Guest Post by wordssetmefreee
The last post and some recent emails brought up the subject of abuse within families. I’m glad that the email writer moved out. She is able to analyze her situation quite rationally, which indicates that she got out in time. Although the majority of these emails tend to come from women, men can also be victims of abuse. One recent email from an American woman detailed how her Indian boyfriend was being emotionally blackmailed by his parents. Many commenters advised her to stop dating him because he needed to gain control of his own life before entering into a relationship. In my own extended family, my cousin, who I grew up with chose to not get married. After delaying his parents’ attempts to get him married for a few years, he finally came out in the open and declared he doesn’t ever want to get married. He is an only child and has been subjected to emotional blackmail (such as daily threats of illness and suicide, hysteria, self-starvation) from his parents. Five years since he announced his decision, they are still around, but I do see that he is worn down, tired, and stressed most of the time. He was a happy, fun loving child, always following me around (I’m eight years older to him) asking me to play hide and seek with him. It bothers me when I see him become a hollow version of himself.
Emotional abuse is a potent method of damaging someone’s psyche, especially a person’s sense of self worth and dignity. It is potent because it often goes unrecognized. Its incognito status allows people to inflict substantial damage on victims – as much as that through visible forms of abuse such as aggression and violence.
Socially sanctioned forms of abuse are the hardest to recognize. In many cultures, parents have unlimited authority over their children. Any situation where authority goes unchecked is a fertile environment for abuse. Another culturally sanctioned form of abuse occurs with other authority figures such as teachers, boarding school staff, clerics and law enforcement officers. This is not to say that all parents, teachers, clerics and police are abusive; but if their authority is not subject to checks and balances, there is potential for abuse, and support when it does occur.
It is important to note that in the case of parents, spouses, and intimate partners, they may not always be aware that they are turning abusive. Although it is difficult to empathize with the abuser, he/she could also be caught up in a destructive cycle that cannot be voluntarily broken, without professional help, and distancing from the victim.
In the Indian context, parental abuse often goes unrecognized because there is an entire network of constructs, rules and operations that have been built around it. Recognizing parental abuse threatens so many existing power structures that cultural walls have been built around it to safeguard the unquestioned authority of parents. Accusing one’s parents of the smallest wrongs is tantamount to treason. There is so much fear and guilt surrounding this discussion that many sons and daughters don’t dare to broach their parent’s fallibility. Any attempt at doing so is often accompanied with tremendous guilt and self-reproach on the victim’s part.
However, problems, especially when they are deep-rooted, cannot be pretended away. It is important for us to recognize abuse. People are often shocked at the word ‘abuse’ when it is used in the context of their loved ones. Ironically, it is loved ones who are the most likely to inflict abuse – their increased proximity to the victim and their sense of entitlement, and in some cases, co-dependence make intimate relationships more prone to abuse than relationships that are one step removed.
Who can inflict emotional abuse?
– Parents on their minor children
– Parents on their adult children
– Adult children on their aging parents
– Relatives on children in the family
– Bullies at schools, colleges, and in cyber space
– Police on people in their custody
– Teachers and school authorities on children
– Managers on their reports
What forms does emotional abuse take?
– humiliating, excessive judging/criticizing, shaming, slandering, ridiculing, being dismissive, labeling, condescending
– controlling, taking away choices (requiring permission for going out, controlling spending, controlling routine choices like dressing, showering, eating), infantalization
– accusing (being overly suspicious, reading into every move), blaming (holding victim responsible for abuser’s problems and happiness)
– unreasonable or impossible demands
– emotional distancing, silent treatment, alienating, emotional abandonment or neglect (withholding affection, love, support, withholding communication and expecting mind reading)
– excessive codependence (treating the other person as an extension of themselves, not respecting boundaries, knowing what is best for you, being constantly needy)
– threats and intimidation (loud voice and aggressive body language meant to induce fear, direct or indirect threats to the other person, her reputation, her children, her parents, her safety)
– emotional blackmail (threats of suicide, ill-health or becoming an alcoholic), hysteria (disproportionately intense reaction to mistakes), and self-injurious behavior or threats on self-harm (cutting oneself, burning oneself)
– baiting (deliberately provoking anger through false accusations, preying upon weaknesses)
– creating no-win scenarios (asking someone to choose between two bad options – “you either starve or you apologize for something you didn’t do”, “you either cut off with your brother or cut off with me”)
Some less common forms of expression
– Symbolic suffering (setting fire to a toy or favorite object) – inflicting suffering on an inanimate object or a small animal meant as a threat or intimidation
– Engulfment – showering excessive and suffocating amounts of attention, constantly checking whereabouts, inducing guilt (when victim enjoys something) and fear, exhibiting pathological jealousy
– Stalking – either physical or via phone/email
– Gas lighting/brainwashing – omitting or twisting information to favor the abuser and make the victim doubt their own memory or understanding of events
– Recruiting – making the other person an accomplice in questionable activities
What It Feels Like
The victim often feels confused, hurt, and frightened. (I will begin to use the female pronoun but this applies to both men and women.) She loses confidence and begins to doubt herself. She may doubt her own opinions and beliefs. She may even begin to doubt facts and her own memories. There is a sense of one’s reality slipping away. This makes the victim feel powerless. Most of the victim’s energy is focused on “being careful” around the abuser’s moods, trying to “read” his signals, and working hard to earn his approval. The victim is filled with a feeling of dread; there is always the feeling that something may explode (even when things are going well). The victim begins to blame herself when things get ugly (“if only I had been more careful, if only I got home earlier, if only I cooked his favorite meal”). The abuser and victim go through cycles of “good” and bad phases. During the “good” phase, the abuser regrets his actions, tries to flatter or please the victim, and makes peace. The peace is invariably temporary and is shattered for the smallest and most unpredictable “reasons”. Initially, the “good” phases serve the purpose of locking the victim in the destructive relationship; however in later stages, the victim begins to understand the hollowness in the kind gestures, begins to recognize the pattern to the point of being able to predict what is coming next, but is unable to break out of it.
How To Cope
There is only one way to cope with abuse. And that is by putting physical distance between oneself (victim) and the abuser. At first, this might mean leaving the room and refusing to engage in abusive interactions. Eventually, moving out of the abuser’s life is necessary for survival. Leaving requires 2 things – planning and support. A practical plan is necessary – where will I live temporarily, how will I earn my living, etc. The victim also needs the support of another human being – a close friend or relative who will help the victim not give in to her fears and go back to the abuser.
Even after getting away from the abuser, many victims continue to suffer the effects of abuse – they will continue to suffer from a lack of self worth, make harmful or self-destructive choices, become close to people who are another version of their previous abuser, and continue to be unhappy. Victims need to work with a counselor and take the support of strong, reliable friends/family and work on the process of self-healing.
The abuser can recover only through psychological counseling and doing the hard work of recognizing, understanding, and modifying his own destructive behavior patterns.
Victims of abuse cannot be told or expected to “snap out of it”. Recognizing and dealing with abuse, and supporting the victim practically and emotionally are the only ways to authentic healing.