Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Emotional Abuse

There is a conversation going on in another blog that is touching on several themes close to my world. In the interest of not hijacking that author's blog, I'm taking my thoughts on emotional abuse over here.

No, with all due respect, you can't leave the emotional abuser any more than you can leave the physical abuser. Both demons control you, one with fear and one with love. They are equally powerful forces.

I'd like to illustrate the insidious nature of emotional abuse by going back to the example of the parent as the emotional abuser. It doesn't begin all at once. There is no "magic age" where a parent simply loses it and begins criticizing you, controlling you. It begins before you're even born; it begins with the parent. Part of their DNA, part of the tangled umbilical cord that connects you.

We're taught from the cradle that all parents love their children and all children love their parents. Every book we're read, every television show we see as children reinforces this notion that the bond between parent and child is sacred, everlasting, and beautiful.

The emotional abuser controls you by implying that if you don't conform with their standards, of conduct, of dress, of beauty, of brains, that you aren't deserving of their love. As a child, raised on the dram of "special bonds", how can you combat this? This bitter poison that taints the love you're given is all you've ever tasted, so how can you even know there is something better out there?

As you get older, maybe you are lucky enough to see that other people's homes aren't like that. So maybe you say something, to the other parent, to a trusted adult. Emotional abuse is rarely ever recognized, the pattern so subtle, few see it for what it is. The other parent is maybe already used to the abuse themselves, and afraid to rock the boat, so they'll tell you that it is easier if you just acknowledge that "it's a difficult time for her", "she's just that way", and "shake it off".

Maybe you tell a teacher. You'll hear, "Have you told your mother how much her words hurt you?"

So you go home and tell Mom that her words are hurtful. But the abuser doesn't hear that. Instead, she hears that you don't love her. How could you not love your own mother? How could you not believe your own mother loves you? What an awful person you must be. Not only are you not pretty, not attractive, not ladylike, too noisy, too dumb, but you're also an unlovable kid.

So, tell me, how does this child "just walk out" of that abusive relationship?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey girly - too much stuff for my feeble brain. I'm going to reread and formulate a brilliant, poignant, funny response. Andi

6:03 AM, April 18, 2007  
Anonymous Bryan said...


I think trying to decide which is worse, physical or emotional abuse, is akin to asking whether you'd prefer to be drawn and quartered, or shot through the liver. Those who have argued that "at least you have a chance to escape emotional abuse" are, well, just wrong. From what I've witnessed of physical abuse, and from what I've gleened from your descriptions of what you've gone through, the common thread seems to be that Love is used as a weapon. Most physical abuse cases have an emotional element to them, and I would imagine that it is a fine line to cross for a situation of emotional abuse to become physical.

It seems key to both situations that part of the control comes from the abused's need to feel worthy of the love given by the abuser, and that any failure on her part is punished either physically or by witholding the desired love.

How can one be better than the other?

True, a physically abused person can wind up hospitalized. But that doesn't get them out of the relationship. The child is clumsy. The adult says she ran into a door. And isn't it the emotional aspect that does the greater long-term damage?

As an outsider looking in (though I've seen it closer than most outsiders), it seems to me that regardless whether one is subject to emotional abuse or physical abuse, the true damage in both cases is emotional. But if you're not getting beat up, people seem to think you're just too sensitive, or you call it upon yourself, or you're dumb, or slutty, or ungrateful, or just a pain in the ass.

For the emotionally abused, the prospect of dying at the hands of a physical abuser could seem like a mercy, eh?

4:15 PM, April 18, 2007  
Blogger Cary said...

The therapist points out that it is often easier for a physically abused person to say they're damaged. It is easier for them to see the toll the abuse has taken on their life.

The combination of the nature of emotional abuse and society's lack of recognition that it is a problem contribute to make a victim of emotional abuse blind to their own wounds. In a sense, the victim perpetuates their own abuse through willful blindness.

4:27 PM, April 18, 2007  
Anonymous Bryan said...

Willfull blindness? Perhaps once you are aware that you have in fact been abused you could be blind to your wounds. But prior to that, before you even knew there was another way to be, how could you know?

But still, it seems unrealistic to expect someone, who is only now discovering that what was should never have been, to recognize that they've been injured by their past. After a lifetime of being told time and time again that their feelings were illegitimate, we can't expect them to suddenly realize they've been injured.

How many aspects of yourself have been hurt?

You already know that your confidence in your intelligence has been affected. Your confidence in your appearance has been affected. Your confidence in your sexuality has been affected.

But what about aspects of yourself that you haven't addressed yet? Are you "willfully blind"? Or is it possible that you are simply unaware that most people have had a different experience with that aspect. (I don't know, maybe you get nervous flipping an egg because your mother got upset if you broke the yoke, but most people just flip it without worrying too much about it; are you "willfully blind" to the damage to your egg-flipping confidence or has it just never crossed your mind that maybe most people don't worry about it because if it breaks they just scramble the egg?)

5:20 PM, April 18, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

mmmmm... still thinking. Bryan you are very astute. I like the egg analogy.


2:26 PM, April 19, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cary and Bryan- right on.

I work for an organization on child abuse- physical, emotional, sexual, and every combo you can think of.

emotional abuse is deadly, and it's unrecognized. it's slick and it gets into every part of a person and even working for years doesn't get rid of it all. you don't leave that stuff behind. personal experience- both myself and people i've worked with, friends i've had, and close family members- it is a scar that maybe stops being itchy, maybe isn't bleeding, but it is always there. the scar is there. the end. so yes, emotional abuse is deadly.


11:10 PM, April 20, 2007  
Anonymous Lou said...

In my personal experience, emotional abuse is insidious because it can be so well hidden. Emotional abuse can be very subtle and infused with vague guilt trips until the recipient feels that he/she can't do anything right, so they give up and don't do much at all.

My mother had "written in stone" ideas as to how life should be conducted, and she was a master at "subtle displeasure". (It was just she and I as my father left when I was very young and I had no siblings.) My response, as a young child, was to be sick to my stomach a lot. Mom thought I was a malingerer and the doctor thought I was a hypocondric - not good for a young child's self esteem.

It wasn't until I left home, that I discovered that my mother dutifully loved me but didn't like me - a painful discovery. So I think that emotional abuse can be every bit as nasty and painful as physical abuse, it just doesn't show on the outside.

12:25 PM, April 23, 2007  
Anonymous Lou said...

As for "walking out of that relationship" - my most freeing revelation was discovering that not everyone has to like me (including my family) and I don't have to like everyone. I'm a good person, I have friends to like me with all my virtues and faults (God knows I have faults), people who really care about me will be there, and everyone else can just go on their merry way. I realize that is an awfully independent attitude, but for me, it works.

After I left home, I always stayed in touch with my mother, but because I became able to recognize emotional blackmail, I learned to ignore the "subtle displeasure." I wish for you, Cary, the same ability. You are an amazing woman - and don't you forget it!!

12:53 PM, April 23, 2007  
Anonymous Lou said...

That's "who" like me!

12:54 PM, April 23, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lou - that is brilliance! Really something that should be obvious, but isn't because it goes against instinct. You really don't have to like your family. Love - always it is written in the DNA - but like, enjoy the company of family - isn't obligatory. And to see it, and accept it, and be healthy about is a revelation. I have to go think again. sheesh.


11:34 AM, April 24, 2007  

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