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Whether He Hits You or Not: The Hidden Nature of Emotional Abuse

Venn Crawford

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and #maybehedoesnthityou has resurfaced on twitter as victims and activists use the hashtag to speak out about non-physical forms of domestic violence.

While physical violence is what most people think of when they hear “domestic violence,” emotional abuse often occurs alongside or before physical violence, and can be just as damaging. However, because this form of abuse doesn’t leave physical marks, it can often be harder to recognize for both the victim and those who know them.

Most abusers are seeking to control their victim – emotional abuse undermines the self-worth of the victim until they believe they are totally dependent upon their abuser. The abusive partner may use a variety of tactics, such as minimizing the victim, isolating them by cutting them off from their support network, humiliating them, or gaslighting them. Gaslighting is a particularly insidious tactic, as it seeks to make the victim question their memory. This is frequently done by denying any abuse ever occurred, and makes it that much harder for the victim to seek help.

If the abuser damages the victim’s property, restricts where they go and who they talk to, or threatens them, it is likely that the emotional abuse will give way to physical abuse. But whether the victim is abused physically or not, emotional abuse itself is already devastating to the victim’s psychological health. Those living with their abusers experience high amounts of stress, fear, and anxiety, with 60% of victims meeting the criteria for depression. Victims also have increased rates of self-harm and suicide.

Victims continue to suffer even after they have escaped their situation and received help. After constantly being undermined and devalued, victims have difficulty processing and understanding their own emotions, and can even have problems trusting their own thoughts and beliefs. The fact that the victim’s suffering is caused by someone they love – someone who is supposed to love and care for them – can make processing that abuse incredibly difficult. It can be hard for victims to reconcile the abuse with the good memories they have of the relationship, and attempting to can cause an array of complex and confusing emotions for the victim.

The psychological effects continue to linger past the victim’s initial recovery, manifesting as depression, anxiety, or even PTSD. Victims can experience nightmares, flashbacks, or intrusive memories long after they have left their abuser. Often when these experiences occur much later than the abuse itself, the victim once again feels helpless, wondering why they are still suffering and why they “aren’t over it yet.” Some survivors of emotional abuse remain haunted by a lack of closure as well – because emotional abuse is more subtle and more difficult to prove, many survivors will not receive justice, and will struggle with the knowledge that their abuser can continue to victimize others without punishment. But while the road to recovery is long and difficult, therapy, self-love, and a support network can help survivors to move forward one step at a time.

Continue on to part 2, which looks at the cycle of abuse and how it can camouflage the abusive nature of a relationship, or skip to part 3, which discusses what to do if you suspect someone you know is being abused.

Note: While this article uses the pronoun “he” for the abuser, it is vital to recognize that females and males are equally as likely to be abusive to their partners.

by Venn Crawford

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