A Hidden Insidious Plague: Emotional Abuse – published in the Concord Monitor 4/4/10 – posted 4/7/2013
I had never previously posted this piece on my website. I wrote it back in 2010. It was published back then in my local paper, the Concord Monitor. As I had written previously there were some articles that I never had put up before. This is one of them. Jon
When I think about domestic violence, the image that comes to mind is a physical assault like a slap or a punch. It could be Rihanna getting beaten by her ex-boyfriend, singer Chris Brown. Or it could be something more horrific like the domestic violence-related murders of Phyllis Marchand, Suzanne Vernet, and Melissa Charbonneau, three New Hampshire women, that occurred last year.
To the extent emotional abuse is acknowledged, it is a secondary, background aspect of domestic violence. You can’t see it like you can see a black eye, a bruise or a broken bone. Nor is it easily quantifiable. Whether it has a history would likely depend on which partner in a couple you believed.
Emotional abuse is heavily contested terrain. In any couple, both parties can claim it, and it may be hard to know where the truth lies.
New Hampshire’s domestic violence law defines abuse as a laundry list of criminal acts such as assault, interference with freedom and harassment. It also includes criminal threatening. It does not include name-calling, belittling, berating, excessive screaming or extreme personal argumentativeness.These behaviors are probably too hard to prove with a high degree of reliability. As a society, we are not prepared to criminalize this conduct. Emotional abuse falls into a gray area that the law has a difficult time getting at.
What I am calling emotional abuse is behavior used to control, degrade, humiliate and punish a spouse or partner. It wears the person down. It makes her or him an object of constant blame. It robs the person of self-esteem and weakens self-confidence. Eventually, fear of the anger of the abuser controls the victim. So much energy is expended figuring out how not to get the abuser angry that there is no energy left to fight back against the controlling behavior.
The victim of emotional abuse is something of a torture victim. Except Abu Ghraib prison is the victim’s own home. Or, maybe a more accurate way to describe it is that the prison is a black site and outsiders don’t know the torture victim lives next door.
While no one case can adequately convey the variability and mutations of emotional abuse, I want to tell a story about a married couple I will call Randy and Laura – out-of-state lawyers I knew well who were married for more than 20 years.
Before they got married, Randy found a sexy backless red dress in Laura’s closet. He asked her where she got it, and she explained that the dress was a gift from a former boyfriend. Randy then burned the dress.
At the time, they had not been dating for long. Randy profusely apologized, and Laura let it go. It proved to be a missed red flag. Laura subsequently got pregnant. And while she voiced some misgivings, they got married. Not long before they started dating, Laura had been sexually assaulted. She fought off the attacker but the experience left her shaken. Randy appeared on the scene initially as a chivalrous protector.
After the marriage, Randy’s pattern of name-calling, constant argument and berating dramatically escalated. He called Laura a liar, a bitch, argumentative, manipulativeand untrustworthy. He accused her of his own bad behaviors. His flair was turning reality upside down.
They had two children, and issues around the kids turned into another battleground. According to Randy, Laura was too permissive as a parent. He did not simply speak the truth on all occasions – he defined reality.
If there was a disagreement when they were out driving, Randy would force Laura out of the car, even in dangerous neighborhoods. Sometimes, he would come back to offer a ride. He always had to get the last word in.Randy liked to stay calm in his constant irrational arguments, using his evenness as a way to push Laura over the edge. His demeanor said that as long as I am calm, you cannot describe anything I do as abusive, no matter how cruel.
After many years, Laura moved out. Randy showed up at Laura’s new place and tried to kick her door in. The husband of a friend intervened to protect her. Randy backed down.
As a lawyer, Randy knew domestic violence law inside and out. The door-kicking incident aside, he walked the line of the law, and he had a litany of excuses for bad behavior. Laura also knew the law, but she feared Randy’s reaction if she filed a protection-from-abuse order. She also doubted the abuse allegations would fly because of Randy’s deviousness and the law’s narrow definitions of abuse.
When Laura went to Randy’s house to help the kids with homework or for other reasons, he sometimes confiscated her car keys, her pocketbook or even her client files. On one occasion, he grabbed some files and threw them into the snowy front yard. Laura remained afraid to get angry because when she did, he became his most unreasonable. Everything she did was designed to avoid upsetting him, but she never succeeded.
Although Laura separated from Randy, she never could follow through on divorce. She contacted lawyers and once got as far as drafting a complaint to initiate a divorce. But she never filed court papers. She was scared of the fight with Randy and believed it would be better for the kids if she maintained a separation without divorcing. She knew how he was as a separated spouse. She did not know how he would be as a divorcing and divorced spouse.
Meanwhile, Randy used access to the kids as a way to control her. Although they theoretically shared custody, Laura let her kids live at his house. He forbid them from staying at Laura’s apartment. She accommodated him out of fear of rocking the boat. Randy had threatened to leave the country and snatch the kids, and Laura took that threat seriously.
When one of Laura’s relatives confronted Randy about his abuse, Randy forbid the relative from having any contact with the children.
Although she tried to deflect attention away from the fact of her own abuse, Laura suffered horribly because of it. She died at an early age because of cancer.
In her book Trauma and Recovery, Dr Judith Herman states that the methods of establishing control over another person are based upon the systematic, repetitive infliction of psychological trauma. It is disturbing to know that the emotional abuse inflicted on Laura and other domestic violence victims is consistent with coercive techniques as described by hostages, political prisoners, and survivors of concentration camps.
Right now, emotional abuse remains subterranean, largely outside the law. Maybe someday a society better attuned to understanding will figure a way to address emotional abuse as well as a way to hold perpetrators accountable.