A most difficult and delicate issue

Hard to spot and harder to stop, emotional abuse often slips under the radar.

In Mistaking Her Character, I ended up tackling the issue of an emotionally abusive family relationship.  I say ‘ended up’ because I honestly can’t say I set out to deal with the topic when I started the book. The entire family dynamic I had envisioned when I started ended up turned upside down and a far darker, more complex one emerged as several emotionally abusive characters moved to the forefront. Their behavior was so subtle that my readers were the ones that pointed out to me how abusive the characters were.  This goes to show how very difficult emotional abuse can be to identify.

Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse is a difficult and often misunderstood issue. Very often, neither the abuser nor their victim recognize the abusive nature of the relationship. To both of them, it is just the way things are. Often the abuser never learned healthy coping mechanisms for the normal challenges of healthy, positive relationships. They respond to the normal ups and downs with an offensive pattern of verbal threatening, bullying, and criticism, with more subtle tactics like intimidation, shaming, humiliation, isolation, and manipulation thrown into the mix for good measure. The goal, conscious or not, is to control and subjugate the other person into obedience and even dependence in the relationship.

Although verbal and emotional abuse does not leave physical marks like physical abuse, its victims often assert that physical abuse would have been easier to bear because then, they and others around could more easily have recognized that abuse was happening. As the abuse continues and the emotional wounds deepen, abuse victims feel so emotionally unsafe that they begin to doubt their own feelings and abilities, their senses, opinions, memories, and even their judgement.

To prevent negative reactions from their abusers, they will refrain from expressing their opinions and wants, leading to increasing feelings of vulnerability, and insecurity as they are trapped and powerless against the emotional control of their abuser. They become hypervigillant, guarding against anything that might trigger a bad response from the abuser as they accept the maxim that they are at fault for any and everything that disturbs their abuser. In the long run, depression, anxiety disorders and even post-traumatic stress disorder can result.

Profile of an Abuser

Abusers often share in a set of common characteristics, often beginning with having been abused themselves or witnessing abuse in their family of origin. Not all abuse victims or witnesses go on to be abusers themselves, though. Abusers often have explosive tempers, fed by possessiveness, jealousy and an intense desire to control the other person.

Abusers tend to have low self-esteem and extremely rigid expectations of relationships. The other person and only the other person must compromise to meet expectations. More difficult still, the abuser projects blame for their own bad mood or behavior on the other person. They are never at fault, only the other person. Despite all this, they are able to project a very charming and likeable persona to the world around them.

What Abuse looks like

Many behaviors qualify as emotional abuse. These may look normal, even innocuous in a one-off situation, and in truth, they might be excusable if they were to happen only on very rare occasions. However, one of the things that makes them abuse is the frequency with which they occur.  Abusive behaviors include (but are not limited to) verbally abusive speech like name calling, putting the victim down with constant criticism, yelling and screaming, and intentionally embarrassing the victim in front of others. 

Abusers often seek to control their victims, isolating them from friends and family, determining what they may or may not do, even what they might wear. Abusers frequently blame their own anger and bad behavior on the victim—‘if you didn’t make me so angry…’.  If the victim does not capitulate, the abuser may progress to threatening to damage or destroy the victim’s possessions, to harm the victim or people the victim cares about, or even commit suicide themselves. The list goes on, but taken together, the abuse leaves the victim feeling helpless, powerless, worthless, and wondering if they have any worth apart from their relationship to the abuser.

Consequently, recognizing and breaking free from an abusive relationship is very difficult. Chances are, if one is wondering if their relationship is abusive, there is a good chance it is, especially if friends and family hate the way one’s significant other treats them.

Can an abuser change? Very, very rarely, if there is a very deep commitment to change and to an accountability system, like a therapist or group, that will help them along the way. But an abuse victim should not rely upon the abuser’s promises to change. Ultimately, most victims find that leaving the relationship is their only option to stop the abuse.

If you believe you might be in an abusive relationship, here are some online resources that may be of help:

Out of the Fog 

Love is Respect 




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    • terri on July 11, 2017 at 12:48 am
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    Makes me glad I was born when I was. It still happens today but at least there is some way for the lucky ones to get away.

    Back in the day women were the mans property there are countless examples abuse happening in literature. I for one enjoy the book and thought the complexities of the relationships within this book added to the depth of the story. Looking forward to more.

    1. Thanks, Terri. I think you’re right, it was far more difficult to escape in the past, at least for women because of the society restrictions on them. But One of the biggest issues about escaping today is being able to realize what is going on. I think that remains nearly as difficult as ever. It’s very hard to wrap one’s head around that it is actually happening to them.

    • Linda Root on July 11, 2017 at 11:48 am
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    In 1980,my 17 year old son, who had a unique cardiovascular anomaly and congenital heart disease, wrote me a letter the night before a surgery from which he was not anticipated to recover, and he did not It dealt with many thing, but one line I remember was, Make Nanna stop abusing Poppa. It was a shock to me to discover John, who was in all respects but his heart a normal, light – hearted and sometimes light headed teenage iconoclast, but he dared to speak of that which the rest of us overlooked. Few outsiders would have guessed. My father was the handsome one, the more educated, the more approachable. He was a middle level aerospace executive. My mother was a homemaker They had known one another since they were 6 and 7. But she was the dominate person in the relationship. After she died in 1992, when my adult daughter, my sister and I were cleaning out her things, we found all of her treasured mementos thrown in the trash, my father’s one act of rebellion. Because John had spent time with them when he was recuperating from earlier bouts of illness while I worked in law offices, he saw it clearly. But in the six years of my father’s remaining life, he behaved as a child whose discipline had been removed. He squandered the one thing of which my mother was most proud–their real estate holdings which she had procured and managed. To outsiders, theirs was a love story. that lasted 80 years until my father died. If it was, it was bittersweet at best.

    1. I’m so sorry for your loss Linda. He sounds like a delightful boy. I applaud his courage to speak up the way he did. Abuse is difficult to spot, especially within a family. No one wants to believe it is happening. There’s also a lot of elaborate defenses built up within a family to hide and excuse what is really going on. He must have been very astute to see it for what it was.

      My own parents are very much like that and it is a brutal thing to watch.

      Thanks so much for sharing something so sensitive.

    • Sheila L. Majczan on August 5, 2017 at 9:11 pm
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    As a caseworker with Children, Youth & Families for many years I worked in the Abuse Unit for a time. The age range was from infants upward. And even if the abuser was removed or the victim was removed from the situation the lasting affects (PTSD) did not go away. I am sorry to hear of your loss also, Linda. Yes, our children hate friction…among parents, grandparents or even in friends’ or relatives’ homes. And the statistics show that the abuse travels down with generations. Sadly. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    At times, even we caseworkers had workshops to deal with what we suffered in witnessing the abuse or even deaths of children or people on our caseloads.

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