We hear reports of violence and physical abuse of women and girls throughout the year. Just last week, the Gender Violence Recovery Centre released data indicating that violence against women is typically perpetrated by a man that the woman or girl trusts. Friends, fathers, boyfriends and acquaintances are the most likely perpetrators of sexual and/or domestic violence.
More recently what has dominated the news media are reports of men who have been physically abused by their wives; men who have had their faces slashed or had boiling water poured on them. There is however another more insidious type of abuse, that some psychologists think is the most common. This one is difficult to identify and its scars are deep and complex. It is emotional abuse.
Loosely defined, emotional abuse is anything that you say or do that causes your partner pain deliberately. If you have been in a relationship, then you know that we all do this at one point or another. An abusive relationship is however based on consistent manipulation. The effects of this form of abuse are decreased self-esteem, a lack of confidence and general unhappiness. While extreme physical violence demands immediate attention and care, emotional abuse often leaves the victim blaming himself or herself, thinking that they caused it or that if they were better their partner would not berate them.
While women tend to think they are off the hook when it comes to the perpetration of abuse, this is not necessarily the case when it comes to emotional abuse. Are you emotionally abusive? Is your mouth destroying your man, your marriage and consequently your family? In the August 2008 issue of Psychology Today, Dr Steven Stovny says, "In more than 20 years of working with abusive relationships, I have noticed a consistent gender distinction in the kind of abuse perpetrated (by men and women).
An emotionally abusive man controls his partner by manipulating her fear of harm, isolation, and deprivation; he threatens or implies that he might hurt her, leave her, or keep her apart from the things she loves. "An emotionally abusive woman controls her partner by manipulating his dread of failure as a provider, protector, lover, or parent: 'I could have married a man who made more money, I had more orgasms with my last boyfriend, you're not a real man, and you don't know the first thing about raising kids.'"
In short, abusive men use fear while the abusive women use shame to manipulate and control. Some signs of emotional abuse are clear and difficult to deny such as name calling, public humiliation, yelling, and rage. Others are more subtle and in some cases, only the person on the receiving end can tell you what certain, seemingly harmless, behaviour means. So ladies what does our specific brand of emotional abuse look like? Pascal Mwita has a Masters in clinical psychology and is the founder of the Amuka Pilgrimage, which seeks to better relationships with ourselves and those around us. He gives the following signs:
Withholding sex and affection - This age-old punishment for perceived slights tells your man that you want nothing to do with him. It implies that he is not good enough. It puts him in a position where he has to 'play nice' to win your affection or get back into your good books. You are always the one making decisions - This subtle form of dominance lets your man know, over time, that you do not trust his decision making. From picking movies to what you guys will have for dinner to major decisions, he will eventually learn that his opinion is worthless.
Belittling him before the kids - If mum is unhappy with dad, she holds the kids closer to herself and perhaps makes derisive comments about daddy to them. This is awful; it gives the children mixed messages about their father and leaves them doubting their affection and respect for him. Your man then lives in a bizarre household where his children know that daddy's authority or opinions do not mean anything.
Taking money from your man - Your man wants to provide so this may begin as a flattering behaviour but as your relationship progresses, this can be very stressful if he is supposed to provide for all your needs or if monetary gifts are the only form of affection you respond to positively. If he says that he does not have the money, you make him feel small for this so called inadequacy. Statements like "I don't pay rent" demands that you should be treated a certain way.
What do you do with your money? This question should only be uttered to people who report to you in a financial capacity, for example a househelp that you sent to the kiosk, or a child who lost money. If your man fits this description, you are on your way to divorce court. Being overly impressed with wealth "Do you know that so and so now drives a Range Rover? Imagine their kids are in private school." Yes your partner should know what your dreams and aspirations are but you can express yourself without insinuating that your man is an under-achiever. You could ask, "Baby, where would you like to live?" Take the conversation from there.
Coalition of the willing - You fight with your guy then you go and inform your friends and they endorse and affirm what is going on with you and they validate you by flagellating your man in absentia. This public shaming means that your man cannot trust you to keep his secrets and eventually he will check out of the relationship. He may continue to live with you, raise the kids and be a husband but he will have checked out emotionally.
Shifting goal posts - One day it is okay for your man to go out with his boys and the next day they are all "good for nothing bastards who cheat on their wives and waste their money". The poor guy is in a relationship riddled with ever moving landmines, just when he thinks he is safe... BOOM!! She goes off.
Extreme criticism - There is the gentle critique delivered by someone who is your partner and on your side; suggestions like "you would be so great at that job" or "you are so patient with the kids, they enjoy doing homework with you". Then there are the rants of bullies who say "you are a good for nothing", or "thanks to you and your laziness I will not have the life of my dreams". The most vicious is speech that is spangled with veiled insults: Little jabs at your man's worth, his achievements or decision-making process. Listening to this concealed litany every day is poisonous to anyone's soul.
Rejection - This is really hard to spot but imagine that you are out with your man and you refuse to acknowledge him; You don't meet his eyes, you ignore his opinions or you discredit them. He won't be able to pin-point what is wrong but the implied disapproval and dissociation will set him on edge.
Isolation from friends and family - An emotionally abusive person will say horrible things about your family and friends to you and then be overly polite but distant with them so that they do not visit and if you speak to them, they find it hard to believe you. Alternatively, she may embarrass you in front of them so they stop inviting both of you to functions, or you simply avoid functions so that you don't get insulted in public.
The man will not want to admit that he is emotionally abused; instead he will call you crazy, dramatic, volatile or emotional. You may like to think that the expression of your emotions in this loud way makes you colourful, interesting, unpredictable and passionate. Really this behaviour masks deep-seated and varied issues such as abandonment, or entitlement, insecurity, narcissism or just plain insanity.
Perhaps your mother kept putting your father down and you think that this is the only way to prevent a man from growing a big head. You will not know unless you embark on some soul searching. This article may leave you feeling that you have done a great job of identifying your problem but do not stop there. If you knew how to change your behaviour, you would have done so by now. Instead you have occasionally caught yourself in the middle of an outburst, looked across at the man you loved and wondered why he is still with you. Get the help you need by emailing Pascal Mwita today at
Abuse takes a toll on the victim, but also on the perpetrator. Just as it erodes the self-esteem of the victim, so does it affect that of the perpetrator, however loud and untouchable you may seem. Creating the life and the relationship that you want begins with a declaration of what you want, followed by a journey filled with candor, courage and vulnerability. Send that email or call that counsellor and start your journey.
Are you walking on eggshells?
Take the following quiz to see if you are in an emotionally abusive relationship. Just answer true or false and tally your results at the end, one point for every false,zero for true.
1. I am anxious, nervous or worried about my partner's attitudes or moods.
2. I feel guilty about my partner's resentment.
3. I am anxious, nervous or worried about my partner's anger
4. I am anxious, nervous or worried about my partner's sarcasms, criticisms, frowns, glares, or gestures like finger pointing, making a fist etc.
5. I am anxious, nervous or worried about my partner's cold shoulders or stonewalling.
6. I edit my thoughts before I speak and second guess my behaviour before I do anything in fear that it might 'set him/her off' or cause 'the silent treatment'.
7. My partner is fine one minute and into a tirade the next, all seemingly over nothing, or over the same thing over and over.
8. I feel tense when I hear the door open or when my partner comes into the room.
9. When I walk by my partner, my shoulders tense until we get past each other.
10. I think that if I just tried harder things might be alright.
11. I feel that nothing I do is good enough.
12. Our relationship is a cold-stand off - disagreements are minimal but there is a chilly wall between us?
13. My defensiveness and reactions to my partner are on auto-pilot, like they just happen on their own.
14. I feel stomach distress or a pit in my stomach or headaches or muscle aches that have nothing to do with physical exertion.
Between 12 and 14: Congratulations, you are NOT walking on eggshells. The problems in your relationship do not seem to produce the chronic tension and self-doubt that can lead to poor emotional and physical health.
Between 9 and 11: You are beginning to second guess yourself and worry about your future.
Below 9: In your efforts to tiptoe around someone else's moods, in the hope of avoiding blow-ups, put-downs, criticism, disgusted looks, sighs of disapproval, or cold shoulders, you unconsciously edit what you say. To some extent, you second-guess your judgment, ideas, and preferences about how to live.
You might even begin to question what you think is right and wrong. You probably have a vague feeling, at least now and then, that you are losing yourself. Your perceptions of reality and your sense of self are changing for the worse. You may experience physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle aches, or stomach aches.