Can you imagine what it would be like to be beaten by your spouse or partner until you were black and blue with bruises? Molested by a trusted family friend when you were young? Sexually assaulted by an acquaintance at a house party? Perhaps you can. Perhaps you've even experienced similar abuses - it's not unlikely, as these scenarios are a devastating reality for so many people.
But what if you were abused by your partner quietly and methodically, with manipulation tactics so elusive they're nearly impossible to detect unless you already know they exist? What if this abuse caused you to suffer from chronic depression, anxiety and even post-traumatic stress disorder but left you with no bruises to show, no horrific story of molestation or sexual assault?
What if the abuse you suffered was completely invisible?
This form of abuse is called psychological abuse, also referred to as psychological violence, emotional abuse or mental abuse. It's characterized by humiliation, degradation, discounting, negating, judging, criticizing, domination, control, shame, accusing, blaming, trivial and unreasonable demands or expectations, refusal to admit own shortcomings, emotional distancing, "silent treatment," isolation, emotional abandonment or neglect...the list goes on.
Rather than lay out the aspects of emotional abuse in a clinical or sterile way, I'd like to tell you a story, and it's not my own. A brave friend of mine recently escaped her emotionally abusive marriage after eight years of having her personhood slowly taken from her, and she has graciously given me permission to tell part of her story. (Names have been changed for the protection of the victim and her children.)
Evanna and Darrell: A Story of Invisible Abuse
Evanna was twenty seven years old when she met Darrell. It wasn't love at first sight but he was charismatic, charming and laid back. Evanna, a wanderer at heart, had just moved home to help care for her ailing father. In an effort to force herself to stay put, she bought a house and hoped to get married. After a few dates with Darrell, though, something felt "off." He seemed almost too nice and Evanna wondered when his outer charm would wear off and reveal who he really was, but it didn't happen. Not at first, anyway.
About a year later they were married and it didn't take long for Darrell's true colors to begin showing, in small ways at first. For instance, Evanna would prepare one of his favorite meals and Darrell would love it and praise her cooking skills, but if she prepared the same meal for him consecutive times he always found something wrong with it. It was never quite good enough for him, no matter if nothing had changed about the way Evanna prepared the food.
Evanna and Darrell were not a religious couple but Darrell made sure that gender roles were very clearly defined in their home. In spite of the fact that Evanna worked an intense, full time job before they had children, she was expected to keep a perfectly clean house. If she failed to keep the house clean and meals prepared on time, Darrell would demean her, telling her she simply didn't have the capacity to "work like a man." The irony lay in the fact that Evanna was in fact bearing her ailing father's responsibilities of running a crop dusting company, working with local farmers, and servicing airplanes. When Darrell would berate her for not working harder, Evanna would break down in tears, exhausted from working so hard in and out of the home. She'd push on, hoping Darrell would notice how hard she was trying and begin appreciating her, but he seemed to only become more dissatisfied with her all the time. He withheld affection from her when he was upset. He would stonewall her, remaining emotionally disconnected and unresponsive if he was displeased with her.
Darrell largely controlled the family's finances and would occasionally put a small amount of money into the couple's joint account - the only account Evanna had access to. When it came time to pay the monthly bills, Evanna would ask Darrell to deposit more money into the joint account and he would become annoyed and accuse her of mismanaging their money, even though he had poor spending habits and severely mismanaged his own business, incurring a great deal of debt in the first several years of their marriage. Eventually, Evanna grew weary of the conflict over money and let him pay the bills, handing over complete financial control.
Over the next several years, Evanna and Darrell had three children together, and Darrell's mistreatment of Evanna continued into parenthood. Evanna quit working to care for the children, and Darrell's expectations of her as a mother were unrealistic and harsh. He expected her to entertain the children, change dirty diapers, and prepare all of the meals while he sat on the couch after work, fiddling around on his phone. He refused to care for the children by himself. Evanna wasn't allowed to leave the house and go to the grocery store by herself because Darrell didn't want to be left alone with the children. Anytime the children got bumps and bruises from playing or falling, Darrell would find a way to blame Evanna for being a neglectful parent and not taking better care of them.
One year, for Evanna's birthday, a friend bought tickets to a Broadway show and planned a girl's night out for her and Evanna. When Evanna told Darrell about the plans, he said he didn't want to be left alone with the children (they had two at that time) and invited himself and the children along, eliminating the special time Evanna's friend had planned for her birthday.
If Evanna wanted to visit an out-of-town friend, have access to spending money, practice with her singing group, buy new clothes, spend an evening with her dying father, or even just walk across the street of their small town to visit her sister-in-law, Darrell would become upset and jealous and would try to guilt her into staying with him and the children. Eventually, Evanna would give in and either stay home or take the children with her. Darrell would give her the silent treatment, sometimes for days afterward, making her feel terribly guilty for ever wanting to do anything for herself.
She learned to completely avoid contradicting him because she knew her opinions and desires would be discounted, or worse, that she would be humiliated for expressing anything that wasn't in line with Darrell's opinions. Over time, Evanna even began to believe that she deserved the treatment she was getting. She wasn't a good enough wife, she didn't work hard enough, she was lazy for not preparing every meal from scratch or cloth diapering the children, she didn't have the laundry washed and put away in a timely manner, she couldn't keep the house spotlessly clean -- she was simply never good enough. Feeling ashamed and inferior, Evanna's opinion of herself suffered more all the time.
Raised in a religious home, Evanna had been taught divorce was terrible. Even when she was miserable and unhappy in her marriage, she would tell herself it was her duty to stay married to Darrell. She'd chosen to marry him, after all, and now she needed to deal with the repercussions of her decision. Quiet and uncomplaining, she bore Darrell's mistreatment of her and slowly lost herself and her voice. She watched her friends flourish, enjoying equality in their healthy marriages, while she was constantly shamed and dehumanized. After eight years, Evanna was a shadow of the strong, outspoken woman she had once been.
It wasn't until Evanna's father was approaching death that she began to grasp the reality of her situation. On his deathbed, her father told her he was sorry for leaving her to "fend for herself." She didn't know what he meant. He went on to explain how he wished she hadn't married Darrell because he treated her so poorly, drank too much, and was not a good person. He wished she'd married someone who loved her and treated her the way she deserved.
After Evanna's father died, Darrell's mistreatment of her grew even worse. While Evanna planned the memorial, Darrell couldn't be bothered to watch the children because he told her it would interfere with his daily runs. Deep in sorrow and grief, Evanna longed for comfort and companionship but Darrell would ignore her and sleep in the next room with the children, leaving her alone in bed. During the memorial he didn't stand near Evanna or give her any comfort. She had never felt so alone in her life, and suddenly began to realize she had, in fact, been alone for a very long time. She was isolated, imprisoned, living a lie in her marriage that from the outside appeared to be perfect but in truth was slowly killing her. Evanna knew she had to get out.
She left Darrell soon after her father died, but it was far from easy. Darrell constantly gaslighted her, telling her she'd "snapped" and that the children needed to be with the "stable parent," (him.) He shamed her for divorcing him and painted a picture to friends and family in which he was the ultimate victim in the situation, abandoned by his wife. And while the manipulation tactics, guilting, and shaming didn't relent, the difference now was that Evanna saw Darrell for what he truly was: an emotionally abusive spouse who had spent years slowly, methodically robbing her of her personhood and her voice, making her believe she was unworthy of being treated as an equal.
Finally free from her abusive marriage, Evanna is beginning to heal but her journey is not anywhere close to being over. She had no bodily bruises to show the world, no reason to call the police. Her soul, though, was battered and bruised nearly beyond recognition. You see, emotional abuse leaves victims suffering effects of PTSD, chronic depression, and anxiety with the same intensity (if not more, research has shown) as victims of physical and sexual abuse. On top of healing from the abuse she suffered, Evanna must now learn how to coparent three young children with her abusive ex-husband; a heavy and constantly stressful task. Professional counseling, supportive friends and family, and a loving, caring partner who treats with her equality (hooray!) have been integral parts of Evanna moving forward, and while she's not ready to tell it herself, she wants the world to know her story.
In closing, here are some words Evanna asked me to share:
"The best thing someone who has left an emotionally abusive relationship can do is to surround themselves with supportive, understanding people, and to seek counseling.
It's scary to put a name on emotional abuse because it makes you feel weak. It's also scary because you fear you may be wrong, you fear you may be the real problem, just like you've been told for so long. I believed I was weak, but I am not weak. I wasn't susceptible to my ex-husband's emotional abuse and gas-lighting because I'm weak. I was susceptible to it because I am a person who can love someone beyond their faults. I give people the benefit of the doubt and I am kind even when it is hard to be kind. Those are not weaknesses. Those are strengths and they ought to be celebrated. Even though those strengths put me in a position that hurt me and messed with my head, there is nothing wrong with me and I am not weak."
Please note: You deserve to be safe and loved. If you are currently in an emotionally abusive relationship, or think you may be, please seek help. Resources and help are available to you and I am happy to assist you in accessing them. I can be reached via private message on my Facebook Advocacy Page.
To learn more about the signs of an emotionally abusive relationship, read this pamphlet from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.