Emotional wounds can be even more devastating than obvious blows to the physical body and can have much longer-term effects. These hidden injuries pose a grave threat, not just to our physical, but also to our emotional well-being, and even to our psychological survival.
A physical blow is understandable to the mind. When someone hits you, at least you can identify the source of the pain. But, when you are psychologically abused, you hurt and do not feel safe, but cannot comprehend why. The longer it goes on, the more likely you are to obsess about the situation, to feel unhinged and to lose your confidence and trust in yourself and in your perceptions.
Psychological abuse is virtually impossible to prove. Emotional abusers have an impressive arsenal of tools for subtle psychological control and torment. Abuse can range from constant put-downs and criticism to more subtle tactics, such as deception, manipulation, withdrawal, invalidating, stonewalling, triangulating, threats to leave, revising history, or refusal to ever be pleased. A steady stream of these corrosive insults can undermine your sense of self until you begin to question your reality.
We all engage in some of these behaviors at times when we are feeling especially powerless or frightened. But for some people, these defenses are more a way of life than a reaction to unusual life stresses.
If you are involved with an abuser, it is likely that he or she is highly focused on control. To keep you in line, they routinely alternate warmth and affection with withdrawal or insults. Should you begin to question their tactics or threaten to leave, they will pull out all the stops to draw you back in.
Often, they turn the tables to accuse you of precisely what they are doing to you, casting themselves as the victim of your unbearable behavior to justify their actions. Since we naturally tend to blame ourselves when we feel disoriented or are in pain, the finger-pointing adds fuel to the fire of deteriorating self-confidence.
Acknowledging Emotional Abuse
If you have been deceived, abandoned or betrayed in an intimate relationship, acknowledging the emotional abuse involved is central to understanding what has happened and to recovering. By unilaterally leaving or betraying you, the person you likely trusted most in the world has inflicted a life-changing, destructive blow to your well-being.
As sudden as the shock of discovery of their deceit or unfaithfulness may be, your undermining has probably been going on for some time. You likely have been living in an atmosphere of deception and manipulation. Mixed messages of caring and contempt have already short-circuited your neural wiring with conflicting, yet urgent, approach and avoid signals toward your partner.
When the final blow is administered, the trauma leaves you shattered and dazed, unsure who you are or who you were in relationship with. To your traumatized mind your former partner becomes both your executioner and your potential savior from the bewildering pain. The depth and elusiveness of the invisible emotional wounds makes them difficult to recognize and understand, and equally difficult to heal.
If this is your situation, please reach out for the help you need to family, friends, or a professional who is familiar with the many guises of emotional abuse and trained in dealing with psychological trauma.
Adapted from “Love and the Mystery of Betrayal” —now available in print and ebook.
Dr. John Gottman says most couples wait an average of six years before they realize their marriage is in trouble. As a result of this, he and his wife have put together “The Four Horses of the Apocalypse” –sort of relationship killers that indicate early on when things are headed for big trouble. These behaviors can be used way before a marriage even happens, as in Sandy’s case. (Although the deception that occurred there is a whole new level of sociopathy.) They are the beacons that tell you: Uh oh. We are headed for the rocks. The “Four” are criticism, contempt (the worst one in that there is data suggesting that experiencing contempt affects women’s health very significantly), defensiveness and stonewalling. Healthy and experienced couples will spot these early and work to heal them before they cause real harm. I guess the lesson here is sometimes there are little indicators, although it doesn’t make it any less painful.
Thank you for pointing to this great relationship guide, Susie. In my mind, the path of an ever-deepening relationship is a warrior’s path, so much courage and skill to navigate the interpersonal dynamics that can be difficult to recognize, even with the best intentions. Long-term couples like you and Patrick have my deepest respect and admiration.
It’s fascinating that contempt really delivers pain to women, isn’t it? And more than that, that it is KNOWN to have deep impacts on womens’s health. I felt that was very important. Of course women are capable of of it too, but it usually comes from men. It’s a dismissal, it says in essence “You don’t matter.” Nothing you have to say matters to me. Brutal.
Yes, I know it can be literally sickening in its impact, especially if you are talking about someone with whom you share deep bonds. Otherwise, it isn’t so difficult to see that it is their problem, the way they secretly feel about themselves they simply cannot tolerate. I did not know about the research confirming this felt experience. Thanks again for sharing this, Susie.
That contempt is especially damaging to women is interesting and scary. I have spent hours in the last few days writing about how it feels to get messages constantly that I do not matter.
What he will spend money on tells me I don’t matter. I don’t have many huge health problems, but two recent ones and how they’ve been addressed tell me I do not matter.
I had a common infection that required an Ob/Gyn appointment, blood work, and medication….
The other medical issue is the regrowth of a mole with abnormal cells. After it was removed and the biopsy showed abnormal cells, the dermatologist referred me to someone else to have a larger portion of skin removed. (The mole had all the obvious warning signs of melanoma, and an abnormal biopsy, so I’m really not making a big deal over nothing.)
He did take me to the Ob/Gyn. He didn’t hesitate spending money to make sure that part of me was well.
I’ve mentioned that I need to see the dermatologist again, especially since it has grown back. In response, he said “I believe that Jesus Christ will take care of things like that.”
So he thought a healthy vagina was worthy of investment, but he does not think addressing a potential melanoma is worth his investment.
This is the kind of message that tells me I don’t matter. Your vaginal health matters. The rest of your body, the rest of YOU does not matter.
I feel it physically, in my heart and chest. It’s as if I can feel the contempt damaging my body.
Wonderful information re emotional hurts& forgiveness of self & others. Been there, done that too! Thank you; shared. 🙂