‘I am trapped here’

Women everywhere show the marks of abuse, though not all their scars are visible.

Violence takes many forms and can be conducted in several ways. But when an individual suffers at the hands of a partner who is supposed to embody love and devotion, the experience is detrimental to their emotional and overall health.

Emotional violence is rarely a centerpiece for discussion, despite the fact that it often comes hand in hand with other types of abuse. And while physical wounds heal, many carry emotional scarring long after the abuse ends.

“The entanglement [of emotional abuse] is so intense and so complex,” says Wilfrid Laurier University’s women’s studies professor Helen Ramirez. “There’s something so insipient about emotional abuse that you can carry for an entire life. It’s so disheartening.”

Robyn Thomas*, a university student who has been emotionally and sexually abused by two former boyfriends can attest to Ramirez’s implication of this type of abuse and the toll it took on her psyche.

“You want to believe that what you saw
the first time wasn’t wrong,”
explained Thomas. “… That your
judgment is better than that and that
you’re not an idiot for having loved
[your abuser] at any point.”

Thomas is far from alone. Statistics Canada reports that 81 per cent of university and college males admitted that they had psychologically abused a female partner.

The United States Department of Justice has found that women ages 16-24 are most likely to suffer from intimate partner violence. This makes the issue a challenging one for university students, who fall directly into this age category.

“Emotional violence, controlling behaviour… there are tons of things that I know people have experienced and they wouldn’t necessarily call it abuse … that’s a part of their relationships,” explained Kate Klein, a member of the co-operative leadership at the WLU Women’s Centre.

Because emotional abuse is so abstract and its employment is different in each unhealthy relationship, the discussion of emotional abuse with an objective eye is imperative if the trauma so many individuals endure is to be identified and halted.

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“Like a box”

Its complexity often makes emotional abuse hard to recognize, even for the victim. Every abuser uses different strategies, and for the most part the reactions of the abused differ.

“It’s multi-faceted,” explained Thomas. “You can identify certain experiences and reactions as being the same but the fact is that it’s never exactly the same.”

As Klein points out, emotional violence can include controlling behaviour and the imposition of strict gender roles, two phenomena that are sometimes overlooked as characteristic of abuse.

For these women, identity issues often become a catalyst for their impending manipulation by male partners.

Elizabeth Hill*, who helped a friend through an emotionally abusive relationship, explains that what a university student endures while trying to find their identity at school allows the trappings of emotional abuse to flourish.

Hill explained that as a result, she believes that university students often get caught up in their relationships to the point where their partner becomes a fixation.

“They lose all those other connections that help them grow as individuals,” said Hill. “They focus on growing as a couple and they lose all these other things.”

Carolyn Bennett* explained that her former boyfriend manipulated her need to please and constantly used the cycle of violence to reinforce that any wrongdoing was the result of her actions.

“He preyed upon the fact that I do my best to be a good person,” she said.

“It didn’t matter if he treated me like shit because at least someone thought I was good enough,” explained Thomas. “You almost identify your worth by the fact that you are with someone.”

And although she ended one emotionally abusive relationship, Thomas’s next partner ended up being both emotionally controlling and sexually abusive.

“I didn’t think I was worth anything more so it didn’t occur to me that I went into the next major relationship basically with the same kind of man who completely emotionally blackmailed me every step,” she explained.

Thomas believes that being molested as a child and having an emotionally abusive mother made her gain weight as a mechanism to distance herself from others and that in the end, her weight gain led her to believe that her abusive boyfriends were the best she could attract.

Ramirez explains that what Thomas and Bennett both endured was a matter of power and control, as well as the struggle that goes along with dominance and assertion in a relationship.

“It is about power and control over women emotionally, making sure that they cannot assert themselves, that they cannot exist without this person controlling all aspects of their being,” said

Klein explained that in her experience working with women who have been emotionally abused, abuse is generally the product of an individual who feels a sense of entitlement over their partner.

She said that the power and control aspect of psychological intimate partner violence magnifies its intensity.

“Nobody should ever be in a situation
where they have to limit who they are
to fit into a box of a relationship,”
explained Klein. “If your relationship
is starting to feel like a box, that
is not a good relationship.”

The entrapment of a restrictive relationship that Klein explained is intrinsic in emotional abuse is not visible to outsiders, which makes it harder for those around a victim to identify when friends and family are in an unhealthy relationship.

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“I’d become a prisoner”

Many women don’t realize that what they sustain during a destructive relationship is abuse, but the warning signs tend to become clearer over time. Bennett remembers a moment where her inner voice told her she had to find a way to leave her unhealthy relationship.

“Over and over in my head I remember thinking … ‘You have the power in this. Just get up and walk out the door,’ and I couldn’t,’” explained Bennett. “It was really scary to realize I am trapped here and I can’t get out.”

Often the abused becomes ensnared by the whims of their partner whereby they learn to be submissive; as the cycle of violence continues, they become accustomed to periods of trauma that are replaced by a honeymoon stage.

“You learn that you shut your mouth and you let him do it because otherwise it will be hell for the next day or two days,” explained Thomas of her sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of a former boyfriend. “I always felt like I’d become a prisoner in my own body.”

The toll of psychological abuse, which so often escalates towards other forms of violence, sexual or physical, as it did in Thomas’s relationship, is tremendous.

“You just get weighed down,” explained
Thomas. “Every time there’s a dig, a
barb, every time there’s a joke, it’s
all about the intention of keeping you
down so that they can keep looking
like the bigger, the more powerful,
the better.”

After attending professional counselling, Bennett realized that she was unable to define what she wanted in a partner as a result of her manipulation by a former boyfriend.

“I don’t even know what a healthy relationship is anymore,” she said. “[He] took that time to know all my weaknesses and to know exactly what [he] could say to manipulate the reaction [he] wanted.”

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“Present for a lifetime”

Often the point of realization for an individual in an abusive relationship is aided by a strong support system. Those who have been emotionally abused often suffer in silence because of the lack of rhetoric that surrounds their plight. Friends and family must take the important role of supporting loved ones.

“You sit there and listen and you sit there for a lifetime,” said Ramirez of those who help the emotionally abused. “When someone has experienced that level of trauma and disintegration of one’s being then you have to be present for a lifetime.”

Bennett had a friend supporting her through her struggle to end her abusive relationship, to whom she says she owes her mental health. She speaks about her final recognition of the abuse she suffered as coming to fruition on her own terms.

“I realized that she’d been holding me up for two years and it was time for me to walk on my own two feet,” said Bennett.

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“Everything is different”

The final decision to leave an emotionally destructive relationship must be made by the abused. However, this individual must be surrounded by those who support their decision to cut themselves loose from their abuser.

“You need those support systems if you’re in an abusive relationship because otherwise you’ll never leave and if you do leave, you’ll be so broken you’ll go back,” explained Hill.

Bennett agreed that often one needs to come to the realization oneself before they decide to end a destructive relationship.

“It needed to be on my own terms,” said Bennett. “It makes me sick to think of what I would feel like had I stayed.”

Ramirez explained that being emotionally abused “frames who you are” and takes a lifetime to overcome.

Although Hill’s friend overcame her destructive relationship and continued a new and healthier partnership, Hill believes that her friend will never be the same.

“You saw her lose herself, you saw that he took some of her light and she’ll never get a part of that back,” Hill said.

Most importantly, there must be a stronger emphasis on healthy, reciprocal relationships.

“It’s hard to understand the fallout,” said Thomas. “What’s the next logical step and how is your next relationship affected?”

Thomas and Bennett both agreed that they can recognize and deter behaviour that they find abusive. They are also able to create boundaries to protect themselves against abuse. Both have developed boundaries and discovered what they want in their future relationships as a result of professional counselling.

“I’ll be a little smarter,” said Thomas about picking a partner. Through seeking counselling she now cares about herself enough to know what she deserves.

For Bennett, who is in a new relationship, the positivity of a healthy partnership keeps her optimistic about putting her past relationship behind her.

“Everything is different,” Bennett said of her new relationship. “There’s just a level of a respect there in every aspect that was never there [before].”

But their leftover emotions are hard to bear, and both Bennett and Thomas say they have unanswered questions and anger towards their former partners.

“I feel frustrated with him and angry with him. But I feel more frustrated with myself for not having listened to all those people who loved me and said something was wrong,” said Bennett.

“[He] broke my heart. [He] was the one that made the rules,” concluded Thomas, “[He] treated me like I was meat. Like I was there solely for [his] pleasure and that’s not right.”

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Warning signs

A partner’s behaviour may escalate to being abusive if they:

-always have to be right

-decide what to do, when to do it, where to go

-control the finances

-demand to know the whereabouts of their partner at all times

A partner often practices emotional abuse by:

-constantly criticizing their partner

-using humiliating language

-threatening harm

-threatening suicide if the partner leaves

Intimate Partner Violence

Intimate partner violence (IPV) predominantly includes the following four types of behaviour:

Physical violence: Any type of physical force towards a partner, such as hitting, kicking and pushing.

Sexual violence: Forcing a partner to engage in sexual acts against their will, among other sexually related dominance.

Threats: The use of words, gestures or objects to convey a message to a partner with intent to harm.

Emotional abuse: Threatening a partner or harming their sense of self-worth, including name-calling, intimidation or isolation.