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.
Now that the abuser has the victim isolated, fearful, and self-doubting, they can move on to using intimidation. The abuser will start using looks, gestures, and actions to make the victim afraid. This can be as subtle as looking angry when the victim says or does something or as overt as getting very close and shouting. Most abusers have several ways of using intimidation, sometimes with certain ones for private and others for public. They may smash things, punch doors or walls, or kick things in the house. They will likely destroy the victim’s property, particularly anything that means something to the victim. They may abuse pets or display weapons. The weapons are not displayed with an overt threat, such as ‘I am going to kill you’ but more likely with a look other action that conveys disapproval. When things start getting to this point, law enforcement may get involved whether the call comes from inside the house or outside. It is very common for the officers not to understand just how threatening this situation is. They may try to separate the couple and have one of them go somewhere else for the night to ‘cool off’ but rarely is anyone charged with a crime at this point. This is a very critical point though and it can escalate from here to physical abuse quite quickly and the abuser has a new talking point then too. “The police won’t do anything. They know it is you that is causing the problems!”
The next dynamic, using coercion and threats, goes hand in hand with using intimidation. The abuser makes and will sometimes carry out threats to do something to hurt the victim. The point of making the threats but not always carrying them out is always to keep the victim on guard. There is often no pattern to discern for when the abuser will carry out the threats or not so the victim lives in a constant state of fear. The abuser may make the victim do illegal things by using threats and intimidation to gain another thing to use against them. If the victim does not do what the abuser wants then the abuser threatens to turn them in for the illegal act they committed or report them to child protective services because of it. They may threaten to leave or to commit suicide while telling the victim that is it all their fault if they do. The coercion that happens will often depend on the time in the relationship. Earlier in the relationship, the abuser may use threats of suicide or leaving the victim to attempt to gain emotional control over the victim. The statements may be very subtle at first. “If you ever left me, I don’t think I could keep going.” “You are my reason for living.” Later on, it may be more like “I always screw things up! You are the best thing that has ever happened to me and now you are going to leave. I should just kill myself and get it over with. I am worthless.” This gets the victim feeling sorry for the abuser and telling them they are not worthless, of course, they are not leaving. From that point on, it will always be on the mind of the victim if they think about leaving. The point of the manipulations is to keep the victim in the relationship and to gain control over their emotional health. Once this happens, it becomes very difficult for the victim to leave.
These are the third and fourth dynamics of power and control. By this stage of an abusive relationship, it is very difficult for a victim to leave the relationship without help. 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.
In situations of intimate partner violence and sexual violence, the dynamics of power and control are central to the situation but, all too often, the victim does not know how to recognize the signs early enough to get out of the relationship when it is still in the beginning stages. Later, when the victim is willing to get out, they are often unable to do so and friends and family don’t know how to help. This will be an ongoing series discussing the dynamics of power and control in relationships. The entire pdf is free to any email subscribers. I try to avoid using any personal pronouns whenever possible because I do not intend to leave out any potential victims in this discussion.
The dynamics of power and control involve using; isolation, emotional abuse, intimidation, coercion and threats, economic abuse, claiming privilege, children, and minimizing, denying, and blaming. You won’t often see any of these things in the early stages of a relationship. When they do show up, these pieces are often used in small amounts at first and built up over time. Isolation is often the first step, for example, and once the victim is isolated then the abuser adds other layers. Also, keep in mind that these all feed on each other. For example, with economic abuse, the abuser may create problems for the victim at their workplace. If she loses her job, that further isolates her. Usually, by the time the physical or sexual abuse starts, the abuser has already created an environment that will make it extremely difficult for the victim to get away.
Isolation is often the first dynamic that the abuser deploys. It never starts as an obvious attempt at isolation though. The abuser is often overly romantic in fact. He may show up with flowers unexpectedly, perhaps shower you with praise and romantic endearments. “I have never met a woman like you. I feel like I can be myself with you. Now I know why my other relationships didn’t work out, I was meant to be with you.” These are all very sweet-sounding sentiments, but they often come at a very early stage in the relationship and are used to quickly develop a sense of obligation for his feelings and emotional health. He will manipulate this sense of obligation to slowly isolate the victim from those closest to her. He may get jealous and then say something like. “I am sorry. I know I shouldn’t worry. I have just been so hurt by others in the past. It scares me because I love you so much and I just can’t imagine living without you.” Or blame the friend/family member for the reaction and say something like, “I know they don’t like me, and I can tell they are trying to get in between us.” Or shift the feelings of jealousy to the friend: “They are jealous of what we have. They know it is special. Shouldn’t your friends be supportive of your happiness?” These are just a few examples to give you an idea of what might be said. The purpose of this is to sow doubt. When friends or family try to warn the victim of the red flags they are seeing, the victim will doubt their intentions and it may lead to a rift in the helpful relationship. This gives the abuser a chance to increase their efforts at control with fewer supports for the victim. If you notice someone using language like this, get out of that relationship. This is not a person who is truly wounded from their past relationships. These are attempts at manipulation. If this person is truly worth being in a relationship with, they will take the time to work on getting themselves emotionally healthy. More often though, these are manipulative and/or abusive people who are trying to see if you are vulnerable to their manipulations. Get out now while it is early.
Next week, I will discuss the dynamic of emotional abuse. If you need help, please see the resources list located here.