Verbal and Emotional Abuse Can Be a Stealth Weapon in Any Relationship, But Never In A Relationship That Feels Good. Part 4
Verbal and emotional abuse can damage a relationship as much–or even more–than physical abuse, because the effects of it can last a very long time. Sometimes even into future relationships. Additionally, you may not even know what you experience in the arguments and exchanges that happen in your relationship is actually emotional abuse. In this post I’m going to talk about how that happens and what to do about it if you believe there is emotional abuse or verbal abuse in your relationship.
The last post on violent relationships was intense, wasn’t it? If you recognized yourself in any of what I wrote about, healing from the experience must be a part of your journey, If you avoid facing the issue of violence, chances are, you’ll end up in the same place, only you’ll have wasted a lot of valuable time you could have been using to heal and to bring yourself closer to the kind of relationship you really want. The same thing is true for emotional abuse. Denial won’t work. But what if you’re not sure whether your experience is emotional or verbal abuse, or if it is just a matter of arguing about disagreements? This post will help you clarify that very issue.
Key Feature #4 says that in a healthy, loving, 100% safe relationship, there needs to be complete agreement between the partners that there will be no name-calling, no derogatory statements, no threats or other ways of using words to hurt or control, no matter how angry you may be, or how unfair your partner may have been toward you. In other words, a healthy relationship is 100% safe physically and emotionally. You and any partner you have must have agreement about what constitutes verbal and emotional violence. I’ll go into more detail about exactly what this means.Read on...
In my professional experience, emotional and verbal violence/abuse is, sadly, very common. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, if you have been in a relationship in which there were heated arguments, chances are you have experienced emotional violence/abuse of some kind.
It is difficult to find actual numbers about verbal abuse and emotional violence because studies have often looked at physical and emotional abuse together, with the emphasis on physical abuse. Also, couples who have been asked about whether they have experienced verbal abuse almost always disagree about which words or phrases constituted verbal abuse. Many believed the context counted (so what is abusive in one context is not abusive in another context). In my opinion, however, the context doesn’t determine whether something is abusive, but some (usually the perpetrators) use it to justify their behavior and some (usually the victims) use the “context” argument to rationalize accepting such behavior which, in turn, permitted them to rationalize staying in the abusive relationship.
What the research says
Verbal abuse has played a lesser role in research on domestic violence, just as domestic violence between same-sex couples has been less well-researched than opposite-sex domestic violence. A group of researchers who looked at a collection of previous studies (called a meta analysis) of same-sex domestic violence, reported they had difficulty drawing conclusions across studies because many of the studies had problems sorting out, within same-sex couples, violence that is co-perpetrated from that which is a self-defensive response to being abused, a situation that does not usually arise in opposite-sex couples research.
Additionally, studies found that in response to calls for police help from same-sex couples, it appears that those police who lacked specialized education and direction from leadership tended to perceive same-sex battering and emotional violence as being co-perpetrated between two power-equal participants, rather than as an incident between a perpetrator and a victim who is trying to defend herself.* As a result, the couple often did not get the same level of social services or law enforcement support that an opposite-sex couple would have gotten, all other things being equal.
I know from my professional experience and from simple observation of members of our Tribe, that physical and emotional violence in same-sex couples doesn’t always happen between “power-equal” individuals. Yes, there are co-batterers and co-verbal abusers. But there are also plenty of same-sex relationships that more closely match the power differential seen in a typical opposite-sex battering relationship, where one partner is more physically, financially or emotionally powerful than the other, more vulnerable partner.
Emotional and verbal violence is a particularly complex aspect of domestic violence, and doubly so in a same-sex couple where the power dynamics are not always obvious and can be fluid.
Real life, everyday factors associated with verbal/emotional violence
Sometimes emotional violence arises out of poor communication skills and poor conflict management. (But we only wish it were that simple.) Sometimes it arises out of one partner’s need for control over the other. Many times it arises when drugs and/or alcohol are being used and the normal restraints on words and behavior are absent.
Verbal violence can also arise out of anxiety, or be influenced by a history of abuse, the presence of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), a childhood history of physical or sexual abuse, the presence of certain types of mental illness, or as a result of the stresses of living in poverty or as a marginalized individual (such as a sexual and/or other minority who is subject to homophobia, racism and discrimination, or the effects of stigmatization for being “different.”
Here’s the thing, though. All those many factors change nothing. I decided to provide this bit of education about verbal and emotional violence so that you could see the truth for yourself, for example, when I tell you that it absolutely was not your partner’s fault that you were verbally abusive to her. Neither do all of these “factors” justify your emotionally abusive partner’s victimization of you. There are societal influences, but, ultimately, they do not dictate an individual’s choice to behave with verbal and emotional abuse, or to abstain from verbal and emotional abuse against a loved one.
If you have experienced verbal or emotional abuse or violence in your relationship, you likely need some help to heal from it. This means the both of you will need help with healing. You both will likely need to learn new skills of coping, communication, anxiety reduction, and problem solving in order to successfully remove verbal and emotional abuse from your life and your relationship. Verbal and emotional abuse is learned. It can be a habit, both the doing of it and the acceptance of it. That means it can be unlearned.
That’s the good news! You can do it. It isn’t so difficult as to be beyond your capabilities. It usually takes some outside help, but if that isn’t available, you can start by doing some self-help reading. It may take a bit of practice, and willingness to get back on the program if you have a bit of a slip-up and revert to old, undesirable behaviors. It takes time and effort to replace old responses with new ones. Don’t let relapses divert you from your purpose.
I have faith in your ability to take on the challenge of identifying where there has been verbal/emotional abuse in your relationship, coming to the mutual agreement that it must change and committing to investing time, effort, financial cost, courage–whatever it takes–to come out winners living in a relationship that is completely free of emotional/verbal abuse. I know that if you really want a satisfying, lasting, loving, 100% safe relationship that includes sex, empathy, compassion, closeness and fun, you will be able to remove emotional and verbal violence from your life.
What exactly is it, and why do people engage in verbal or emotional abuse with loved ones in the first place?
People are cruel to loved ones when they feel angry, afraid, disrespected, threatened, entitled, judgmental, jealous, or if they are full of shame and self-loathing. People are cruel to those they love out of habit, particularly if they come from a family in which verbal and emotional abuse was practiced or condoned.
You can have your feelings hurt unintentionally, or unintentionally hurt another’s feelings by something you say, but that’s not what I mean by verbal or emotional abuse.
Emotional/verbal violence or abuse is intentional–even if the perpetrator regrets it later. Suppose a woman says, “I get so angry that I don’t know what I’m saying,” as a reason for being verbally or emotionally abusive to her partner. This reasoning is a non-starter and should in no way be acceptable to the other partner. If your partner truly has that little control over her impulses, she either needs to be undergoing some brain scans, or you need to find a new girlfriend. In other words, spewing venom at someone you love, or being the “spewee,” for that matter, is a choice. There will be more about “choice,” later.
In case you are uncertain about whether something you’ve experienced or something you’ve done constitutes verbal or emotional abuse, here’s a partial list–you can probably come up with more examples to add to the list, so feel free to do so in the comments section:
- Behaviors like spitting on someone, or
- Calling someone hurtful, degrading names, with or without profanity
- Attacks on a person’s reputation, or on a person’s sense of safety and wellbeing
- Acts such as hacking into someone’s FaceBook, stealing passwords to “check on” your partner’s doings with others. Posting hurtful, humiliating things on social media–even if they are true–if it is something she would never share on social media herself, it is emotional abuse for anyone else to do it.
- Betrayal by revealing things that are absolutely private, or betraying any other kind of trust
- Overt or implied racism and racial, sexist, ageist, able-ist or homophobic slurs
- Threats, or emotional extortion (for example: “If you don’t give me what I want, I’ll call CPS and you’ll lose your kids”), as well as
- Threats to withhold love, sex, money or time when any of those things are important or meaningful to the other person.
It also includes infidelity for spite, which is having sex with as many people as possible, or having sex with the one individual in the whole world that would be the most hurtful to the other partner, such as sleeping with an ex, or with someone who was the partner’s past perpetrator.
Emotional violence occurs, as well, when one partner shames and humiliates the other partner in front of others, or says the most painful thing she could possibly say–and oh, so many more wounding, hurtful things in public or in private. Things that can hurt so much the victim actually wishes she’d been hit instead, because being hit wouldn’t hurt nearly as much as this kind of betrayal does.
I think this needs to be said, so that you can have realistic expectations: Once emotional violence like this takes place, it can no longer be an intimate, successful, loving relationship–not for anyone. Because even when the emotional violence has eased up for a period of time, anyone who has been in this kind of a relationship knows it is only a matter of time before it happens again. You start watching what you say and how you say it for fear of getting into a verbally or emotionally abusive argument. You start saying yes when you mean no, for the same reasons. You start keeping things from your partner out of the need to protect yourself, and any chance of true intimacy and unconditional love it out the window.
It is a long and difficult road to come back from this kind of wounding. It is not impossible, but it will take a great deal of time and a lot of hard work on the relationship to build shattered trust again.
I have a question for you. 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 inflicted by words? Emotional violence leaves scars as big as physical violence, perhaps even bigger. Women who believe they would never put up with physical violence in a relationship, can find themselves in a relationship with someone who has become emotionally violent during arguments, and yet they justify staying by telling themselves that it wasn’t really an abusive relationship. Women who recognize the abuse but stay anyway often tell themselves that it will change–that the abuser will change. All that’s needed to make this happen is the love and patience of a good woman like they are. Wrong. Love alone is never enough. If these examples have been your thinking, I hope I’ve persuaded you to have a different perspective on this issue.
If you have ever been one of the victims of verbal abuse or emotional violence, you may find it more difficult to leave an emotionally violent relationship because it seems harder to point to this kind of behavior and recognize it for what it really is–violent and abusive. I have known completely capable, intelligent, proud women who have trouble getting out of an emotionally violent relationship for some very familiar reasons. Maybe some will sound familiar to you. I’ve been told rationalizations like, “but I love her, and I don’t give up on the people I love.” Or “But I was abusive to her, too.” Or sometimes they say the real mind bender–“it’s not really abusive–she’s not hitting me or anything.”
How heartbreaking is that?
Even though emotional violence may be harder to pinpoint, and even though you might have participated in the act of wounding each other with words, you need to view it in the same way as if it was physical violence. If you want a deeply loving, 100% safe, super-intimate relationship, you can’t get there from an emotionally violent relationship as long as it is still going on. An you can’t get there if only one of you is working on the problem. It takes a commitment to change from both of you. What has to change may be different for each of you, but your relationship is a living entity that you both co-create.
If you are in a long term relationship that you want to try to salvage, it will require a deep commitment from both of you to refrain from further wounding each other while you learn different ways to express your feelings, and new interpersonal skills that will help you get your needs met. It can be done. People do it by deciding that the relationship they really want means enough to do whatever it takes to make it happen. So can you decide that, too.
It takes work and commitment, but most importantly, you both must have the willingness to let go of past wounds. You both must be willing to let go of being right, and you both must be willing to genuinely seek and ask for forgiveness, and to give it to the best of your ability. Sometimes forgiveness is a work in progress, but that’s okay. As long as there is active progress on your mutual goals, everything is workable. If the willingness is not there in equal measure on both parts, it will not work. Reality check time. If one partner feels she really isn’t responsible for what has gone on in the relationship but is paying lip service to change, time to look at why you would want to be in such a relationship that is so far from what your heart desires.
If you are really angry with each other right now, or deeply wounded, forgiving and letting go may seem an impossible task. This is when you might want to consider getting some help from a Relationship Coach or a Couples’ Counselor or Therapist, or some kind of Pastoral Counseling help, if that’s your preference. Find someone who has experience working with Lesbians and Queer women, someone you both feel good about. The immediate goals must be to stop wounding each other from now on, and then to heal the damage already done, and, finally, to learn how to be in relationship in a way that doesn’t wound, a way that is 100% safe and 100% loving.
* Colleen Stiles-Shields & Richard A. Carroll (2014): Same-Sex Domestic Violence: Prevalence, Unique Aspects, and Clinical Implications, Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, DOI:10.1080/0092623X.2014.958792
Access this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2014.958792
Part 5 coming soon (and, for a change, it is about the good stuff in a relationship that feels good…