This is the second in a five-part series on the effects of domestic violence.
At first, a woman with an abusive partner may simply have a feeling that “something is off.” She is gradually losing her spontaneity, her happiness, her joie de vivre. She may, over time, consult a therapist for anxiety or depression. She may start to self-medicate with alcohol or food to deal with the angst of living in a situation that seems so privileged and ideal on the surface.
If she tries to talk to her partner about it, he will probably act confused or defensive, give her the silent treatment or tell her she is being too sensitive, imagining things, and turn the blame back on her.
They may try couples counseling – not recommended when there are power and control or abuse issues. She may quit her job/get a job/gain weight/lose weight/modify the way she dresses, the way she expresses herself, becoming more self-conscious, less confident, more reserved, less and less herself. She hardly recognizes the man she married anymore. She hardly recognizes herself.
She may end up devoting every waking moment to restoring peace and emotional safety in their home, thinking she has some power to change his behavior and avoid the next verbal, emotional or physical assault. She may scurry to get the kids fed and to bed before he comes home. She may take on more than her share of household duties: car maintenance, home repairs, all the children’s extracurricular activities, thinking there is something she can do to make things better. She has been successful in so many areas of her life; she is determined to solve this problem as well.
What she doesn’t realize is that this is a bottomless pit, where the more she does, the harder she tries, the more he expects; the more she gives, the more he takes. She has become a resource, and her abuser will plumb the depths of her until there is very little left. OB-GYN surgeon and physician Christiane Northrup describes the debilitating impact of living with an emotional abuser in her latest book, “Dodging Energy Vampires” (Hay House, 2018).
As the months and years go by, she may become more and more isolated from friends and family and unable to compare her new “normal” with other perspectives. Ironically, in some ways, it would be easier if she were being beaten. Bruises or broken bones would provide objective evidence that she is a victim of abuse. But when the injuries inflicted are internal, when he gets inside her head, making her feel stupid, useless, ugly, old, crazy – it’s the internal damage caused by this kind of emotional abuse that causes the deepest scars and takes the longest to heal from – and is hardest to identify.
We must do a better job teaching our young girls and boys how to recognize early warning signs of abuse – early education is the best form of intervention.
In part 3 of the series, Darlene will explore a victim’s dawning awareness that she is in an abusive relationship.