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‘I was a victim of emotional abuse…’

So many women are exposed to emotional abuse, eventually believing that it’s ‘nothing’ or that it forms part of a ‘normal’ marriage simply because their scars cannot be seen with the naked eye. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there …

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me…” If you believe this saying, you’re lying to yourself. Words have a powerful influence on us, and just as positive words can inspire whoever hears them, negative words have the power to break their listener down.

Beverley (42) understands this only too well. She was married to a man ten years her senior. “I thought that marrying an older man would give me the stability I craved. I assumed he had already sown his wild oats — and that he was a mature, stable man who I could depend on,” she explains. It wasn’t long before the emotional abuse started. “Although I never recognised that his behaviour was abusive at the time, the signs were there. I chose to ignore them as you always hope for the best and want to believe the best …”

Ben started to accuse her of having an affair whenever she left the house. “Are you going to the shops to see your lover?” he’d ask. “I experienced a lot of confusion at that stage,” says Beverley. “I didn’t understand why he thought I was having an affair, and when he called me ‘fat’ and ‘ugly’ and wouldn’t touch me, it broke my heart …”

She was young and too naive to stand up for herself. She tried to ‘fix’ things and embarked on endless diets and impossible gym routines. “I didn’t realise it was emotional abuse at the time, yet those around me recognised the signs and began telling me it was a very unhealthy situation. My two girls would beg for his attention and say, “Daddy, please kiss me good night”. I would ask him too, but he refused. “As a woman, I took his criticism to heart and wanted to make it better. Sadly, nothing I ever did was right or good enough and he would continually make me feel like I didn’t measure up.”

Beverley opened up to her best friend. She thought his drinking problem was the cause of his behaviour, but she soon found out that he was projecting his own guilty feelings on her. Ben had been having an affair — with that same best friend. “She would say, ‘He is abusing you,’ and manipulate me into telling her how I really felt. She would then use this information against me by telling him how unhappy I was.”

Beverley goes on to say that she was abused by both of them. “They batted me to and fro like a ball between them. He always turned every situation around to make me feel as if I was the one with the problem and who was in the wrong …”

She realised he was having an affair while she was doing an Alpha course at her church. At that stage, she had emotional support from friends and family, and admitted to them that she couldn’t carry on that way. “I was living for a tomorrow … for a better day to come … but that tomorrow never seemed to happen.”

Eventually, Beverley decided to end the cruel cycle. “Healing is a process that starts with finding yourself in God. I built barriers that I had to decide to tear down. I had to decide to let people close again. God intervened and restored my image of who I am. It was shattered at the time, and I’m picking up those pieces every day by deciding to believe in tomorrow, to be myself and love myself.”

Beverley’s advice to other women: “You can survive emotional abuse through knowing God’s love. I learnt to take care of my emotions. I would never condone the break-up of a marriage, but I had no option — he divorced me. After the divorce, I had to decide: I’m not accepting this any more … till here and no further! I have raised my girls to understand what abuse is, and not to accept it. I’m proud that they know who they are, and what they’re worth. I never had that privilege…”

The possibility of physical abuse in a marriage is widely recognised, but it’s only in the last couple of years that we’ve begun to understand how damaging emotional abuse really is.

Emotional abuse destroys respect, relationship, admiration and intimacy — all the elements of a healthy marriage, explains Gary Chapman in his book Loving Solutions. While normal people will occasionally say things they regret, verbal abusers never ask for forgiveness and never recognise that what they said was wrong. People like this, blame their mates for the abuse, saying that they are to blame and even provoked it. Gary explains that verbal abuse is a war in which words are used as bombs and hand grenades to punish the other person, shift the blame or to rationalise own actions and decisions. Abusive language is peppered with poisonous put-downs that cause the other person to experience pain, constant guilt or a feeling of incompetence.

Shania (24) also understands the damaging effects of verbal abuse within a relationship. “When your fiancé says he’s unhappy, that he feels trapped, that you’re just not interesting or exciting anymore, that it’s you, you, you … When he spends more time screaming and criticising and taking chunks out of walls and, with his words, out of you, and makes you cry, endlessly, you get out — right? Wrong,” she explains. “You become a puppet, a marionette. I resolved to dance the ‘perfect partner’ dance — but I danced alone.”

Shaun would make jokes in front of his friends at Shania’s expense, and then suddenly hold her hand lovingly. She lived for those brief moments of affection, clambering for every crumb of acceptance that came her way. He would look at the clothes his model friends wore, and tell her she should look like them. She never felt stylish enough, or pretty enough. He complained about her clothes, her makeup and her (too long) nails daily, and one day — when she asked him the time — he hit the dashboard, climbed out of the car and slammed the door behind him. The window cracked from the force of his outburst. “I sat quite still — aware of the immediate danger I was in. I was shaking. Would he hurt me?”

Ten minutes later, he came back to the car apologetically and wrote the episode off as ‘normal anger’. They got engaged, and he would speak about having kids the one moment, and then say that he needed space the next. He would never read the books she was working on, never say thank you when she made him food or visited him. All that she received was criticism. He would swear when she asked who they were meeting and where they were going. One day, he grabbed the chair next to her and threw it against the wall. “It hit the cupboard, splintering the wood, just missing my head and leaving blood on the floor from his torn hand.” That was the day Shania decided she had had enough. “I realised I didn’t need someone in my life who breaks me down, criticises me and brings nothing but hurt and pain.”

She walked away, and heard him break something else and swear, but she never looked back. “I walked away, and kept walking.” It was freeing for her to be without him. She didn’t miss the arguments, or the criticism. “I missed the pieces of myself I had given to him — I missed having confidence, missed knowing who I was. I had to build that again. I had to re-learn it — step by step …”

She was still angry, and there were still unanswered questions. “Was I good enough for someone to love — not to want — but to love? Was I ever going to be accepted — as is, no conditions, no uncertainty? Fear was a cold breeze that blew against my neck — an icy wind that chilled the deepest part of me, even when I was warm. There were hours when I felt good — when I felt I didn’t need his love — when I knew losing him was a blessing.”

Today, Shania is married to a man who is the exact opposite of the abusive one she thought she deserved. The past two years have been the happiest years of her life.

Most people who abuse their partners struggle with a poor self-image. They are not strong, self-assured individuals, but like children who are trying hard to become adults and desperately fighting to prove their worth. They try to elevate themselves by trampling on others, explains Gary, going on to say that many verbal abusers have a subconscious desire to be seen as perfect. Social acceptance becomes a holy grail. They think that acceptance requires perfection. They explode at the slightest hint of criticism because their self-worth is being threatened. According to Gary, those who verbally abuse others have often grown up in a home with verbally abusive parents and end up expressing their anger in the same way.

Are you caught in an emotionally abusive relationship?

It’s time to break the cycle …

Understand the cause, but reject the behaviour. Try to understand his deep emotional needs, without accepting what he does. Maintaining this balanced approach is often difficult for women as they buy into and start to believe their partner’s criticisms that they are ‘stupid’, ‘worthless’ and a ‘bad wife and mother’. Eventually, they could end up believing that they don’t deserve better which prevents them from changing the situation. For a woman, sharing her husband’s abuse with a friend or counsellor is the first step. She needs to discover her own worth before she can initiate positive change in the marriage. If she doesn’t work on restoring her own damaged self-image, she won’t have the energy to take positive action when it comes to his behaviour.

Believe your mate is valuable. Behind every abusive partner is a person with value. Despite their terrible behaviour, they have also been made in the image of God and have inner worth. Remember that behind the verbally abusive lion that you’re married to is a lamb that you once loved and cherished. Start believing that the lamb is still there, and can be salvaged. Encourage him in a positive way as this will build his waning self-image.

Share your own feelings. It doesn’t help pretending his words don’t affect you. Don’t retaliate with your own form of verbal abuse. Your mate needs to be reminded that you are only human and that his words cut you deeply. In a physical sense, there is only a certain amount of pain one can handle before one needs to visit a doctor. Likewise, in an emotional sense, there is also a limit to the amount of pain you can handle before needing to see a counsellor or confide in a friend. Your mate needs to know you have taken that step, even if it means initial taunting. In the long run, he needs to understand the negative impact of his words.

Agree on a strategy. After the issues are on the table, you need to develop a strategy. If your mate is willing, you can work on this together, and if you go for counselling, your counsellor will help. If your mate isn’t willing, you need to work your own strategy out and then present it to your mate. You could, for example, tell him that you can’t tolerate his outbursts any more and that if it happens again, you will go away for a few days to recover — not to punish him, but to protect yourself. Never allow his abuse to ‘work’. If you give in to his demands, the abuse will be encouraged.

Whatever you do, don’t believe the words that your emotionally abusive husband inflicts on you. Remember, you can’t control his choices. You are not responsible for his behaviour, but you are responsible for your own behaviour and you can choose what your reaction to that abuse will be…