When you are in a relationship, seldom do you stop and analyze whether it has succumbed to emotional, mental or psychological abuse. It is nothing like physical abuse which is very clear, it announces itself and you automatically know- this is not right.
Emotional abuse is any abusive behavior that isn’t physical, which may include verbal aggression, intimidation, manipulation, gaslighting and humiliation, which often unfolds as a pattern of behavior over time that aims to diminish another person’s sense of identity, dignity and self-worth and which often leads to anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts or behaviors and PTSD. In our society, it is immeasurably sad that emotional abuse does not receive proper recognition. Today, I will try convince you that emotional abuse exists through sharing my personal experience to help other women out there who may be in a similar or worse situation, know that they are not crazy.
‘Did you know so many women get beaten everyday by their boyfriends?’ that’s what he said one evening when we were having a simple conversation about abuse. He would casually mention domestic abuse and sexual abuse in relationships to show the comparison that he is actually not that bad. That statement seriously bothered me, not just because it is true but also because it meant that we as a society have lowered the standard of what it means to be a good partner in a relationship to merely- as long as you don’t physically hurt me, we’re okay. Healthy.
One of the main difficulties in identifying emotional abuse is that it can take many forms. However, what is common is that the negative behavior is recurrent over a period of time. It can range from control, whereby your partner threatens you, monitors your every move, gives you direct orders to simple manipulation and gaslighting. Sometimes it even graduates to become worse or leads to physical abuse.
I’d like to draw focus to what emotional abuse can lead to in order for you to understand how dangerous it is. The importance of mental health cannot be undervalued. Emotional abuse can lead to complete loss of your self-worth and identity. After being in that position for years, I was so sure I am difficult. Impossible. Hard to love as he would use those terms repetitively as if he deserves an award for being with me. I found myself apologizing countless times even when he did something wrong, but always ended up being my fault. I was terrified of him leaving me so I would try to please him. Some even lead to codependency. For example, I would always defend him, critique myself through his eyes, make a lot of sacrifices for him, try to ‘rescue’ him and I would mostly think I deserve that treatment.
‘I am the one who will pay for those dates so I am the one to say when they will happen; ‘You’re so toxic I don’t want anything to do with you; You’re an animal.’ Those are some of the statements that are still engraved in my brain when I think about this person. In addition to facing tragedy in my personal life, my experience led me to anxiety and depression. Initially, I was unsure as to what was wrong with me, so in seeking solace from my partner he stated carelessly and walked away ‘Don’t let this lead to depression- that would be sad.’
I remember as I sat down to listen to H.E.R’s NPR Tiny Desk Concert, she introduced her new song, ‘Hard Place’ and I listened to the words carefully: what if nothing ever will change, oh I’m caught between your love and a hard place, oh I wish there was a right way…’ It made me think about my situation. Survivors of abuse seldom leave the relationship after the first time they experience abuse. The same goes for emotional abuse. It’s very easy to be addicted to it, the unhealthy behavior that you have experienced over the defined period of time. It becomes your new norm and you even forget what it means not to be in such a situation. I was addicted to it. I knew what was happening was wrong but I didn’t want to leave. To be honest, I didn’t know how to leave.
Honestly, I don’t consider myself a survivor or a victim, because I still can’t think of him as an abuser yet the facts clearly lead to emotional or psychological abuse. Maybe it’s because I am not there in my healing journey, or maybe it’s because a part of me thinks I don’t deserve to be called a survivor because whatever I went through wasn’t tragic enough to be termed as abuse.
My experience may be very different from yours, you may have had the blessing of being in a completely healthy relationship. So this may be hard for you to understand. I didn’t. I know there are many others out there who aren’t/haven’t either. So to those women first, you need to accept what you are experiencing is wrong, talk to someone to help you leave the situation, disengage and set personal boundaries. You may still care for that person, a part of you may do that for a long while, however your mental health is more important. Heal. It is not about them anymore, it is about you.
Don’t get me wrong, not all relationships are emotionally abusive. All relationships have their respective challenges, however when one’s self-worth, identity and dignity is gradually eroded- that is not right. When you are undergoing emotional abuse, you will definitely know something is not right. We cannot accept women being treated less than they deserve just because it’s not that bad.
As a friend once told me, it is time to write a new story. You can too.
Strathmore Law School Alumna