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But He Never Hit Me: The Emotional Side of Abuse

I can see the tides beginning to shift as topics like coercive control and emotional abuse gain traction in the national discourse. It's about time. But there's still a whole lot of people in abusive relationships who haven't yet recognized that they're in one because...he never hit me.

They know something is terribly wrong and this person that is supposed to love them makes them feel small and unimportant. They know this person gets angry so easily--especially after a few drinks. They know this person will use their body (not their hands because that would be crossing the line) to physically intimidate or even force them out of the house. But he never hit me.

They've seen this person punch holes in walls, or go on screaming tirades that only ever end when the recipient acquiesces to their demands or agrees with their point. They've listened over and over again about how sensitive they are or how "I never said that" or "that's not what I meant". But he never hit me.

They've been in the car with this person, driving erratically on a winding dirt road, with their kids in the back seat, while he laughs at their fear and drives faster. They've been in the car doing 80mph on the highway while they peck out a text message on their phone, constantly taking their eyes off the road and telling them to "relax, I'm good at this". But he never hit me.

They've been at a 4th of July party where the adults got drunker and drunker and they asked them to stop drinking and to stop shooting fireworks at the people standing in front of the mobile home with your kids inside sleeping. "You're no fun" (and also didn't stop). So they went inside to lay down with the kids because if/when a fire broke out, they'd be able to either get them out, or die together. But he never hit me.

And all of these things happen alongside all of the regular dinner, the laundry, taking the kids to school, grocery shopping...and it just kind of becomes normal. Maybe it would be easier if they did hit you? Then you'd have something concrete to tell people about why you were making the decision to break up your family.

Physical abuse is right there in the open. You can't deny bruises on the outside or question whether it is real or whether what caused the bruise really happened. The evidence is right there. Emotional abuse doesn't leave visible bruises, unfortunately. But that doesn't mean it's not harmful. In fact, one could make the argument that it can be even more harmful in the long term.

As previously stated, I do believe the tide is turning and society as a whole is doing a better job of talking about and recognizing emotional abuse. The point that I'm trying to make is that the damage caused by prolonged emotional abuse is insidious. It creeps up on you and causes far more damage than you realize initially. The behavior patterns and thought processes that you learn as a coping mechanism for living with an emotionally abusive partner can take years to unlearn or recognize--especially if the relationship was a long one.

It's important to recognize that our kids are also witnessing and experiencing the abuse. They're in the back seat--they hear you begging them to please slow down--they think it's fun as the car slides all over the road. They're laughing along and learning that it's fun to poke at someone's fear or do things to push someone's buttons. And as they grow, they'll also be at the receiving end of the abuse. They'll get the lectures, the harsh criticisms, the "you're too sensitives" and the "that's not what I saids". But he's not hitting them.

I don't want this to be all doom and gloom. In addition to the increased dialogue about emotional abuse, there are increased resources all over the interwebs. Understanding the physiology that happens in our brains and bodies when we experience repetitive or prolonged abuse can go a long way towards reversing some of the damage. When you can recognize where something came from or understand why your brain responds to certain stimuli in a certain way, it gives you some space to make different choices and create new, healthier patterns--healing.

I highly recommend the book What Happened to You? : Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing by Dr. Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey. It also makes a great audio book and really does read/listen like a conversation. It's written for everyone--not just scientists or psychiatrists and spells out in very easy to understand language the ways that prolonged exposure to abuse or neglect, especially as young children, impacts our neural pathways and automatic responses to certain stimuli.

My takeaways for today? Just because you weren't hit, doesn't mean you weren't abused. Emotional abuse is at least as damaging as physical abuse and perhaps even more damaging in the long term--especially for children that grow up in emotionally abusive environments. Understanding can open the door to real change. Healing is a journey--a process that never really ends.

And if you happen to be reading this and you're still in an abusive relationship, maybe one day you'll find yourself in front of a marriage counselor, who after the first session will hand you a book titled "The Emotionally Abusive Relationship" and you'll think "That's weird". But then you'll go through a checklist of indicators and think "Oh wait..." And nothing will ever be the same. Even if he never hit you.

As a Certified High Conflict Divorce Coach, I can help you with taking those first steps to leave an abusive relationship. You don't have to do it alone. Contact me to schedule a free 20 min consultation.

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