The Silent Damage of Emotional Abuse
The damage of emotional abuse may go unseen and silent. But it’s very real.
You may see yourself or someone you love in the stories I’m about to share. So please read with care.
Debbie sat, quietly crying in my office, “I don’t think I should’ve left. The boys miss him. They blame me for the divorce.”
She’d been the wife of a very popular and well-liked coach… and a victim of constant, pounding verbal and emotional abuse.
It had been a little over two years since Debbie’s chaotic divorce. She and her two boys were living in a garage apartment behind her parents’ home. Her ex had made noise about wanting primary custody of the children, but had not fought for it. When they met to exchange the boys, he barely spoke to her as he greeted the kids with hugs. She was working full-time at a small insurance agency, whereas before she’d only worked part-time. He’d gotten on more than one dating site before the divorce was even final and now his Facebook account was full of pictures of his arm around a new woman.
Debbie was lonely, she’d gained weightt. She was fighting off depression.
She tearfully wondered, “Maybe it wasn’t all that bad. It’s not like he hit me.”
Todd was a man in his early 50’s who worked in administration at the local University. He was a quiet guy, gentle in his demeanor. He’d been married for over 30 years.
“We married young and I loved her so much; I still do in a way. I don’t want to leave – we’ve been through so much with the kids and drugs – and we’ve done a decent job. But I get so tired of her screaming at me. I do everything wrong. She has to be in control. I don’t know what’s happened to her over the years. I get mad back sometimes, but it does no good.”
He looked up, more than a little ashamed, “Sometimes, she slaps me. I would never slap her back. But I know that’s not right.”
Abby was a well-put-together woman in her early 40’s. A junior executive at a huge corporation, she was a rising star. She’d recently separated from her husband, and was getting a divorce. They had no children.
She was outfitting her own apartment, something she’d never done, as she moved straight from her parents’ home into one with her husband. One day she went to Pier One to buy pillows, “I got in the store, and realized I had no clue what I liked any more; I bought all three colors because I couldn’t choose. For ten years, I’d been told that my taste was terrible. He wouldn’t like what clothes I had on and would make me change outfits until he approved. He often said what I cooked wasn’t worth eating and would throw food at me. If I did shop and find something that I liked, when I brought it home he would talk badly about it, and usually would make me take it back. I gave up trusting myself.”
“He didn’t hit me, but he would hold my arm behind my back or push me up against a wall. He would get in my face and mock me when I would try to get away.”
And then slowly, with a new look of sadness in her eyes, “He would make me have sex, when I didn’t want to. I’d just lie there until it was over.”
Emotional and sexual abuse don’t leave bruises or broken bones. But the damage is very real.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. There are far too many people who are far too aware of violence at home, every day of their lives.
And there are sometimes children, who are watching the screaming and contempt; they are learning by the actions of those around them.
Yet sometimes, emotional abuse is harder to understand. Here’s what happened in therapy – when Debbie, Todd and Abby were my own patients.
I asked Debbie to invite her girlfriends over for a night when the kids were gone. Her assignment? To ask them what they remembered about the abusive events that had actually gone on behind closed doors. She returned with a four-page list, and tears of recognition and relief, “I’d forgotten so much of this. I needed to forget at the time- but now, I also need to remember.”
She needed to grieve. First – that her marriage had ended and it would take time for her children to adjust. Second – that her ex might not be capable of, nor perhaps ever want to get, emotional closure with her so they could parent well together. And then, she needed to choose how to better care for her self.
Todd’s work was to learn to respond (and not react) to the emotional instability his wife apparently was suffering, which can surface as a rigid need for control. He needed to assert himself and draw boundaries about what was acceptable. Both had become demoralized, trying to keep their now adult children away from drugs. The kids were finally getting their act together, but it had been extremely rough going.
We talked about them creating more of a life for the two of them, but he also could consider the option of leaving if, indeed, she was unable or unwilling to change along with him.
Her first assignment was to decide what color pillow she liked and take the rest back.
The grieving she faced was immense. She began challenging the many demeaning messages that she’d absorbed, while also rediscovering her own sense of self and value. Moreover, we spent a lot of time working through sexual abuse that occurred within her marriage. This can be tough, because often it is shrouded in confusion and secrecy. Abby was at times unsure whether she should even call it “abuse.”
Let’s be clear. Maybe one day you’re not quite in the mood and wouldn’t instigate sex yourself, but your partner wants to; since you love your partner and bringing them pleasure is something you want to do? That’s fine, because you still are choosing to do something because you want to.
But being forced? No matter what the circumstances, that’s sexual abuse.
Some of you who are reading this are in relationships just like one of the above. I have a podcast on what’s termed trauma bonds and how they are very difficult to leave. And a post on my own experience of how difficult it is to leave, which I invite you to read as well. You can get help, and sometimes the relationship can get better.
Sometimes it cannot.
Please talk to someone who will not judge, but can offer support and and objective perspective.
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Domestic violence shelters usually run groups that are open to the public. Find out the number for the shelter in your area. Call and attend a group. If you can’t do that, call the local abuse hotline or the National Abuse Hotline, 1-800-799-SAFE.
You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
My new book entitled Perfectly Hidden Depression has arrived and you can order here! Its message is specifically for those with a struggle with strong perfectionism which acts to mask underlying emotional pain. But the many self-help techniques described can be used by everyone who chooses to begin to address emotions long hidden away that are clouding and sabotaging your current life.
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Photo by Bianca Salgado from Pexels.
Originally published on October 31, 2015; updated and republished on October 8, 2022.