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Abuse | Understanding the Multiple Facets of an Abusive Relationship
Abusive relationships have multiple facets, while some abusive tactics can be obvious, others are more subtle. No matter the tactic, all methods of abuse leave devastating emotional effects.
Growing up, I had a dear friend named Adi. She was kind and gentle and at the time I considered her my closest friend. She lived a few blocks from me and we walked to and from elementary school together each day. After school we often played together but occasionally Adi was not allowed outside. On those days, her Mother wouldn't even answer the door. I didn’t understand why until one day my Mother noticed bruises on Adi’s Mother’s face and suspected domestic violence. My Mother gave me a simple explanation of what this meant but I was too young to fully understand it. At the time it seemed to me that the Father was evil and the Mother was mysterious. I carried this simplistic concept of domestic violence with me for most of my life; they were basic ideas as they were painted in my childhood mind and I had no reason to reconsider them. It was much later as an adult that I would come to better understand the nature of abusive relationships and look back and reconsider what was going on for Adi and her family as well as the many other families who experience abuse.
While there are obviously abusive statements such as “you’re stupid” or “you’re crazy” less obvious statements like “you can’t let well enough alone” or “you’re getting upset about nothing” might go undetected as abuse.
While the tactic of physical abuse may be obvious, the methods of verbal abuse are more complicated and at times harder to detect. In the book Author, Patricia Evans, outlines various methods of verbal abuse including: The Verbally Abusive Relationship
Many people are under the impression that physical and verbal abuse are problems primarily for people of lower socioeconomic status but this is false. The truth is that abuse is just as prominent in all levels of wealth and social status.
I felt sorry for Adi and her family and also thankful that I did not come from an abusive family, but I later came to learn that this simplistic view of abuse was due to ignorance and that abuse has many facets and exists on many levels in many families. While the physical abuse has obvious signs, it is the verbal abuse that can go undetected and therefore carry on in families and relationships without participants or bystanders being able to identify it.
Some categories of verbal abuse include:
- Name Calling
Both abusers and victims often grow up in homes where verbal abuse is common and learn to tolerate the behavior. When they witness verbal abuse in their adult relationships it doesn’t shock them, they may accept the behavior as normal.
In other instances children that survived a specific type of verbal abuse grow up and specifically avoid said abuse but since there are many tactics that abusers use they often find themselves in relationships with a different kind of abuser, one who uses a different tactic but is abusive nonetheless. Sadly, these relationships can exist for long periods of time before the victim discovers their mistake, if at all.
The Vicious Cycle
Human beings are master imitators; children often grow up and repeat the same behavior that they witnessed without realizing the cause and/or effect of their actions.
Verbal abuse can lead to physical abuse. Both types of abuse work to brainwash the victim into thinking the abuse is their fault since they are not good enough. The abuser, who ironically also believes they are also “not good enough”, enjoys the momentary thrill of putting others down to feel instantly good about themselves, but the results aren’t lasting, requiring repeated abuse and also an escalation of abusive behavior. is the appropriately titled book that describes this dynamic and explains how it is both parties that are suffering with pain from their childhood and how they are trapped in a script of relating to one another but can’t escape. Dance of the Wounded Souls
Even when a physical abuser gets treatment to 'cure' this behavior, he may later reattempt to gain control over the victim through verbal abuse with varying tactics. Physical abuse and verbal abuse are two ways that abusers use, both independently and in conjunction with one another.
Common questions an outsider might ask are:
- Why would anyone get involved with an abuser?
Abusers are not always abusive, in fact they are often the most charming people you will ever meet. Victims become swept up in the charm. If you recall the story of Hansel and Gretel you probably remember when the brother and sister are lost in the woods and come upon a house made of candy. They begin nibbling on the candy and then are welcomed inside by a kind old woman. They are fed a warm meal and offered a cozy place to sleep. It isn’t until the next morning that the brother and sister discover that the candy house was a trap and the old woman is really a witch only wanting to eat them both. This is a cautionary tale perhaps disguised as an intriguing story for children.
The witch lured the children using her candy house just as similarly abusers catch their prey using their charm. Abusers then keep their victim within their grip using mind control. Abusers are able to switch between two scripts; one of the charmer and the second of the beast, neither of these sides being the real person. The real person is hidden inside, like a wounded child, lost and unable to escape.
- Why do victims remain in an abusive relationship? Why did Adi’s Mother or the millions of other victims in this situation stay?
Changes for the Worse
While in the past women suffering from abuse would have had close relatives living nearby to protect them, modern urban life isolates women in abusive situations and makes them virtual hostages in their own homes, lending itself to the possibility of extreme abuse.
One reason is that it takes time for the victim to overcome the years of abuse and realize that the abuser never had the right to treat them that way in the first place. The victim has likely lived a life of low self esteem and blaming themselves. Victims often try to resolve the problems in the marriage, not understanding how deep seeded they really are. Even though they may become aware that they are being abused, they can find themselves with young children and/or financially dependant on that abuser and fear that the unknown of leaving might be worse than their current situation. While some victims manage to escape and begin a new life, leaving is not so easy. Leaving can provoke more violence since it enrages the abuser and victims can become further injured or even murdered. Violence of husbands against wives is the leading cause of violent death.
What about Women’s Shelters and Restraining Orders?
While women’s shelters can provide a supportive environment, they often only provide temporary housing for victims and often the victims end up back with the abuser again and this is primarily for financial reasons. A restraining order against the abuser is another possible solution but often this puts an added burden on the finances of the family since the abuser has to pay for separate housing. As a result, families have to deal with not only abuse but also serious financial troubles.
Why don't other members of the victim's family step in to help?
There is shame on the part of the victim which can prevent them from acknowledging the abuse and the failed relationship. Victims also hold onto hope that things will change. Abusers always end a period of abuse by what is known as the 'roses period' where they make grand promises to 'be good.' The victim has a vested interest in believing these promises. Another reason that other family members are unable to help the victim of abuse is that they are often trapped in an abusive relationship themselves. These relationships can be a family legacy that tragically gets handed down from generation to generation. Helping another family member out of this abuse would mean painful self-introspection.
Changes for the Better
Historically some level of violence against women was regarded as normal. English Common Law endorsed a rule of thumb according to which a man was permitted to beat his wife with a stick, provided the stick was no thicker than his thumb. Only recently were police officers in the U.S. legally allowed to protect a wife from her physically abusive husband, before this domestic violence was considered a private matter.
Source: The Science of Romance, N.Barber
Both verbal and physical abuse have the same root motivation for the abuser and that is to control the victim. Some psychologists refer to this behavior as ‘power over’ (dominance). Evolutionary scientists believe that the function of the abuse is for the husband to be sure that the wife remains faithful, thereby insuring it is his offspring or his genes that will be carried forward.
From the same evolutionary standpoint, the victim, smothered by the mind control of the abusive relationship, is unable to leave; it is an emotional and sometimes physical trap. The result is that the motivation to seek help is ‘beaten out of her.’ She lives in fear and at the mercy of the abuser. In the book The Science of Romance: Secrets of the Sexual Brain author Nigel Barber states:
Violence against women the world over is produced by a psychology, derived from evolution, of male possessiveness and sexual jealousy…. The man utilizing a primitive way of keeping control over the woman to insure it is his own offspring that he is supporting and it is his genes that carry on.
There was an evolutionary benefit to this behavior so it has existed for a reason; it is not some act of random evil on the part of abusers but a behavior that served a purpose. Once we see it for what it is we can then take the steps to change it. As Maya Angelou once said “when we know better, we do better.”
Finding a Healthy Relationship
A healthy relationship is one of respect, where each partner celebrates the other. They try their best to listen and really hear what the other is saying. These are relationships where conflicts are handled in a fair way and criticism is handled delicately, respectfully and lovingly. They travel on a journey together with the goal of triumphing over challenge and simply wanting the best for each other. The ‘power over’ feeling that abusers have overrides any true supportive feelings that a healthy relationship could give them.
Victims begin the journey of healing by setting boundaries and distancing themselves from abusers. The severity of the abuse dictates the extent of the boundaries. Victims also need to change their habitual reactions or 'schemas' to being abused that are both emotional and physiologically paralyzing and begin reacting in healthier ways, this all begins by accepting that they were never to blame. Since both abusive and narcissistic behaviors overlap, the book Disarming the Narcissist offers techniques that enable victims to change their schemas and begin to have healthier reactions to any kind of abuse.
Understanding the nature of abuse and it’s many facets is a step in the direction away from abusive dominance based relationships and towards relationships that hold respect for human dignity as the highest goal of all.
For more information or to get help:
- National Domestic Violence Hotline USA
Hotline advocates are available for victims and anyone calling on their behalf to provide crisis intervention, safety planning, information and referrals to agencies in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
- National Centre for Domestic Violence UK
Welcome to National Centre for Domestic Violence
- Domestic Violence International Resources
International Domestic Violence Resources. Listings of and links to international agencies, organizations and websites to find help and information concerning domestic violence, elder abuse and abuse against disabled persons.
© 2011 Tracy Lynn Conway