“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me”. We’ve all heard the saying. Well, unfortunately that’s just not true. In fact, research suggests that “psychological aggression may be even more harmful than physical violence by an intimate partner”. Yet, when we think of the great threats to women’s health, often psychological or emotional abuse doesn’t even make the list. According to the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey Summary Report, virtually “half of all women in the United States have experienced at least one form of psychological aggression by an intimate partner during their lifetime” which is a much higher percentage than those who experience physical violence.
So if this is such a rampant problem then why does it feel like such a neglected topic? There are two particular problems that stand out. Part of the difficulty is the definition itself. It’s hard to find one universal definition that covers the various behaviors present in emotional and psychological abuse. The CDC’s report defined it as including “expressive aggression (such as name calling, insulting or humiliating an intimate partner) and coercive control, which includes behaviors that are intended to monitor and control or threaten an intimate partner.” However even this description is limited and doesn’t mention:
Verbal abuse presented as a “joke”
Echoing (co-opting the victim’s complaint)
With such a broad spectrum of behaviors it’s no surprise that it can be difficult to define, judge, and then measure the emotional abuse that happens in relationships.
The second difficulty is recognizing emotional abuse. Identifying physical abuse can be straightforward—did one partner put their hands on the other? Yet with emotional abuse how does one determine when behaviors become abusive? Each situation, each victim and each abuser is unique. Behaviors vary and techniques differ, but some key components are the same. FEAR is the primary indication of any form of abusive relationship, women should pay close attention to how they feel in their relationship and with their partners. In addition, a feeling of victimization is a major warning sign. It might even be difficult for individuals to put their finger on the exact source for their feelings of fear or victimization; yet individuals should trust their feelings. If they feel like something is off in a relationship then there is likely a major problem.
However, just because emotional abuse is more subjective doesn’t mean it is less serious. Women have reported that emotional abuse has just as strong adverse effects as physical abuse and is responsible for long-term health problems , low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety. Recently society seems to have become more conscious of the very real struggle associated with mental health. We recognize that depression can be just as debilitating as a long term disease. Mental health issues are subjective for patients in their symptoms and degree, yet we understand that they are no less serious than a more visible physical ailment. Are we as understanding when it comes to various types of abuse?
Is constant repetitive emotional abuse taken as seriously as a black eye? A friend once recounted this story to me, “I remember once staying up crying until 2AM due to the behavior of an abusive partner. I cried so much that night that my eyes were swollen the next day. I remember wishing people would notice my eyes and hoping they would think my partner had hit me. Because then there would be no more question about the presence of abuse. I knew I would be instantly taken care of, protected, sheltered if I had so much as one bruise. But if I had a thousand that were all invisible, most people give you a hug and wish you “good luck” with your difficulties at home.”
Indeed, the amount of support instantly extended to women visibly suffering physical abuse is undeniable, yet that same support isn’t as quickly offered to victims of emotional abuse. The resources for physical abuse aren’t as plentiful as they should be – but considering that emotional abuse is more common with nearly 1 in 7 women  in the United States reporting being victims of a form of psychological abuse in the 12 months, shouldn’t there be even more resources for this “non-visible” form of abuse? The state of Utah only funds three statewide programs that specifically offer help or legal assistance to victims of abuse. None of them are focused on emotional/psychological abuse. Most of the shelters and local programs offered for victims are funded or run in part by non-profits and volunteers with little help from the government. Besides the National Domestic Violence Hotline, most programs don’t even make mention of emotional/psychological abuse. So the options and resources for such a victim are extremely limited. She may call into the National Hotline, be given advice and counsel and then spend several years trying to afford the psychological services, commonly not covered by insurance, that she needs to heal from her wounds.
Women victims of abuse need to have access to community resources and above all societal support and recognition of the abuse. She shouldn’t have to spend months waiting for the first punch to be thrown before she feels like she can turn for help and understanding. With 1 in every 7 women  experiencing abuse in the last 12 months, one should ask themselves; out of the women I know is there one that could be a victim of abuse? I have at least 7 female friends in relationships, statistically speaking the answer is probably – yes. We owe women a lot more in resources and understanding. We owe our sisters, friends, and our neighbors a lot more support. And we owe it to ourselves.
When I asked my friend what she wished people knew about emotional abuse she summed it up this succinctly:
Emotional abuse is very real, it’s not just individuals being too sensitive.
Emotional abuse is just as harmful as physical abuse – even though you can’t see it.
Emotional abuse is harder to “prove” and harder to heal.
See here’s the truth: sticks and stones may break my bones, but those will heal with time and medical care—but the wounds left from emotional abuse can be permanent.
- Black, M.C., Basile, K.C., Breiding, M.J., Smith, S.G., Walters, M.L., Merrick, M.T., Chen, J., & Stevens, M.R. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Summary Report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- “Citizens Against Physical And Sexual Abuse (CAPSA) | Logan, Utah – Utah Shelter Directory”.Capsa.org. N.p., 2016. Web. 22 Mar. 2016.
- Education Wife Assault [Springtide Resources], Emotional Abuse Focus Group, April 1999.
- “HEAL – Basics”. Emotionalheal.org. N.p., 2006. Web. 22 Mar. 2016.
- “Womenslaw.Org | Utah: Statewide Programs”. Womenslaw.org. N.p., 2008. Web. 22 Mar. 2016.
- Kaukinen, Catherine. “Status Compatibility, Physical Violence, And Emotional Abuse In Intimate Relationships”. J Marriage and Family 66.2 (2004): 452-471. Web.
- Smith, M.A., Melinda, and Jeanne Segal, PHD. “Domestic Violence And Abuse: Signs Of Abuse And Abusive Relationships”. Helpguide.org. N.p., 2016. Web. 22 Mar. 2016.
- Springtide,. “Emotional Abuse Of Women By Male Partners: The Facts | Springtide Resources”.Springtideresources.org. N.p., 2000. Web. 22 Mar. 2016.
- “The National Domestic Violence Hotline | 24/7 Confidential Support”. Thehotline.org. N.p., 2016. Web. 22 Mar. 2016.