enough; they make you afraid they are going to leave you; they put you down and make you feel like you are the crazy one. They will do this in different ways: verbal abuse, rejection, put downs, isolation and bullying. It can be as subtle as insinuating you are fat when they know you are very conscious of your weight already, or ignoring you or making you jealous of past partners, or criticising you for what you are wearing. And eventually you believe it’s your fault.
The purpose of emotional abuse is to make someone’s self worth diminish and even be a part of a control and power game whereby the person may end up feeling helpless without their partner. Talking about abuse in the LGBTQI community, this article hits the nail on the head:
‘I see it as a power and a control issue … It’s all part of their ploy (conscious or sub-conscious) to make themselves feel less insecure and vulnerable. Abusive relationships are, of course, emotionally draining for the victim …It’s disorienting…one minute they’re telling you they love you, and being strong, and loving and positive; then they’re cheating on you, or not respecting you, and not paying attention to what you need.’
It has been suggested that there are three types of people who can enter relationships: the giver, the taker and the matcher. Matchers view relationships as a commercial transaction; they tend to only give what they have been given. The giver makes sure others are okay and are generally thinking about what they can do for their partner. They tend to internalise problems in relationships and blame themselves that they didn’t try hard enough or that they did “x” wrong. Takers, on the other hand, treat people well only if and when those people can help them reach their goals. They are generally somewhat charismatic but under the surface they are motivated by self-interest. They leave their partner feeling sucked dry. You can pick them by how they treat others they have previously dated. Once they have no value, they move on to the next person that can help them be it in their careers, friendships or affection.
To me at least, there appears to be a correlation between people who emotionally abuse others, and takers. They tend to adopt a balance between making the other person feel completely insignificant but also dependent on them while still making them feel devoted to them. They use people and once they are no longer needed, they discard them as quickly as possible.
Many people who are in emotionally abusive relationships tend to blame themselves, just like rape victims: What was wrong with me? What did I do wrong to deserve this?
It’s common of victims of any form of abuse to believe it is their fault that they are being treated that way and that there is something wrong with them. They also believe it is their fault the relationship isn’t working out, as rape-victim Elizabeth Smart found in her discussion with other women,
‘I can’t tell you how many women I’ve met who say, “When I was your age, I was raped, but it was kind of my fault, because of X, Y, or Z”.’
Victims are made to believe it’s their fault and make excuses both to themselves and others for the behaviour. And people who are victims of emotionally abusive relationships believe the person can change. Chances are if they have a history of it, they are likely to treat you exactly the same.
There needs to be a greater push in our community to understand different types of abuse and understand the underlying social problem behind them. It is not the victim’s fault. And talking about rape and abuse should not be a taboo topic that renders the victim ashamed.
It’s hard for people who have been emotionally abused to talk to other people about their experiences, and people often ask, ‘Why did you put up with it?’ It’s easy to criticise, but the situation is extremely complicated. It’s a complicated issue where the victim has been made to feel reliant on the perpetrator. And it’s not until you are in such a situation you would know how you act.
We can’t turn back the clocks and never enter these situations but we can learn from them. While Emily Yoffe was highly criticised for her proposal of preventative measures, changing attitudes towards rape and abuse is a long process. In the meantime we can take charge and look for signs that people might have the capacity to mistreat us. Listen to how he/she talks about his/her exes and work out what really happened in their past relationships. If they have a pattern of treating them poorly, chances are they won’t change for you. As soon as they show this behaviour, leave. Don’t be fooled by excuses.
Elizabeth Smart’s makes a good point in the New Yorker: ‘Nobody should have the power to take away someone’s self worth’.