I don’t normally watch the TV ‘soapies’, but a storyline on one of them caught my eye recently. It’s about an older woman who’s been emotionally and verbally abused by her husband to the point where she breaks and lashes out at him with a wine bottle. At the point of writing this, she’s in jail, awaiting trial for attempted murder – and viewing herself as a ‘bad’ person who deserves punishment. The other characters on the soapie have mostly turned against her, as even before the wine bottle incident, he had quite expertly cast himself as the ‘victim’, and her as various bad things. Even the police don’t pick up on the clues.
As a survivor of emotional abuse myself, I find it too painful to watch, though of course I’m hoping the truth will eventually emerge. But I don’t have much hope of it, as it can be really hard for anyone who hasn’t been through this to understand what it’s like. While my situation never got as far as wine bottles, it nonetheless nearly destroyed me. So I want to explain something of what it feels like to be the recipient of emotional and verbal abuse.
The first thing that needs to be understood is that it’s essentially a betrayal. I’m not talking about sexual betrayal here, but a betrayal of the very trust that should exist between partners. When you enter into a relationship, there’s a basic assumption that they will deal with you fairly and honestly, that they truly care for you and that anything they tell you is the truth. So when they start telling you that you’re this or that Bad Thing, that you’re no good at this or that, you believe them. They must be telling you this For Your Own Good, right? Or at least that’s what they tell you, and they love you, so it must be true, right? Overwhelmed by this flood of new ‘information’ about yourself, you lose all sense of who you were before in the struggle to correct your ‘faults’, to become what they’re telling you that you ‘should’ be.
It's especially easy for them if you already have low self-esteem and are inclined to believe the worst about yourself. (Abusers hone in on such vulnerable people, of course.) Add in being autistic (as in my case), even if you don’t know it at the time, but do know that you have trouble ‘reading between the lines’ and making good judgements about yourself and others, and you’re primed to believe that they are seeing something you can’t, even if it doesn’t ‘feel right’. Under a relentless barrage of criticism, you cave. They must be right, you must be bad, bad, bad. Having been reduced to a state of helpless abasement, you don’t find much to admire in yourself anyway.
Their attitude that they’re positively saintly for putting up with you, that nobody else would, means that over time, you come to believe that others must have seen these faults too, but been too polite to tell you. You become ashamed, not wanting to inflict your flawed self on anyone else, and will probably seem withdrawn and anti-social to others. Thus it’s easy for your partner to cast your actions or words in the worst light to others in turn, subtly running you down, and further isolating you. With no other opinions to compare your partner’s to, your judgement becomes skewed, and you continue to believe the worst. I eventually came to see myself as worthless, as a partner, as a mother, as a friend, and quite possibly even as a human being.
Many people seem to think that verbal and emotional abuse is ‘not as bad’ as physical abuse. “It’s just words.” Even the victim/survivor may think this, or be reluctant to reveal it, or even to see it as abuse. Those harsh words can actually often go hand-in-hand with physical violence, but even without a blow struck, they can be devastating. Without wanting to minimise the hurt from physical abuse at all, damage from a broken limb can heal faster than damage from a broken heart. Because that’s what abusers do to you. They break you. They shatter your heart, your psyche, your very sense of self, your will. I would say they reshape you to their liking – but you’re never to their liking. They’re never satisfied, there’s always more criticism. Nothing about you is sacred.
Even after you scrape up enough shreds of self-esteem to get out of the relationship, it can take a long, long, long time to realise what’s happened to you, and what you’ve lost. To give just one small example, my partner had me convinced that I was hopeless as a ‘home handywoman’. If I even started to do a job around the house, she’d sigh impatiently, and snatch the tool off me with a contemptuous “oh, give it here!” Afterwards, it took me more than two years to remember that before her, I’d actually been moderately competent at doing stuff. Not as expert as her maybe, but I’d known what to do with a screwdriver or hammer, I’d rewired electric plugs, swapped a faulty cord on an iron, and even done up old furniture. But under the onslaught of her contempt, I’d forgotten all that. I’d forgotten the very idea of being competent – at anything.
And it can be an even longer time healing. Even now, more than twenty years later, I still find myself squirreling out damaged parts of my psyche. For instance, I still have to remind myself that if I do something that’s not ‘how others (deep down, I mean ‘her’) would do it’, it’s okay. No-one’s watching me, about to pounce and tear me apart for it, I don’t have to constantly defend my actions or words anymore. But despite my best attempts to dismantle it, the kneejerk fear-reaction is still entrenched in me, not to mention the belief that the way I do things is ‘wrong’, even if it feels right to me. That’s how deep the damage can go. This is a battle I’m still fighting. Even writing this has stirred up old, painful memories.
My wish is that people will come to understand that emotional and verbal abuse is just as devastating, just as emotionally destructive, as physical abuse. That it can wreck people, wreck their lives, wreck their relationships with others, even wreck their physical health, and leave them feeling, afterwards, like a piece of wreckage washed up on a beach, no good to themselves or anyone else.
Never underestimate the power of ‘mere words’.