Every minute, 24 people in the U.S. are victims of rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner. That’s more than 12 million women and men each year, according to data from the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Domestic violence – also called intimate partner violence – is what can happen when one person strives to exert power and control over another within the confines of a relationship. But long before physical violence manifests, there are often other forms of more covert abuses that are used to slowly break down the other person’s self-esteem, sense of self-worth and even their support systems, leaving them vulnerable and feeling powerless to stop the violence when it finally occurs.
Prior to joining the newspaper staff, I wrote for the One Love Foundation, a nonprofit based in Bronxville, N.Y. Perhaps you’ve caught CEO Katie Hood’s TedTalk last April titled, “The difference between healthy and unhealthy love.” The non-profit was founded after 22-year-old Yeardley Love was beaten to death by an ex-boyfriend two weeks prior to her college graduation. Her death was completely preventable, only those closest to her didn’t recognize the red flags that had been present all along. That’s why Yeardley’s mother Sharon and sister Lexie founded One Love and today their team is the national leader in educating young people throughout the globe about the differences between healthy and unhealthy behavior.
Throughout the tele-editorial meetings with the editors in New York and my fellow writers, it fully sank in how widespread yet misunderstood intimate partner abuse is and that I — and far more people than I would’ve thought — have survived one form or another or know someone who has. So with October being National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I’m dedicating a series of columns to highlighting the different forms of abuse that often precede intimate partner violence. The signs listed here are based on research shared by the team at One Love as well as other field experts.
The first topic is one that gets a lot of play online but can be the trickiest to pin in action — that’s emotional abuse.
Like physical abuse, emotional abuse is used as a means to control another person. Typically these relationships begin on an almost fairytale-like note. They seem perfect. Romantic gestures are over-the-top, there’s intensity galore and things clip along at lightning speed. Then jealousy emerges in small spatterings until waves of possessiveness slowly give way to paranoia and accusations.
Eventually the partner on the receiving end will feel as if they’re constantly under scrutiny, having to answer questions regarding their whereabouts, their friends, work colleagues, appearance, etc. It can become so problematic that it may seem easier to blow off friends and avoid activities away from the relationship to avoid drumming up suspicion and arguments. It will seem as though their partner, who was once so deeply in love, cannot be pleased. The abuse then gets amplified through silent treatments, triangulation tactics, comparison games or name-calling as they withhold affection while insisting their partner is being “too sensitive.” Even if apologies are made, behaviors don’t change and there’s a general lack of empathy or compassion.
What makes this so complex and difficult to understand is often the offending partner doesn’t realize that what they’re doing is abusive. They may even view themselves as the victim, and as author and cognitive and transpersonal therapist Andrea Mathews pointed out in Psychology Today, the perpetrator is usually fostering insecurity about themselves and the relationship itself. This leads them to make accusations about cheating, require constant check-ins or blame their partner for their unhappiness.
Perpetrators of this type of abuse may also be convinced that they know what’s best for their partner and are trying to save them by controlling their every move through criticism, threats or other verbal attacks to make their partner go along with their way of thinking. As a result, the other person may feel as though they’re walking on eggshells and start to isolate out of feelings of shame or guilt. They may also believe that they’re the cause of all the problems in the relationship. More often than not, they feel as if they’re losing their grip on reality and they can’t stop overreacting.
As the situation deteriorates, the person abusing may resort to threats against themselves or other people or pets to prevent their partner from leaving. Depression, anxiety and PTSD can result and if left unchecked, the abuse will likely continue to escalate.
While it’s important to understand what emotional abuse looks like, it’s also important to know what it isn’t, Andrea Mathews warns. Arguing, reacting to hurtful situations, breaking up with a partner, speaking with blunt honesty or an isolated incident of yelling are not forms of abuse. To know the difference, pay attention to patterns, educate yourself and listen to your gut when something feels wrong.
If you are experiencing any of these signs in your own relationship, you can get more information on how to leave an abusive or unhealthy situation by visiting the U.S. Department of Health’s Office of Women’s Health at www.womenshealth.org, or by calling the National Domestic Hotline at 800-799-7233 for advice.