Emotional Abuse Is Harder To See From The Outside But Equally Devastating To The Victim
Today, in this Third Part of a 5-Part series I use real-life examples to examine how emotional abusers & manipulators use their ‘weapons‘ in everyday settings to achieve their aims.
Over many years I have witnessed & been on the receiving end of emotional abusers & manipulators. The problem is that at the time it is often very difficult to see or understand what is happening: we just assume that there is something wrong with us or it is something of our making. Unless we are able to recognise the situation, the abuser & their behaviours for what they are, we will become entrapped in a mesh of confusion & be constantly unhappy, stressed or even neurotic.
In Part 1 of this series, we defined emotional abuse & manipulation. We also examined typical scenarios (situations) in which emotional abusers & manipulators operate & looked a bit at how they think.
In Part 2 we looked at specific characteristics & behaviours of abusers & manipulators. We saw how they have a well-sharpened quiver of ‘emotional arrows‘ that they shoot to produce chaos, disharmony, isolation & maintain control. We looked into the way they operate.
Emotional Abusers & Manipulators Work In All Areas Of Our Life
Although the actual emotional abuse or manipulative behaviour may focus on a specific incident or subject, in reality the abuser cannot distinguish between that area of your life & the rest. Abuse creeps into every interaction they have with you.
Daily living can become a real test of our will as the abuser will use many of their weapons in normal interaction throughout the day & night. You can expect sarcasm, criticism, lies, deceit, denial, secrecy & the rest. Abusers are skilled at revenge & making maximum impact (see below) so expect things to happen ‘out of the blue‘ when you are off-guard or least expect it.
Example: A friend’s husband used to avoid discussions about anything they disagreed on or that he didn’t want to face. He would use silence & stonewalling when asked to sit down & talk. On one occasion he was very concerned that his daughter (17) may become jealous if he showed affection to his wife. His wife was unhappy & tried to talk about it. He flatly refused & went to bed. She was sufficiently distraught that she went around to see a friend to get away from the situation & calm down. When she returned home her stepdaughter was lying in bed with her husband with a victorious smile on her face. Interestingly, her abusive husband now denies that this ever happened.
Intimacy & our love-life are key parts of our relationship with our partner. They are the oil in the cogs of a happy couple. So it isn’t surprising that they can be a really effective targets for the abuser. Depriving a spouse or partner of love & affection undermines their sense of importance, self-worth & self-esteem. Once these have been eroded abuse becomes so much more low-maintenance. The victim is confused, empty, sad & often goes through a grieving process when these attacks happen.
Example: A friend was struggling in his relationship with his wife due to past events that had not been fully resolved. Over time his wife pushed him further away, denying any intimacy or even close affection. Initially hurt by these actions the husband tried to rekindle the closeness but after continued rejection he gave up trying. Their marriage deteriorated to a status-quo of tolerating each other. The wife’s use of her body to teach her husband a lesson eventually killed any closeness & led to the breakdown of their marriage.
As discussed in Part 2 many abusers are awkward socialisers. They may be withdrawn in group settings & appear to be so inconspicuous that they are not noticed. HOWEVER, they can become vociferous socialisers when they want to further their cause. This may be to discredit or defame their victim or it may be to isolate their victim, thereby making them less supported & the abuse less visible. We will examine this a bit further below, under Emotional Abusers & Manipulators Love Your Friends.
Example: A friend decided that after years of unresolved & unacknowledged emotional abuse she was at her wits’ end & wanted a divorce. Her husband was not impressed & eventually started spreading rumours that his wife was engaged in an affair & leaving him for another man. He spread this story amongst mutual friends & also amongst their church leaders. She was asked to step down from her responsibilities & also asked not to attend the group she had been leading ‘as they had decided that they needed to support her husband.’ Very quickly her ‘friend-base’ dwindled from over 400 to just a handful. The abuser had successfully isolated his victim, leaving him free to continue with no comeback. When she did write to the church leader the whole story about what had happened she was told that she was lying. She was left with no option but to leave the fellowship.
Financial issues can become a real hotbed for debate where abusers are concerned. Their need for control will push them to extraordinary lengths to hold on to their finances. What seems a fairly simple & easy resolution becomes a long-term battle, draining both resources & those involved.
Financial control may simply be letting the other party have limited finances (determined by the abuser) to spend. There may be other restrictions, such as, how & where the money can be spent. However, abusers are great at the bigger game so may employ ‘smoke-screens‘ to divert the attention of the victim from the fact that manipulation is occurring.
Ultimate control is achieved when the abuser has all money (or the major income) paid into account(s) in their sole name, thereby retaining full control over what is spent & when. This level of secrecy may be augmented by the account holder not telling the victim how much is coming in, thereby giving them unrevealed resources to spend or save.
If the victim has been financially isolated, they may not have the basic resources to get out & socialise, either because they cannot afford the transport to see friends or because they are embarrassed at having no money to buy refreshments or meals. And all this time, the abuser will continue to play the victim, tell sorry stories of how badly they are being treated, whilst having the money to do what they want, when they want, how they want … & with whom they want.
One rider here: Abusers can also be very generous with their money; overly so. It seems that what they lack in social or relational skills they make up for by trying to buy the victim’s affection or allegiance. Yes; they can be very generous, but generosity in the absence of affection is sterile. Even so, some victims have so many gifts poured upon them for their birthday or Christmas that they feel obliged to stay with or stay loyal to their abuser.
Example: A friend who was in an emotionally abusive marriage for a long time was totally unaware of what was happening. Her husband had, in her words, been very generous by allowing her to keep her State Pension. However, because of this, his own monthly income remained ‘his’ so he was able to do what he wanted with it, without challenge from his wife. By ensuring that all bank accounts were in his name he also made it very difficult for her to know what was happening, allowing him to keep from her how much he received (which turned out to be nearly 4 times his wife’s monthly income) until she eventually chose to divorce him.
It is easy to look at the material effects of emotional abuse & manipulation & miss the true cost: our health; confidence; self-esteem; mental function. Long-term emotional abuse is now a legal statute in UK Law carrying a criminal sentence. It is painful; it is costly; it is debilitating. Many victims feel isolated, unable to reach out to friends, either because those friends have ‘deserted‘ them or they feel too embarrassed to try. Lack of contact produces extreme anxiety & depression. Punishment by previous friends who have taken in the abuser’s tales causes a lot of self-doubt in the victim.
Recovery, if possible, is slow & painful. Confidence may be totally gone & self-esteem hit an all-time low. These are the real costs of abuse, which affect not only the ‘now‘ but also the victim’s ability to recover & move forward into the future. Support for the victims of emotional abuse is often none-existent because the abuser has done such a comprehensive job of isolating & shaming them, whilst receiving undeserved support them self.
Example: A good friend of mine discovered after 18 years of marriage, that his wife had been seeing another man for many months. When he eventually challenged her on it she was quite blasé & didn’t deny anything. His wife came & went as she wished, taunted him about her new life, often sporting new jewellery. They remained together for a short time but eventually he had to leave because his mental state had deteriorated so quickly that being in the house had become an intolerable stress. Recovery took well over a year & although he is now in another relationship he is still affected by what happened: trust is very difficult, even amongst long-term friends.
Emotional Abusers & Manipulators Are Secretive Beings
If one is stood in a cellar with the light off, there are so many things that could happen undetected, providing their wasn’t a noise associated with them. If there is a boiler or pump in the cellar, it may be noisy, so many things could happen that we may not be able to see or hear. When we switch a light on we are, after allowing our eyes to adjust, able to see what is happening where.
Secrecy is like the dark. It allows things to remain hidden & unseen. Abusers do not broadcast their activities to the world; they either keep them secret or tell part of the truth to perpetuate their own version of the story.
An emotional abuser will use secrecy in order to wear-down or control their victim. This could be coming & going unannounced, staying away for several days & then reappearing, refusing to tell their victim what they are doing or hiding evidence of their activities, such as receipts, tickets etc. They will however, often demand to know what the victim has been, is doing & even is going to do. Information flow works only in one direction. Some go to great lengths to cover their tracks, as if being discovered will totally blow their cover & expose them. The adage, ‘if it looks as if they are hiding something they probably are‘ is never more true.
Abusers also create diversions, use scapegoats & send out rumours that all create ‘noise.‘ It is hard to determine exactly what is happening with all of that noise, enabling the abuser to hide & continue their activities unchallenged.
Example: A friend going through divorce was advised by her solicitor to stay in the marital home until the divorce was settled. This rattled her abusive husband who stopped all form of communication (except if he needed to know something or to be sarcastic or to make fun of her). He started staying out overnight, returning home erratically, hiding his receipts & removing all personal records of his activities from the house. As we have said, abusers can become deluded by their own success & he was no different. He became careless, leaving receipts where they could be seen. It became apparent that he was having a spending spree on a new girlfriend including clothes, shoes & overnight stays in hotel rooms.
Emotional Abusers & Manipulators Create Chaos & Confusion
I am never sure whether abusers intentionally or consciously cause chaos or whether it is just a product of who they have become & of them just being around. When stories & baselines & memories & events are ever shifting sands, changing almost every time they are recounted, it is very difficult to keep up & to not doubt one’s sanity.
Chaos & confusion are dangerous weapons used by emotional abusers. If there is no consistency it is easy for the abuser to persuade their victim that they ‘have got it wrong‘ or ‘it isn’t like that.‘ Abusers often need to change their story in order to stay ahead or in control. Changing the baseline or starting point allows them to create a new story in which they are right & the victim is wrong. They even try this in meetings where minutes are written down, denying that they ever said something.
Order, accountability & written records are all threats to an abuser. Where there is chaos & confusion, doubt & uncertainty, fear & control there is opportunity for the abuser & the abuse to remain hidden or to be discounted as someone’s ‘misinterpretation of the situation.‘ This is the emotional abusers dream which adds to their delusion & convinces them that they are in control.
Example: A friend was attending mediation with her husband in an attempt to amicably sort out the financial & material issues of their divorce. She was divorcing him on the grounds of emotional abuse over their 16 year marriage. Over the few weeks they attended he changed his story on, amongst other things, what he was prepared to let her have, the value of their house (more than once) & he actually stopped providing things & support he had previously agreed to. The result was no forward movement in negotiations & a distinct lack of clarity of what, if anything had actually been agreed.
Emotional Abusers & Manipulators Are Compulsive Liars
Their over-riding driver of needing to be in control make it difficult for abusers to maintain the same story. Lies are necessary in order to maintain control. This is part of the chaos & confusion discussed above but it is also part of maintaining their story, keeping their activities hidden, making themselves look good/generous/thoughtful or isolating & continuing abuse of their victim. Abusers have selective memories, especially where past events or agreements are involved. It is not unusual for them to completely (& convincingly) deny something you know that they have said previously. However, you, the victim will be the one who doubts your memory, doubts what was said & even doubts your sanity. Abusers use multiple weapons to wear-down their prey: lying is a potent one in skilled hands! Through continued lying & changing of their story, emotional abusers & manipulators lose their own reference point of what truth is. They become like Billy Liar: unable to be tell a straight story; unable to remember their own story; unable to be trusted or believed.
Example: A couple who were separating agreed between themselves that there would be no ‘bad mouthing’ of the other party amongst their friends. They wanted the separation to be as amicable as possible. After a few weeks, the wife started being asked by friends who she was having an affair with. When she asked them to explain their question, they said that her husband had told them that they were separating because she was having an affair. This was a shock to the wife & news to her. She challenged her husband on the comments & he explained that he had no idea how they had such information as he had said nothing. Those stories continued to get back to the wife over the next few weeks, each time, the perpetrator was cited as her husband. Unfortunately by this time he had used his other manipulative skills to engage the support of many ‘mutual’ friends. What started off as an amicable agreement ended with animosity through the lies her husband.
Emotional Abusers & Manipulators Love Your Friends
As we have already mentioned, emotional abusers & manipulators often have dual personalities: one for the home situation & one for friends.
Unfortunately, as mentioned in the example above, they can use their skills & personality to divide & conquer: turning former friends against you through sowing the seeds of suspicion & discontent. It is much easier to execute their plan once they have deprived you of friends, especially those you trusted. Although often socially awkward or inept, abusers & manipulators are skilled at division, scheming, deceit & playing the victim when they need to be, especially if that is to gain support for their own cause, prove you wrong or that you are to blame (allowing them to stay in control). I have come across many cases of such actions, even to the extent that people who were formerly more friends with the victim than the abuser, completely side with the abuser.
It is a cruel ploy, very effective & very destructive: we should keep our eyes open so that we don’t inadvertently become an instrument in the hand of an abuser.
Example: This has been covered above under the examples for Socialising & Compulsive Liars. In short, undiscerning friends can become enemies very quickly in the hands of a skilled manipulator or abuser.
Emotional Abusers & Manipulators Are Never Wrong
In their striving for control, abusers cannot admit mistakes: to themselves or publicly. To do so undermines their cause, introduces doubt & weakness & threatens their reason for being in a relationship (control & feeling important).
All human beings are wrong at some time in their life; most of us many times. It is part of who we are & what makes us human. It is also the admission of being wrong that can strengthen our relationships & open opportunities for openness & growth. But NOT to the abuser. Wrong is a dirty word that only applies to others, so they will do all in their power to show how they are right & convince you that the problems have been caused by other people.
Always being right is another powerful weapon for destroying confidence & sense of worth in their victim. Even if the victim knows that the abuser is wrong, they feel unable to express it & if they do they are shut-down & made to feel unimportant & insignificant.
Occasionally, the abuser does know that they are wrong but cannot admit it to anyone else than them self. When such thoughts come to mind they fill their life with activities & people that show they are in fact, innocent or crowd out such negative thoughts.
If you listen to someone who goes through friends like water out of a tap, or has few friends, or has friends who are always wrong, or cannot maintain steady friendships, look deeper at the reasons. You may just find that they are skilled manipulators looking for their next victim.
Example: A friend’s step-daughter had, for many years, come between her & her husband. The husband left his daughter’s behaviour largely unchallenged & whenever a discussion or argument would arise he would shut it down with phrases like, “My daughter can do whatever she likes,” or “I don’t want my daughter to see us or she may be upset.” They were seeing a marriage counsellor more recently where he eventually admitted that the problem was his relationship with his daughter, but when his wife decided that the marriage was over he quickly found a scapegoat & now would deny ever admitting that it was his ‘fault.’
Emotional Abusers & Manipulators Are Strong On ‘Teamwork’
Although many abusers are loners, they know how to use a team to their advantage if the need to arises. Just like priming friends with untrue or partially true statements to draw them away from their victim, abusers know the power of ‘the team.‘ They can manipulate it to support them; they can hide behind it if decisions are made which affect the victim in a negative way; they can slip away to a new place leaving the team & victim separated & out of relationship.
Emotional abusers are poison to communities like businesses, social clubs, churches, sports teams etc. They kill often well-established relationships, they divide, they isolate, they bring disquiet & discontent … & then they move on to their next project. No one wins, except the abuser.
Example: The same wife I have mentioned above was called before her church leadership on the grounds of rumours spread by her husband. She explained that she did not love him any more & also explained something of the abuse that had been taking place. She was told by the leaders that it was her duty to stay with her husband & learn to love him (these same leaders had previously advised a woman in a non-abusive relationship to leave her husband). When my friend said that she could not continue in her marriage she was removed from all positions of responsibility in the church she had served (& been a put on a pedestal by) & told not to attend the house group she had been running for a number of years because they wanted to support her husband. When she wrote to the leaders about what was & had been happening at home she was called a liar & told there was no further conversation on the subject. Staying at the fellowship became uncomfortable & untenable; so she left. A combination of abuse by her husband & church leadership team had effectively isolated her & ostracised her.
Emotional Abusers & Manipulators Hate It When You Stand Up To Them
In the next part we will look more at breaking free from an abusive relationship, but what can you do to challenge & break the cycle of abuse?
Firstly, don’t try it on your own. Tell a trusted friend or health professional what is going on & enlist their emotional support. You will need it!
Secondly, realise that you have as much of a say in what goes on in the relationship as the other person. You will already have been groomed & conditioned to doubt yourself & feel that you have little or no voice. The reality is that YOU DO HAVE A VOICE & your abuser is scared of it.
Thirdly, don’t be afraid to challenge the abuser’s behaviour or reasoning. There will be a lot of noise when you do because you will catch them off-guard & there are few things more threatening than a victim who fights back.
Fourthly, you know your story; so believe it. Even though your abuser may try to confuse you, stick to what you know is true. Write it down somewhere so that you have something concrete to refer back to should they try to use confusion to regain control.
It is a threatening & initially painful process but in all cases of emotional abuse that I have known, once the victim starts to take a stand the abuser begins to crumble. Remember that basically they are cowards so once you pierce their outer armour they will start to squeal.
Example: My friend who had been in a long-term abusive relationship didn’t even know it had been so until she saw a video by Jay Shetty & spoke to her solicitor about what had been happening. “Oh yes dear! That is abuse” was the immediate response. This brought slow, small changes where my friend began to challenge her husband when he continued to try to laud it over her. Heaven forbid: she actually used words like, “No,” & “I am not doing that.” Life became very turbulent for a while as he struggled to take in this new reaction. As she began to realise how scheming he had been & still was, it helped her to maintain resolve that she would not give in. To date she still has not & he is clearly rattled as his position of power has been eroded & he still desperately fights to regain & maintain control.
Emotional Abusers & Manipulators Are Strong On Revenge & Pettiness
Remember that many abusers have had a turbulent or traumatic upbringing. Perhaps they have been ruled with an iron road, deprived of love, affirmation & affection, made to feel insignificant etc. This is not an excuse for their behaviour but will probably have significantly contributed to it. Because it has been part of their childhood, they are almost locked in a child’s mentality. Inside, they feel like a needy child. Whenever something happens that reminds them of their upbringing they revert to that child-like state, often displaying many of the characteristics of that child: they may argue; may throw a tantrum; may retreat into the crowd; turn people against others; may try to get people on their side; may be petty; may be defensive.
One thing for sure, they will have their mind set on revenge! They may fight back immediately or, more likely, they leave it until their victim expects it least & then unleash a surprise attack. The confusing thing is that when they are exacting revenge, they may imitate children in their attitude & things they do, but they usually deliver it in the style of an angry or disciplining parent; the thing that affected them most whilst growing up. They once again try to transfer their feelings onto their victim.
They will seek revenge through any means possible: materially; financially; emotionally. They will also use friends or loved-ones to exact that revenge. This also allows them to deny involvement if anything ugly happens, thereby protecting them self. They will also pick you up on many things that seem irrelevant or petty, almost as if they need to find fault to keep going. This is part of their reaction to feeling threatened & having their tower of power slowly dismantled by your bravery.
Example: My friend’s husband had taken to rifling through her papers & personal belongings when she wasn’t there, looking for evidence of wrong-doing or for important documents. She became aware of this, so wrote a series of notes telling him to stop being nosey (though in rather stronger language) & placed them in drawers & amongst documents so that if he went on one of his searches, he would find them. He did! He was so upset by them that he submitted them to his solicitor, citing that she was being rude & abusive.
I hope you have found this article helpful. It has not been easy to write as it brings to the surface many emotions as I remember what my friends have been through. I also remember the times that I was on the receiving end of abusive behaviour & how excellent counselling helped me shelf it & move forward.
In Part 4 we will examine how victims can successfully start to break the abusive cycle & escape the spider’s web of deceit, lies & destruction created by the abuser. As we will see, escape is not easy, but it is worth the effort in the long haul.
If you are concerned that you may be in an abusive relationship it is always good to confidentially talk to someone outside of that relationship such as your doctor. Being able to share your concerns is the first step towards breaking free. The UK has a great resource in Relate a relationship counselling service.
Until next time, take care …