"If he doesn't hit me, is it abuse?" "I know he seems like a nice guy, but he's not that way at home. Can you help me?" "I feel so alone." There are so many things women suffering from an emotionally abusive relationship want you to know; things that are often tucked behind a question or hiding underneath a off-the-cuff comment.
Usually these women want to tell you, but they're so ashamed or they don't know how to tell you or they're not sure that what their partner is doing is actually abuse. Sometimes they think it's their fault and that they've failed their relationship and that you won't believe them, because they don't have "sufficient" proof. They hope it will get better and they're afraid for their children's safety and they're terrified their abuser will find out they told you.
I know, because I am one of those women.
For so many years I hoped things would get better with the husband I still loved, despite his constant criticism, shaming, infidelity, and insults. I blamed myself for not being "perfect" and for having high expectations of him. And, honestly, I thought all relationships were and looked like mine. After all, isn't marriage supposed to be hard? Sadly, I also thought I deserved it. I believed my then-husband when he said I was to blame for our marital problems, and I believed the awful things he said to and about me. At the time I didn't know that emotional abuse was and is abuse, and that it can contribute to a pattern of physical and sexual violence. I was alone.
I didn't tell anyone about the abuse I was enduring until my partner became violent. I wanted to and I tried to but more often than not it made things worse, and I simply thought there was no way out. There's so much I wanted people to know, I just didn't know how to say the words. Not, of course, until now:
They Don't Know It's Abuse
While emotional abuse can be just as harmful to a person as physical abuse, sometimes the absence of physical violence makes someone living with emotional abuse fell unsure about whether or not it is really "that bad," or even grateful that "at least he doesn't hit me." Their abuser often doesn't see their behavior as abusive and will minimize their actions actions and words as not that bad.
They Think You Won't Believe Them
Abusers can be charming. Sometimes from the outside, a couple's life can look perfect, when on the inside it's a nightmare. People who are being abused think no one will believe them, so they never tell anyone.
Or, they try to tell someone and that person says the words, "I don't believe you," which makes them never want to try again.
They Love Their Partner
Abusive people aren't abusive all of the time and often weren't abusive when you first met. Just as you don't fall in love with someone instantly, you also can't always stop loving your abuser as if you've flipped an internal switch, even when they have done and said terrible things to you. Periods of emotional abuse might be punctuated by periods of intense happiness, and they might tell you that they are the only person who will ever love you.
They Believe Their Partner's Lies
Emotionally abusive people can, over time and through verbal abuse, insults, manipulation, and gaslighting, convince their partner that they are mentally ill, deserving of abuse, or even that they are the problem in the relationship. It's hard to ask for help, when you think you are at fault for the way your partner treats you or you question your sanity or reality.
They Are Ashamed
I was too ashamed to tell anyone. I thought the abuse was my fault. Even now, I question if there was anything I could have done differently to make him love me the way I know I deserve to be loved.
Logically, I know that it was not my fault, but from the inside it was impossible to blame him. I was also so embarrassed that this could happen to me. I was a feminist who had a Master's degree and worked for a progressive women's organization. Things like that were not supposed to happen to me. I worked really hard to make things work and to make things appear to be perfect from the outside looking in. I didn't want anyone to know that I was suffering.
They Are Scared
People who are suffering in emotionally abusive relationships are often scared. Scared that their partner will find out they told and become violent, or scared to bring up certain topics or say anything negative about their partner.
I remember posting an article about gun control on social media. My now ex-husband was so upset that one of his friends might see it and give him a hard time about my views on the topic. I was also scared that people might discover what was happening and blame me for not being a better wife and mother.
Leaving Isn't Easy And Can Sometimes Feel Impossible
When you ask someone who is suffering in an emotionally abusive relationship why she doesn't just leave, you dismiss the real danger and complications of leaving an abuser and, instead, place responsibility for making that change on someone for whom leaving can literally be impossible.
Abusers will often isolate their partners physically and socially and control their access to finances. Leaving is the most dangerous time for someone in an abusive relationship. Leaving can be emotionally, physically, financially, and logistically challenging. It can seem impossible.
They Are Afraid Their Partner Will Hurt Them Or Their Kids
Emotionally abusive people often threaten violence against their partner or others to get their way. They dehumanize you and their threats seem real. Sometimes they are real.
Leaving an abusive relationship is dangerous. Violent words become actual violence, which can escalate. If you've tried to leave once and things got worse, it's so scary to try again.
They Feel Alone And Isolated
Abusers control their partner by attempting to isolate them, limiting their social network, and ruining relationships with family and friends. You end up scared and feel so alone, like you have no one to turn to. Those feelings of isolation are compounded by ways your partner controls you, your money, your transportation, and even your social media connections.
They Don't Know Who To Tell Or Where To Get Help
People living with emotionally abusive partners often don't think domestic violence organizations can help them. His abuse doesn't look like the scenario you envision when you hear the words domestic violence. Yelling at you and cutting you down is not a crime. The police won't get involved. You are so embarrassed and can't imagine admitting to someone that you need help.
If you are living in an emotionally abusive relationship, I want you to know that you aren't alone. I believe you. There's help available. Seek out support, take back control, and connect with an advocate to help you safely plan to rebuild your life. As a first step you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. Emotional abuse is abuse. You don't have to do this alone.