This is a very frank article concerning emotional abuse towards women. Sadly this is a reality that is all too common in our nation today. Allan
Abuse in the context of an intimate relationship involves a persistent pattern of behaviors. It is not simply a mistake, an isolated incident or a sudden loss of control. The husband, who engages in this style of relating, misuses his wife for selfish ends and violates her dignity and self-determination. While he may not intend to be abusive, he does intend to achieve the goal that motivates all forms of abuse: to exercise power and to control.
Physical abuse can leave bruises, break bones and cause various permanent, structurally based impairments, like hearing and memory loss. These observable signs of impact signal the need for healing, assistance, protection, and safety. In contrast, emotional abuse is characterized by invisibility and great subtlety. It leaves no obvious mark that would call attention to injury, danger or the need for intervention. Its impact, however, is insidious and Barbara W. Shaffer pervasive as it perception, cognition, identity, and the woman’s very soul. Although abuse comes in varied shapes, sizes and intensities, every form, as we will see, has an emotional component.
What exactly is emotional abuse? Emotional abuse is, foundationally, an attitude of entitlement and profound disrespect that discounts at every turn the inherent right of the other person to dignity, separateness and autonomy. The other person is seen, therefore, as only a contemptible object. Out of entitlement and disrespect spring the various overt behaviors that use anger, violence and/ or contempt to induce fear, guilt and shame. The other person is thereby controlled, punished, or demeaned.1 For example, one husband defended his history of spraying his anger all over his wife in various ways because of “marital privilege,” (i.e. – that’s what she was for and he had the right to do it). In addition to the blatant manifestations of emotionally abusive behaviors, there are those that are more covert and subtle, such as oppositionalism, irritability, unwillingness to be pleased by anything, indifference and refusal to engage in the relationship with good will. All of these exert power and control by negatively impacting the atmosphere of the relationship. There are no prevailing feelings of acceptance, peacefulness and safety.
The effects of emotional abuse are cumulative and increase over time. The main attack is on her sense of self—who she is and what she can do. Self-esteem and self-confidence are typically worn down. She is confused about what is real and true. Is she who he says she is? Is she stupid, lazy, a failure as a wife? Can she make good decisions? Are her perceptions correct? She also engages in self-blame and turns her anger inward. There is often depression and the accompanying lack of concentration and motivation. She feels helpless, hopeless, worthless, unlovable, and very anxious. Sometimes she is angry about the injustices anddisplaces her anger onto others or onto God.
If the relentless barrage of negative messages from the abuser takes root, one of the fruits produced is increased dependency on the abuser because she believes she is an inadequate, incompetent person. Blaming herself and her deficiencies, she will tend to minimize the abuse, excuse the abuser, and even accept her suffering as what she deserves. What is real and true has faded away, and lies have taken root.
Every type of abuse has an emotional component. For example, physical abuse, whether it is in the form of pushing, slapping, punching, restraining or barring her exit from a room, obviously creates fear and shame, even terror. Behaviors that carry the atmosphere of violence, such as punching the wall, throwing things or driving recklessly to scare her, also generate fear, anxiety and dread, as they may be the precursors of physical abuse inflicted on her. Emotional abuse is inherent in physical abuse.
*Marital sexual abuse* demeans and corrupts the most physically, emotionally and spiritually intimate relational experience a husband and wife can have. She is treated like a sex object who is there for his convenience. She may be awakened roughly for sex; sexual parts of her body may be physically attacked; unwanted objects may be inserted into her vagina; or her breasts may be brutally squeezed until she says or does what he wants.
Forcing sex is emotionally, as well as physically, abusive! Instead of growing out of the spiritual, emotional and relational unity of the couple, sex that is forced represents the selfish, entitled exercise of power and control. If she is also forced to perform sexual acts that she believes are immoral or that are disgusting to her, that humiliating violation of her principles has the effect of breaking her psychologically and demoralizing her at her core.2 The shame that results permeates her view of herself and her value like a relentless cancer.
*Verbal abuse*, or using words as weapons, is another major means of exercising power and control and creating fear, guilt and shame. Like brainwashing, words that are demeaning, blaming, harsh and attacking wear down the mind and spirit. Criticizing, name-calling or “joking,” especially in front of others, create shame and embarrassment. Particularly heinous is “gas lighting”—the effort to manipulate situations and then deny the manipulation.
For example, a woman could not find something she had carefully put in her jewelry box. Her husband told her that she had never had that object in her possession. She later found it in a box of nails on a shelf in the back of the garage. A similar tactic is history revision—the denial that certain events took place or the insistence that certain events did take place. These latter two types of verbal abuse create intense feelings of confusion, along with the fear that she is losing her mind.
Emotional abuse is inherent in verbal abuse. Moreover, since words usually precede and accompany physical abuse, words can become an emotional substitute for battering. So if criticism used to signal the onslaught of a physical attack, critical words generate fear of an attack and thereby alter her behavior and emotional state as though she had been hit. Though he may have stopped hitting her, his words have an immediate, controlling impact on the emotional level.
*Financial abuse* is another form of maltreatment that has an emotional component. What usually happens is that money is tightly controlled and financial decisions are made unilaterally, by decree, without meaningful communication. For example, if a woman is required to “turn in” all the money she earns or “turn in” money given to her as a gift or inheritance, and then she is given an “allowance” or she must ask for any money she wants to spend, she is being treated as though she were a child. Or she may have to account for every penny (literally) she spends at the grocery store every week. She may also be kept in the dark about financial matters that concern her and her future (investments, retirement plans, savings), or her name may be kept off the deed to the house or other assets. Decisions concerning how much is spent on what and when are typically made without her input.
*Time control* is a final area where there can be a pattern of emotional abuse. Time is similar to money. Must she account for every minute of her time? Does she have minutes or hours “given” to her to run errands or attend Bible study or do the grocery shopping? Are there complaints, whether subtle or overt, about how much time she spent or how she spent her time? Is she criticized for wasting time by having to go out to pick up the dry cleaning today because she forgot to do it while she was out yesterday? If she has no choices and must give an accounting for the minutes of her day, then her dignity, autonomy and separateness are dismissed. Instead of feelings of support, empowerment and competence, there is only fear, guilt, humiliation and shame.
In all of these situations her dignity and autonomy are dismissed and replaced with demeaning control. Instead of feelings of security and safety, there is only fear, guilt, humiliation and shame.
Like all sin, abuse in the home, in all its varieties and subtleties, is an equal opportunity destroyer. Some of the costly impact on wives has been clearly shown. Husbands reap alarming consequences as well. If, as Peter said, a husband’s fellowship with God is hindered when he is not understanding toward his wife, how great must the spiritual impact be when he is abusive with her? Every time a husband chooses to use his strength, power and authority against his wife, instead of for her benefit, his heart is further hardened against the Holy Spirit, and sinful attitudes are further solidified in his character.
Children who live in the tension-laden atmosphere of an unsafe home, witnessing and experiencing abusive attitudes and behaviors, are impacted in many ways—fearfulness, low self-esteem, post traumatic stress, etc. It is not unusual for female children to become involved with abusive men as teens and adults and for male children to become abusive men themselves. Spiritual confusion is another troubling effect that is created when children routinely see a parent exhibit pagan relational behavior at home, and then switch to pious behavior at church. Only an evil tree can produce such fruit. When Jesus said that causing a child to sin was an offense worthy of death, was He merely being dramatic or does such a drastic punishment reveal how grave the offense is in the eyes of our Lord?
The Body of Christ is also greatly wounded by the private sin of such abuse. When there is any kind of infection anywhere in the body, the whole body is weakened systemically. Abusive behaviors, and the damaging emotional abuse that underlies all of them, are such an infection. Harboring those who should be counted among the oppressors withholds the medicine, and sometimes surgery, that would free the Body from the insidious, debilitating effects of this evil. To practice, ignore, minimize or privatize the sickness of abuse is to weaken the heart, hands, feet and glory of Christ in this world.
May the God who hates evil find the Church faithful in practicing and promoting a deep, abiding commitment to live in a way that reflects and honors the character of Christ. Let us submit to His scrutiny and lordship in not only our overt and public behavior, but also our private behavior and attitudes. And let us diligently seek from Him the courage and compassion to cross the sacred threshold of marriage and family to stand for the oppressed, intervene on their behalf and bind up their wounds.
_Barbara W. Shaffer, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist who has a special interest in trauma and abuse issues. In addition to her private practice, she also works with Diane Langberg and Associates. Endnotes 1 B everly Engel. (2002). The Emotionally Abusive Relationship. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2 Judith Herman. (1997). Trauma and Recovery. New York: Basic Books._