Dynamics of Power and Control – Emotional Abuse
The second dynamic I want to discuss is emotional abuse. Emotional abuse happens when the abuser puts the victim down, either privately or publicly. Actively works to make the victim feel bad about themselves, calls them names, or makes them feel guilty. They may also use gaslighting to make the victim think they are crazy and play mind games with them. Like isolation, this dynamic starts in small, subtle ways and then builds over time as the victim questions themselves more and more. This dynamic often builds on the isolation because the victim does not have people, they can talk to about the situation so it is harder to see the pattern of behavior. For those unfamiliar with the term gaslighting, it is from a movie that came out in 1944 called Gaslight. This movie was stunning in its accurate portrayal of a marriage that was emotionally abusive but appeared as though the abuser was a wonderful and supportive person. The term and the title of the movie come from him using the gaslighting to make her question her own sanity. He would turn them down and when she brought it up would tell her that they were fine, and she must be imagining things. This was only one of the things that he did to make her believe that she was losing her mind and he nearly succeeds in driving her to an emotional breakdown. I recommend watching it if possible.
The term has since become synonymous with the type of emotional abuse where the abuser makes the victim question their sanity by telling them that things are not the way the victim sees them. They will re-write history and tell you that the way that you remember an event, discussion, or disagreement is inaccurate. They will often be so insistent that they will have the victim unsure of their own memory. Even if there is a witness to the behavior, the abuser will have a reason why the witness is tainted to explain why they are siding with the victim. When someone is emotionally abusive, the put-downs and name-calling are often private and subtle jabs at the victim when it is early in the relationship. The abuser may turn it into a ‘nickname’ and say that it is just a little joke if the victim tries to say they don’t like it. They may call the victim something like ‘my little pudge-muffin’ for example. Or say something like they are so happy that the victim ‘doesn’t care about her appearance’ as much as other girls or other backhanded ‘compliments’ that leave the victim wondering what the abuser really means. They may even seem contrite at first if the victim says they don’t like what is being said. Before long, the abuser will start to say things like ‘you are so sensitive lately’ or ‘I don’t know what I can say around you anymore without you getting upset’. These are ways they try to turn it back around onto the victim. A very common thing when the victim is female is to say ‘Geez! Are you PMS-ing or something? You are over-reacting to everything!”
Later the emotional abuse will escalate until the abuser is constantly cutting the victim down in private and humiliating them in public. Trying to make the victim seem unreasonable to those people outside of the relationship is very common. If they have isolated the victim from their own friends and family, then it is easy to manipulate their own friends into believing that the victim is ‘off’ somehow. If the victim has worked up enough courage to leave at some point, the abuser may go to the victim’s family with a ‘sincere concern’ and try to flip the script and make it look like the victim is the one with the problem and the abuser has done ‘so much to try to make things work’ and will be ‘at a loss about what to do’. Sometimes the family members will get in touch with the victim for the abuser to try to talk to them. Often, the family members think they are helping them through a difficult time but in reality, they are helping the abuser gain more control over the victim.
This is just the second of the dynamics of power and control but by this stage, it is already much more difficult for a victim to leave the relationship. If you are in a relationship like this and want out, here is a list of resources you can use to find help. If someone comes to you telling you that they are experiencing this kind of abuse, believe them. They need you to believe them and support them. It may take some time before they can actually get away from the abuser and they will need your support until that happens. I will write more about supporting the victim during and after getting away from the abuser in a later post.