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Violent VoicesWarning! This is not typical Spiritual Sisters fare. If you are healing from abuse, it can be painful reading, perhaps best avoided. If you cannot understand why anyone would stay around when being treated badly, then it is very important that you read this. It is very important that you understand and that you avoid the trap. Jane

Violent Voices: 12 Steps to Freedom from Emotional and Verbal Abuse
Chapter One

Is Your Relationship Hazardous To Your Mental Health? "Self-love depressed becomes self-loathing." Sally Kempton, Cutting Loose

Before we can begin our healing journey, we need to become familiar with the problem that plagues us. Verbal violence, mental cruelty, emotional abuse are difficult terms to define. Every woman, no matter what her upbringing was or who her partner is, sometimes feels put upon. Rarely do real-live relationships match romantic fantasies. Given the added stress of living in a culture where male and female roles are in a state of flux, we may at times feel confused and angry with our partners for not living up to our expectations.

Once in a while all women will question whether the men in their lives really love them, wish they were more sensitive and crave more attention from them. Men on occasion have the same feeling about their wives and girlfriends. Marital conflicts aren�t always resolved with win/win solutions. Sometimes he wins and sometimes she does. Such struggles and temporary imbalances are a normal part of caring long-term relationships.

The life of a woman involved in a verbally and psychologically abusive relationship is a different story. It is filled with arguments she invariably loses, losing her sense of self in the process. The jarring assaults on her self-esteem, whether weekly or daily, leave her psyche dented and scarred. Abuse, no matter whether the weapons are words, mind games or fists, is akin to brainwashing.

Fearful of what dehumanizing threat or insult lurks around the next corner, those of us subjected to such mental torments may start out agreeing with our abusive partner's definitions of reality and of ourselves only to keep peace and protect ourselves. Before long, however, our inner core weakens, and we accept his perceptions and values as the only correct ones, his needs and wishes as the only valid ones. When he is not present, we find ourselves using his words to castigate ourselves. Even though we may get together the courage to leave an emotionally abusive relationship, some of become enmeshed in yet another one almost immediately. We've become our own worst enemies.

In their book, Battering Men, authors Daniel Jay Sonkin, Del Martin and Lenore Walker define psychological violence as "ways of controlling, dominating and intimidating another person." Such bullying methods, over time, generate fear and compliance from their targets. On one level they work; the abuser gets his point across and gets his way. But on a deeper level he fails because he senses his victim is bound to him by fear. Although she may love him, her survival instinct, not love, motivates her compliance. His insecurity and anger mount, and he again discharges it, often blowing up in disproportion to the event that triggered the outburst.

The most minor annoyances become a big deal to the verbally abuse rage-aholic. The feelings of control and power he experiences from using intimidating behavior grow less and less satisfying. When he needs another outrage fix, he'll focus on anything handy, even if it's yelling at you for doing something he explicitly ordered you to do the day before. No matter how hard you try, pleasing him is an impossible task.

You are a scapegoat, accepting the burden of his anger demons, feeling the hurt he refuses to face. In time the abusive exchanges take on an almost ritualistic character. Even though you may never know when to expect the next outburst, his insults and put-downs are a liturgy of rage and pain that you know by heart. Through control and manipulation he tries to sacrifice your self-esteem in order to save his own. Like the scapegoating rituals of ancient times, his must be repeated over and over again because it never quite works.

Anatomy Of An Emotional Abuser

It's important to understand that not all men who are verbal and psychological abusers handle their anger inappropriately in every situation. The man who would never threaten to bash his boss's brains in with a heavy glass ashtray feels perfectly fine verbalizing that threat to his wife if she comes home five minutes late. His co-workers may regard him as the soul of gentleness, but at home he acts like a different person.

Even though he operates under the assumption that he can�t help himself and that you force him into his fits of temper, he (not you) has volition over how he communicates his anger. Frequently he discharges his rage only in the relative safety of his home and only when he views his target as smaller and weaker than himself. Beneath the bully exterior lurks an emotional coward who is just as likely to have a college education, a good job and church membership as not.

Neither is his reign of terror in full operation every minute of every day. There are times when he's a delight to be around, times when he's thoughtful and loving. There are good days and even weeks in our relationships with emotional abusers as well as bad ones, so we hold onto the hope that the harmony will last. Unfortunately, it doesn't. We walk on eggs, trying desperately not to upset the delicate balance until inadvertently we spend an our talking on the phone with a friend instead of watching him watch TV or we try a new recipe for dinner and it doesn�t work out.

"You don�t love me," he storms. "You�re out to get me!" And he's off on another tirade, lecturing us that his foul mood is all our fault.

The unpredictability of his actions, combined with his periods of good behavior, conspire to form an especially intense bond between him and his victim. We cling to the false hope during the good times that he's really changing. We excuse and explain away his outbursts and manipulations. During the bad times, we allow ourselves to be convinced that without him we are nothing.

When animals are given shocks only sporadically as they reach for food pellets, they begin to show severe stress reactions since they can never predict what will happen next. They begin compulsively reaching for food and it is very difficult to teach them to stop. Intermittent reinforcement is a much more powerful teacher than no reinforcement at all.

It's that way with human beings, too. If when we seek affection, we are sometimes hugged and sometimes called demanding bitches, we reach out to our mates all the more frantically. When the times he�s nicest to us occur right after the abuse in an attempt to make up, we may come to regard mistreatment as the price we must pay for affection and positive attention.

Varieties Of Emotional Abuse

Emotional abuse comes in many varieties. Some men rely primarily on words in order to intimidate their partners. Others invade their spouse's privacy or play on her fears. One man's methods of subjugation aren�t necessarily the same another might use. According to Sonkin, Martin and Walker, there are several common subcategories of psychologically abusive behavior.

  • Threats Of Violence

    The most clearly recognizable abusive manipulation is an explicit threat of violence.

    "I feel like wringing your neck, just to shut you up," Arnold would yell at his wife, Cynthia, whenever she disagreed with him or requested that he do housework. "If you don't stop that, I'll break your arm," and, "How'd you like a fat lip?" are other examples of this control strategy. Although Arnold never hit Cynthia, she knew that if he did carry out his threats, he could do a great deal of physical damage to her. His fist pounding and loud voice led her to believe that his anger was out of control. As long as there was a chance he might make good on his threats, she didn't want to take the risk of becoming his punching bag.

    Explicit threats are far more potent to women who have been beaten by their partners. Even if the physical abuse happened once long ago, and it hasn�t recurred, we still carry the mental and emotional scars inside of us. We know for a fact the man in question is capable of breaking our bones, and blacking our eyes, and we want to avoid a repeat performance at all costs.

  • Implied Threats

    The second category of psychological abuse involves implicit threats of violence.

    Jerry had beaten Linda severely twice during the early years of their marriage. He had raped her once. At the time both were drinking. When the addictive drinking stopped, so did the violence but not the threat that it could happen again. Whenever the couple got into an argument, Jerry leapt up and paced back and forth like a furious tiger, his hands curled into fists, which he brandished as he made his points. Although he never said outright that he was going to hit her if she didn�t back down and let him win the argument, he didn't have to.

    "If you do that one more time, I'm not responsible for what I do," he'd hint broadly, his neck muscles knotted and his face red. Invariably Linda would apologize, and tranquility was restored in their relationship until the next time conflict arose.

    When we're faced with implied threats, we can never be quite sure where real intentions leave off and our imagination begins. To protect ourselves, we attempt to de-escalate the angry situation. Later when we confront him with his behavior, we're told that our perceptions were all wrong. "I never said I was going to hit you," he says with a look of hurt on his face. "How could you ever believe I'd do such a thing?" In truth our belief comes from picking up very real signals of impending danger. Clenched fists are the same as a dog's growl and barred teeth. They provoke an immediate surge of adrenaline and a visceral response of fear. When we cannot flee, we learn to submit.

  • Violence Against Property

    Destruction of property also sends a clear message to a woman that if she isn't careful, she may be the next to be punched out after the wall. Violence such as throwing dishes, chairs and stereo equipment, ripping or slashing clothing and kicking down doors serves to intimidate onlookers into submission.

    "I got carried away," was Tom's response the morning after he knocked over a bookcase and ripped up three hundred dollars worth of his live-in lover's college textbooks. Then he shrugged and gave her his little boy grin. She was so relieved, she made him a special breakfast and dropped the subject.

    When a small child has a temper tantrum, we can afford to ignore him or carry him to his room where he can wind down. When a grown man has a similar tantrum, we're physically outclasses and we, as well as he, know it. Under such circumstances, we often feel terrified for our own safety and give in to our mate's demands, even though we know deep inside we're giving up our integrity and our dignity. The destruction of belongings that are important to us is his powerful and symbolic way to teach us that he is boss and if we protest, we'll be punished.

  • Controlling

    Extreme controlling behavior is another technique some men use to gain a dominant position over the women they live with.

    It was Nathan who dictated when his wife and children would eat, what they would eat, as well as the temperature of the house, what reading material would come into the home and what everyone would wear. If an outing was planned, he would stall, making other members of his family wait for him for hours. If they were the cause of a five-minute delay, he would pout and cancel the excursion. No matter whether the decision at hand was what kind or car or what kind of toothpaste to use, Nathan insisted on having the final say.

    "He acts like a little boy," Pam, his wife, would tell herself, but over time his behavior ceased to be amusing. He insisted that she watch TV with him during the evening and that the lights be out. This prevented her from grading the papers she often needed to take home from her teaching job. If she worked in the other room where she could see, he stopped speaking to her for hours. If she asked him to turn on a light, he refused. In all areas of their relationship things had to be done Nathan's way or not at all.

    Other emotionally abusive men control by dictating whom their wives will and will not see and how they will spend the money the wives, themselves, earn. Some control in bed by withholding foreplay or routinely stopping it to deny their lovers pleasure. Others withhold sex or demand that it take place whenever they want.

    A few insist on driving their wives to work or school and picking them up under the guise of helpfulness when, in reality, they're making sure these women don't go out of the house unsupervised.

    Whether blatantly or covertly, the controller demands to be dictator, ruling the woman he claims to love. Once she becomes accustomed to having no power over even the smallest details of her life, she may actually become helpless and incompetent, resentful of his control over her, yet terrified that she cannot survive without him. She comes to view herself as a child and he, the authoritarian parent, who tells her what to do and punishes her if she disobeys.

  • Isolation

    This is one of the most potent forms of control a man can use against his mate. At dismal best he discourages friendships with other people by sulking and withdrawing; at worst he forbids them, threatening to leave her or to physically abuse her if she doesn�t meet his need to be the center of her life at all times. In time she may come to believe she is not worthy of friendship. She becomes a psychological prisoner in solitary confinement, her will broken.

    Sarah had heard so many times from her husband, James, that she was neurotic, she was terrified to have social conversations with the people she worked with out of fear they�d see her "craziness" and reject her. At the start of their relationship they had some social contact with friends, but that ended when James began criticizing her after evenings out.

    "You embarrass me," he�d lecture. "Every time you open your mouth, something dumb comes out. You�re socially inept and you make my friends uncomfortable. I�m ashamed to be seen with you!" By the time he told her to quit her job, she readily agreed, certain she would eventually lose it when her employers discovered the personality defects James continually pointed out "for her own good." Afterward she spent her days alone and soon sank into depression.

    When a woman allows her mate to isolate her through threats or intimidation, she cuts off valuable support systems. No one can meet her needs except for him and that gives him an immense amount of power over her emotional state. When he withdraws or withholds love, there is no one else to love her, and she feels crushed. Because she doesn�t have contact with other people, she loses perspective about how other people relate to her and her worth as a human being. It becomes second nature to automatically accept his views on marriage as the only ones available, his opinion of her as infallible. As her loneliness increases, so does her dependency on him and her fears that she is incapable and undeserving of friendship.

  • Extreme Jealousy

    Accusations of unfaithfulness are yet another psychologically crushing method of abuse. While most spouses feel jealous at times, the emotional abuser�s low opinion of his competence as a mate keeps him constantly on guard against his woman abandoning him. He may insist that she account for each minute she's away from him, interrogate her about phone calls and letters and make irrational charges.

    Katherine�s husband, Peter, accused her of having an affair whenever she disagreed with him. She found herself constantly defending her loyalty to him to no avail. He opened her mail and read it carefully looking for clues. When she went on a diet, he was convinced she had a lover. If he called her from work and she was at the grocery store, she had to produce a receipt as evidence of her whereabouts when he returned home at night. Evenings when she wasn�t in the mood for sex, he raged that she was spending her afternoons in bed with another man. Many times he called her a slut and a whore and, although she struggled to feel good about her own sexuality, she began to believe that she was somehow dirty and bad. Eventually her entire life focused around reassuring him and bolstering his fragile ego.

    Ironically, the intense jealousy men like Peter display has the opposite effect from the one they intend. When we're accused of things we haven�t done and thoughts we haven�t thought, we grow resentful. Although we may dedicate ourselves to reassuring our spouse that he�s the only man we want, need and love, inside we pull away from him. Often under these circumstances, sex becomes a duty for us and we become distant in the bedroom, present in body but not in spirit. When an extremely jealous husband senses this, his discomfort adds more fuel to the rage.

  • Mental Cruelty

    One of the most common emotionally manipulative techniques abusive men use against their wives and lovers is mental degradation, name-calling and put downs. "You never do anything right," "You're a frigid, asexual bitch," and "It's all your fault," chip away at our self-esteem if we hear them often enough, especially from someone who knows us well and who claims to love us.

    These verbal mind games are usually aimed at the spots where we're least secure. If we aren't comfortable with the way we look, he's right there to criticize our thighs. Often he does this in a back-handed manner. "Some men might think you have fat legs," he tells you, "but your cellulite doesn't bother me." When you express hurt, he becomes infuriated. You've misinterpreted him. You're too sensitive. You're putting words in his mouth. How dare you even think he'd be so manipulative and mean?

    Nancy, who'd grown up with a cold and emotionally inaccessible father, feared abandonment. Kyle, her husband, repeatedly reported how several women at work were after him and how tempting it was for him to have an affair whenever they had a disagreement or a sexual slump. When she asked if he was making a threat, he demurred. He was just stating the facts, important facts she should know about. He used this tactic repeatedly to set off cycles of selfish sex, which were gratifying to him, but left Nancy tense and frustrated. She managed to play the game by convincing herself that she didn't deserve to feel good, but she paid a price for her compliance, suffering from intense muscle spasms so painful, she was in tears much of the time.

    The put-down artist may criticize his partner for being too dumb or too smart, too passive or too assertive, sometimes leveling both charges in the same argument. He makes fun of her beliefs, her tastes and her mannerisms. Nothing is spared his disapproval, even her �sins� from the distant past or things she can�t control like her height or her monthly period.

    The words he uses during his rages are highly charged and often replete with psychological meaning. His partner is paranoid; she's acting schizophrenic; she's crazy. He uses hyperbole. "She always says the wrong thing. She never does anything right." He compares her to other women he�s known and she comes up short.

    Heard day after day, week after week, these insults etch their way into our thinking until they become our reality. We put ourselves down with his phrases even when he�s not around. His domination is so complete that we emotionally batter ourselves and save him the effort except for occasional reinforcing outbursts. We deny our worth as human beings.

    The opposite of denial is affirmation. When those we love do not affirm our value as human beings, we need to be able to affirm ourselves. Until we can do this, we are as much victims of our own low self-image as we are of his anger.

    I am a competent and lovable human being. When others reject me, I still value and love myself.

    Purchase Violent Voices � Kay Marie Porterfield is a creativity coach, author and workshop leader. Her website, Live Your Creative Vision, is filled with information, links and resources that focus on the creative process and using creativity as a tool for healing and growth. She also offers a free newsletter, Creative Writes.