I am a victim of emotional abuse ... it felt like my husband had died
He began to question my every utterance and put me down in front of friends and his family
I became isolated from family and friends and dreaded visitors to my home in case they noticed something
Spousal abuse does not always involve violence. Coercion, emotional abuse and controlling behaviour can be just as devastating for victims, but is more difficult for them to recognise. Raising awareness among victims is crucial as often the abuser will convince them that they are the ones with the problem.
I know, I am a victim of emotional abuse.
I did not realise what was happening at first, but then with research and information the scales fell from my eyes. My husband’s abuse was textbook: we were together (happily, I thought) for 14 years, and when we had our first baby things gradually changed. Things always change when a woman “commits” in some way to the abuser, such as having a child or getting married. He began to criticise and question my every utterance, and would blatantly put me down in front of others, particularly his family, and then either deny it or tell me I was overreacting.
He had never been one for much conversation, but now he gradually stopped all communication with me, and told me absolutely nothing about his life or work. He did very little around the house, and if I asked him to do anything he would make such a fuss that I just gave up and started taking on all the household chores myself. And he was generally grumpy with me, but would be his usual charming self in front of others.
I put it down to his work stresses, to illnesses in his family at the time – basically, I found excuses for his behaviour. I even thought he might be depressed or having an affair, which I had no evidence for, and was not the case, but I was trying to find a reason for his behaviour.
The more I let him away with, the worse he seemed to become.
He never apologised and accused me of being “mad”
I argued back and demanded that he treat me with more respect, but the arguments would follow the same (increasingly bizarre) pattern: he would take no responsibility for anything and shift the blame back on to me; he would deny the things I accused him of with such absolute conviction it actually scared me.
He never apologised and accused me of being “mad”. I would end up apologising to him just to stop the quarrel.
Soon, I stopped pointing out his bad behaviour just to avoid the arguments.
I just felt that he hated me and I began to get very depressed. It was not long after the birth of our second child and it was just assumed by my GP that I had post-natal depression. I convinced my husband to come to counselling and to my disbelief he managed to convince the counsellor that he was stressed while he was stoically managing the illnesses in his family. The counsellor suggested some strategies such as having date nights and that I get help for my depression.
Not long after this I had a mental breakdown – I had never had such a thing before.
I felt I was completely losing my mind and went to my GP in a terrified state. The emergency psychiatrist I was referred to asked if I wanted to be admitted to hospital. I was later diagnosed with agitated depression. I opted to stay at home and had frequent visits from the community mental health nurse and a high dose of drugs. I was later given counselling. Often during these sessions, I was asked how my marriage was, but I told them that everything was fine.
In my mind everything was, it turned out you see that what he had finally convinced me of was undeniably true – I was officially now the one with the psychiatric problem.
That was in 2012.
As my health improved, his behaviour stayed the same – the criticisms, the lack of support, the lack of conversation. I stayed strong for my two children and shielded them from everything. I told no one what was going on, not even about the depression. My sad life and my husband’s behaviour were all I could think about.
I became isolated from family and friends and dreaded visitors to my home in case they noticed something. I started drinking, usually a bottle of wine after the children had gone to bed, that was my “company” for the evenings. I started to put on weight. All of this, as you can imagine, drew condescending comments from him, about me turning into a fat alcoholic. I couldn’t argue with what was a fact – at least I wasn’t in denial.
He would take himself to bed watching Netflix on his iPad. I couldn’t help looking for some succour on the internet myself, so I started Googling, “why is my husband nasty to me”; “husband hates me”, “husband won’t have conversations”.
I didn’t get any answers.
Around this time I spotted, on the back of a toilet door, a sticker from DVAS (the Domestic Violence Advocacy Service) proclaiming ‘HE LIKES TO CONTROL ME’, and in smaller print the words “emotional abuse” stood out.
That was finally my Eureka moment.
I came across definitions used in psychology such as “gas lighting”, “compartmentalisation”, “stonewalling” – all of the things he did to me finally had names
This is what was happening to me and there was a name for it. Searching the internet for the term “emotional abuse” now generated newspaper articles, accounts from people who had been emotionally abused by partners in nearly exactly the same way as me. I came across definitions used in psychology such as “gas lighting”, “compartmentalisation”, “stonewalling” – all of the things he did to me finally had names.
I found and downloaded (e-books, of course) such as Lundy Bancroft’s Why Does He Do That: Inside the Minds of Controlling and Abusive Men and Don Hennessy’s The Mind of the Intimate Male Abuser: How He Gets Into Her Head.
The outcome of this research showed me that abusers are incapable of change.
Getting this information empowered me. But even so, when I finally rang DVAS and explained my situation I still had to ask: “Is this abuse?”
The lady on the phone confirmed this. When I asked her what caused my nice husband to change into this nasty person she told me he was probably always like this, he just hid it from me well until he felt he didn’t have to any more.
It felt like my husband had died.
When I put the phone down that day I cried for a long time, because I knew she was right. I knew he was never going to change and that I would never forgive him for what he had done.
It took me about six months of sitting on this information before I confronted him.
Having read so much on the dynamics of abusive relationships, I knew he would deny everything anyway, even when presented with all the evidence. But I also knew that such times are dangerous. I told DVAS in advance what I was doing and had my children minded that day. When I confronted him he did not admit to anything (he was probably shocked himself that there was a definition for his behaviour). But he promised to “be better, if that’s what I wanted” and was extremely civil to me for about a week before returning to his usual ways, as I had expected. But he knows now that I know what he is doing, that his behaviour is recognisably abusive, unacceptable and if he oversteps the mark that he is out of the family home.
He also knows he can never again persuade me there is something wrong with me. I have told him I am only staying with him for the sake of the children.
And that brings me to where I am now. I really want to leave, but cannot do so yet. All the information I have points to leaving as the only way out of an abusive relationship.
But what happens next? When women leave such relationships, statistically bad things happen, potentially violent things happen.
I do not want to risk that. And right now the children are still young enough for him to use them as weapons to control me if we separate. I have to put my children first and the last thing they want at the moment is for the thin veneer of normality and civility in our home to be broken. He doesn’t want to go, that’s his choice. Let them see him every day, grumpy and brittle and refusing to unload the dishwasher rather than being the hero who visits with all the treats at weekends.
I am their mother, why can’t my judgment be trusted to do what’s best for them?
Eventually, I confided in two people: a close friend and my sibling.
Both were shocked at the revelation as my husband is such a nice man to others. Both resoundingly told me they could not stand by and watch as I stayed in an abusive relationship. This depressingly echoes the narrative abuse victims endure in the media: “He was such a nice guy” and “why didn’t she leave?”. And then “what about the effect on the children?”. I am their mother, why can’t my judgment be trusted to do what’s best for them? I cannot blame them, if I was on the outside looking in (and without this awful experience or knowledge), I would emphatically offer the same advice. This is also the advice given by support groups and information services on domestic abuse: just leave. Because of this, I feel I do not deserve support (from friends or support groups), because I have not left the relationship. I just have to keep quiet.
But what are my options?
You are damned if you stay and damned if you leave. But at least I know I have choices and my choice is to stay and endure this, for a set number of years and understanding totally that the problem is his, not mine.
Now that I understand his tactics I am far stronger in dealing with the abuse. I choose to ignore it, not get upset about it and plan my escape in the future. I think it is so important for other victims to have awareness on this issue. I didn’t even know I was a victim for so long.
A classic tactic of emotional abuse is for the abuser to make victims doubt themselves.
For years, he convinced me that I was being unreasonable, that he had done nothing wrong and that I was imagining things, and it brought my mental health to the brink of ruin.
Faced with such resolute denials from someone I thought loved me, I stopped listening to myself for so long.
– The writer of this article wishes to remain anonymous. Her identity is known to the editor.