Domestic Violence is a subject that has been investigated and written about extensively during the last few decades. There are many laws to protect women from cruelty. Social organizations have sprung up, where a woman can take temporary shelter until her future plans are sorted out. But a woman who is subjected to emotional abuse suffers alone, because her scars are invisible. No broken bones or no bruises to show. There are no parameters against which the extent of her trauma can be quantified. It is usually a private interaction between husband and wife. At best, the family who knows, collude to make it their best kept secret.
Emotional Abuse is more a malady of the middle and upper classes. Illiterates have no use for such subtleties. For them, wife battering is good enough, though this pastime is not necessarily confined to the ghettos. Even men like Noel Coward believed that “some women should be struck regularly like gongs.” Others were even more emphatic that “a spaniel, a woman, a walnut tree, the more they are beaten, the better they be.” Physical and emotional abuses are not mutually exclusive. What begins as verbal abuse may end in physical violence.
Though the underlying causes of both types of abuse are the same, the difference can be compared to a burglar and a white-collared crook who fiddles with the books. While one is brazen about his occupation, the culpability of the latter may go undetected for a long time. Basically both are thieves.
Forward and Torres in their book “Men who hate women, and Women who love them,” define abuse as “ any behavior that is designed to control and / or subjugate another person through the use of fear, humiliation and verbal or physical assaults. It is the systematic persecution of one family member of another.”
While the batterer uses his ‘fists,’ the emotional abuser uses ‘words’ or ‘looks’ as his weapons. The most frequent form is to subject the woman to insults, name calling, criticism of the way she walks, talks or dresses, fault finding with her cooking, or her management of home and children. The one single motive is to chip at her self-esteem on a regular basis, until she begins to doubt her own self worth. Damaged self esteem may lead to fear of failure as a wife, mother or human being. She may try harder to please her ‘lord and master’ or withdraw into herself like a tortoise into its shell, to prevent herself from being hurt. She may remain silent and depressed inside her cocoon of intolerable loneliness and despair. Suicidal thoughts may assail her or she may become permanently dysfunctional. It is common knowledge that suicide rates are increasing every year. But there are no figures to show what percentage of these may be due to emotional abuse.
The Bible tells us, “The tongue is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” We know that ” wounded hearts are slow at healing, if ever they are to heal again.”
It brings to mind the case of a young dashing Air Force officer who wooed and won a pretty nurse. She was not only beautiful, but a talented girl, and a fine pianist too. Though he never laid a hand on her, the verbal abuse she was subjected to ruined their married life. Nothing that she did or said was right. Whether at a public function or a private party, his language was insulting. At first, she protested and wept. Then gradually, all meaningful conversation ceased. She went about her work mechanically, and withdrew into a world of books. She was barred from playing the piano, an instrument she had loved to play since her childhood. It was a typical case of emotional isolation.
The only visible sign of her protest was that she took to wearing the garb of a widow – white cotton saris with thin borders. Whether it was at home or a wedding, she wore white till her death. In her last years, she developed high blood pressure, but was prohibited from seeing a doctor. He thought he was competent enough to treat her with homeopathy. Needless to say she died of Cerebral haemorrhage. Even in her death, she could not have her way. She had specifically asked to be buried according to her religious rites. Perversely he insisted that she be cremated.
Gesticulating, yelling, throwing temper tantrums, scare tactics are other forms of emotional abuse. There was this case of a doctor couple. The wife was the Director of a hospital and the husband, a surgeon in the same institution. He had many postgraduate degrees after his name. She had only a P.G.Diploma. Whether it was jealousy or sheer devilry, he would frighten her in various ways, even to the extent of throwing a kitten or a bird on to the cot where she lay, and shooting it, to spatter blood all over the sheets.
“I’ll do the same to you one day,” he would threaten.
He would also deliberately destroy the things she liked or held most dear, and his extra marital capers became the talk of the town. She was even forced to perform abortions on the many women he impregnated.
“The earth trembles at an unloved woman who is married,” says the Book of Proverbs. One wonders why she didn’t leave him. Her reluctance was due to social pressures brought on her by parents, relatives and the community. “What will people say?” is an effective deterrent, and a handy tool for emotional blackmail. Apart from this patriarchal setup which sanctions unequal power relations, her evangelical background and indoctrination kept her in total submission and absolute obedience to her husband, at the price of her self esteem.
Withholding privileges or affection is another manifestation of emotional abuse. A young woman in her early thirties, confided that in her relationship with her husband, it was she who had to beg for affection and grovel for sexual favors. Not once in all their married life had he taken the initiative. Neither were there endearments of any kind.
The same applied to financial matters. Each week, the wife had to beg for money to run the house.
“I feel like a beggar,” she said, “ It is demeaning and has robbed me of my self respect. Each time, a little more of my self -esteem is lost. I begin to despise myself.”
Criticizing a woman’s physical disability, casting aspersions on her character, suspecting her fidelity and forcing her to admit to non-existent liaisons, raking up the past, recycling old accusations, or maintaining a cold war of silence, using obscene language, or accentuating hurtful words are other forms of abuse.
Social isolation was what another girl suffered from. She was prohibited from working or meeting relatives or friends. Her time and movements were closely monitored. Sometimes she was locked up in the bedroom throughout the day without food, water or toilet facilities. One day, she managed to contact a relative. For this she was punished. Her husband drove her several miles from home, and pushed her out of the car. She had no money to catch a bus, so had to trudge all the way home.
There are innumerable couples who appear to the world as perfectly adjusted and happy, with a stable family life. The men are usually handsome, well educated and cultured. They are religious, respected in society, teetotalers, and critical of wife beaters. The women are muzzled by fear and shame. Even if they did speak up, they could never besmirch these paragons of virtue. Instead they would be disbelieved or held responsible for their plight.
Verbal abuse is still abuse. It is a gender issue that needs to be addressed. Because it
Is directed against the mind, the effects are more damaging than physical battering. The tongue corrupts the person who is abusive, and devalues the abused. The trauma is subtle and secretive, like a cancer that spreads silently through the mind, turning intelligent, lively women into confused, submissive zombies.
When a person is submitted to recurrent hurt, and has no time to recover, there is irreparable damage to the psyche. The effect of constant humiliation is cumulative and destroys the very spirit of the person. Anyone who robs another of her self esteem is a thief. The victim is overcome by hopelessness and despair. She loses interest in her self and her appearance. To deaden her pain, the body deadens itself. Depression follows. She even doubts her reason for living.
Abusers are those who may have witnessed the abuse of their own mothers or other women in their home, either by their fathers or male relatives. This early influence leaves a permanent pattern in their minds, which they practise on their own families.
Men who have giant-size egos and a lot of false pride are also potential candidates for abusive behavior. Those who feel inadequate in their sexual relationships cover up their inadequacies by becoming abusive. Physical assault would expose them to the world as despicable cowards, and that is not acceptable to them. So emotional abuse becomes a satisfying diversion. “Man the hunter – Woman the game,” says Tennyson. Verbal abuse would leave no visible trails, and leave the façade of respectability intact.
Socialization from childhood, in a society that believes that the husband is the sole and absolute leader in the home, makes a man live out this role in his own family. No matter how efficient or educated the wife, she must still be subservient to him. He must force his authority on her, and the best way to do it is to undermine her self confidence, show her up for the imperfect creature she is, and ensure her submission.
Such men are basically selfish. “Selfishness seeks its own private happiness at the expense of others,” says Piper. Marriage can only thrive in an atmosphere of mutual love and respect. Even the romantic Byron had to admit that “marriage goes better with esteem and confidence than with romance.”
Lawrence Crabb an eminent counselor, believes that for a person to experience satisfaction in life there must be two inputs – a sense of personal worth or acceptance, and security. If either of these inputs is not available to one partner, the marriage becomes dysfunctional. Indifference can be much worse than hate.
Coping with emotional abuse is a lonely struggle. What people cannot actually see doesn’t bother them. They are quick to label a woman who complains, a liar because she can produce no concrete evidence. Her accusations wouldn’t stand up in any court of law. At best, she might end up being labeled a neurotic or a trouble maker.
There are three ways in which a woman can react to her abusive state.
• She can tolerate the situation. Most women who opt for this line come from an abusive background and already have a poor image of themselves. “It is in part the anxiety of being a woman that devastates the human mind,” says Kim Charnin. She gradually convinces herself that the fault is hers alone. A constant and repetitive attack on her various shortcomings makes her believe that she is all her husband accuses her of. She loses her
objectivity and becomes a handy punching bag for her husband.
• Or she can fight the situation. A girl who has been taught to see herself as a worthy individual will grow up into a confident woman with a spirit that refuses to be crushed or suppressed or battered. She may be called a bad wife because she asserts her rights and will not tolerate cruelty. But she knows what she expects from marriage, and fights to retain her identity and individuality. Her education would have contributed to her poise and a healthy self-image. Her aim is to win the battle of the mind.
• Or she can terminate the relationship if she is economically secure, and has a supportive network of family and friends.
Of these, the second option is best. Verbal abuse is effective only if we believe that someone has taken control of our life, leaving us powerless. Any man can stop being abusive if he wants to. A strong woman can bring about changes in her husband, because an abusive man is really a coward. Man is also a victim of the patriarchal family setup. Abuse Intervention programs can make him realize that he alone is responsible for what he does. Research shows that marriage has a positive effect on man’s mental health, his career, his personality and his longevity. The earlier he learns to nurture his marriage, the longer he will live to enjoy it.
Robert McGee in his book “The Search for Significance” says “Craving for fulfillment is a strong force in our lives. But it can also be a tool to ruin, if we live according to the whims of others.” The socialization of women should begin in childhood. Our self image develops as we receive impressions of how others see us. Negative images dwarf us. Positive images help us develop a core of self esteem that no one can touch.
Networking with other support groups will also give strength. An African peasant woman put it so clearly. “We must get women not to be afraid. If only they could get together and talk about what they are thinking and feeling!”
But more than any human being can help, keeping a regular communication line open with God, will insulate one against pain. Only He can strengthen and restore us to wholeness.