By Cheryl Champagne
Towards a Definition of Emotional Abuse
If asked what emotional abuse is, many people respond by naming some of the tactics – an abusive partner puts a woman down, calls her names, or refuses to talk to her. As stated earlier, even women's advocates at the Round Table had difficulty finding the language to define emotional abuse. It is no wonder that women struggle to define emotional abuse as well, and do so in the only way they can – through the telling of their experiences.
Feminist definitions and research on violence against women initially focused on physical battering. The ground-breaking "Cycle of Violence" theory developed by Lenore Walker attempted to explain the complex dynamics of woman abuse, but included emotional abuse only as part of the "tension building stage" (Walker, 56-66). Emotional abuse was not addressed as a force on its own, but as a precursor to physical abuse. Academic research on emotional abuse has been difficult, not only due to the absence of a common definition, but also due to a lack of understanding of what constitutes emotional abuse in different cultural and societal contexts (Tang, 1998).
The majority of researchers simply classify any form of abuse that does not fit under the category of physical violence, as emotional abuse. In a broad sense, emotionally abusive behaviour includes criticism, humiliation, isolation, threats of abandonment, threats of harm to the woman, children or her friends or family, exploitation and financial control. However, a description of these abusive behaviours does not, on its own, provide a clear definition. Perhaps the main reason there has been a struggle to define emotional abuse, is that it is not possible or appropriate to do so outside of the context of woman abuse. In the Round Table discussion, it was recognized that to do so, is to create a false paradigm (Vivien Green). Yet how can we educate people about emotional abuse without a definition? To understand emotional abuse, we must at first understand woman abuse.
How do we define woman abuse? Most definitions of woman abuse are comprised of two elements. First, naming the act or acts that are considered to be harmful, and secondly, recognizing that the abuse is perpetrated by one person who has power over the other. In the case of woman abuse in heterosexual relationships, it is acknowledged that men have power over women as a societal norm.
The following definition of "Violence Against Women" includes these factors:
Any act of verbal or physical force, coercion, or life-threatening deprivation, directed at an individual woman or girl, that causes physical or psychological harm, humiliation or arbitrary deprivation of liberty and that perpetuates female subordination. (Heise, 3)
Another definition adds a further dimension – that of intentionality on the part of the abuser, who perpetrates these acts against the will of the effected individual:
Conscious or deliberate acts that cause or threaten to cause harm… They are acts that ignore or hold in contempt the voice of the affected person and that exploit a power imbalance, or that on other grounds, are contrary to the free and informed consent of the affected person. (Roeher Institute, 66)
One question not addressed by these definitions is whether a single act constitutes abuse, versus ongoing and repeated acts. While one act has the potential to do serious harm, and should not be minimized, women report that it is the cumulative effect of repeated acts that secures the abuser's control over them. The woman's subordination is secured when she becomes fearful of future abuse, and alters her behaviour to avoid negative reprisals from her abusive partner. These negative reprisals are not only the fear of physical violence, as commonly believed, but of other forms of abuse that cause her to be demeaned, hurt and above all, controlled. Therefore, woman abuse and emotional abuse are one and the same:
Emotional abuse is the repeated use of controlling and harmful behaviours by a partner to control a woman. As a result of emotional abuse, a woman lives her life in fear and repeatedly alters her thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, and denies her needs, to avoid further abuse.
Isn't Emotional Abuse a Part of All Relationships?
Many people question whether the behaviours defined as emotional abuse are a part of any intimate relationship. Assessment tools for emotional abuse usually include a checklist of behaviours, such as criticism, put downs or name-calling. These tools can be misused if the behaviours are not examined in the context of the relationship. In particular, we must go back to the definition and ask these questions. Is the behaviour repeated and ongoing? Is the outcome that one partner feels controlled and fearful of the other? Does one partner regularly change their behaviour, choices or preferences in order to avoid negative reprisals? While many people could check one or more of the tactics indicated on such tools, isolated incidents of these behaviours are not synonymous with emotional abuse.
Another question often raised about emotional abuse is whether it could be more aptly named as mutual abuse. In the beginning of a relationship, a woman is more likely to defend herself from abuse, and retaliate in an attempt to stop the abuse. This changes over time when she recognizes that she cannot stop her partner's abusive behaviour. Women themselves indicate that their own responses may mirror their partner's abuse. However, women who are abused by their partners are more likely to admit fault, whereas an abuser is more likely to minimize his behaviour. While women are capable of abuse, it is critical to examine the specific dynamics of the relationship, and the outcome of the individual's behaviour. Women report that often their responses will not make the abuser fearful of them, but rather escalate the abuse. Once it is established that the woman is in a relationship where she is fearful of her partner and that he has total control over her, her responses are more accurately understood as survival skills.
Understanding the Tactics of Emotional Abuse
Although each woman's experience of abuse is different, there are many similarities in the ways that an abuser gains and maintains control over his partner. When women who are abused have the opportunity to come together and share their experiences, they often express amazement at the use of similar tactics. One woman at the Focus Group commented, "it sounded like [we] were all married to the same guy".
The tactics of woman abuse have been compared to methods used by cults, and those holding political prisoners or hostages. NiCarthy (286) refers to several concepts by Amnesty International, 'monopolization of perception' -- a form of mind control or psychological brainwashing, and 'induced debility' – the process of wearing a woman's physical constitution down by lack of sleep, improper eating, or overwork. Like hostages, women who are abused have reported that their partners did not allow them any reminders from their previous life, and insisted they throw out pictures, letters or other mementos. They were not permitted to make phone calls or their calls were monitored. The abuser chose the information they were allowed to have and see, such as the television they watched.
Several women from the Focus Group described the use of these tactics:
You can't go to sleep, there's always arguing all through the night. The kids can't sleep… He would turn the lights off when I needed to study. Can't use the phone. He would say that it was his phone … he would listen in on my conversations. He was constantly picking up the phone and interrupting the call. That was a kind of torture. He was invading my space.
He chose nights and weekends to work. I had to be home all the time when he called. I was at home 24 hours a day and he would call me every 20 minutes. Yet he would wake the baby and me during the night. Once he was asleep during the day we would have to be so quiet.
The use of isolation also mirrors that of a hostage-taking situation. When a woman's abusive partner prevents her from having friends, seeing family, or going to independent activities such as work or school, she loses contact with the outside world. Some women have reported how their abuser's constant surveillance sabotaged their efforts to gain more independence, such that they would often end up quitting any activities outside the home that the abuser did not approve of. When an older woman's abusive partner retires, the abuse may escalate as she finds any freedom of movement she had, is gone. Women have also related how their abusive partners made it so uncomfortable for them in social situations, that they preferred not to attend situations where they might be embarrassed or humiliated. The abuser may also use more indirect forms of isolation, for example by saying that he wants her to spend all of her free time with him because he loves her so much.
An abuser may also cut a woman off from community resources, such as medical or social services. He will exploit any particular vulnerability that a woman has to ensure her dependence on him. A woman will be prevented from attending English classes, so that she is not able to function in the community without his assistance. The abusive partner of a woman with a disability may refuse to assist her to the toilet, leave her in bed or neglect her for long periods of time, and insist that she does not need additional help in the home to take care of her needs. With women who use other forms of communication, such a Blissymbolics board, an abuser may ignore her attempts to communicate altogether. Similarly, an abuser may refuse to look at a deaf woman who uses American Sign Language when she is signing, or hold her hands to prevent her from communicating.
Another way that an abuser ensures his partner's dependence upon him is through control of financial resources. A woman who is a homemaker may be told she has no right to the family income, and must ask for whatever she needs. Often, women who work outside of the home do not have any input into financial decision making and must give their abusive partners all of their earnings. They also indicate that they may be put on a very tight budget, even if the family income does not warrant it. In many cases women do not even know the family income.
Abusers have also attempted to control their partner's spirituality or use the doctrines of a church or religion to oppress her. Preventing a woman from being active in her faith community may not only deny the woman her spirituality, but also isolate her from potential sources of support. In Native or Aboriginal culture, where, "spiritual abuse entails the erosion or breaking down of one's cultural or religious belief system" (National Clearinghouse on Family Violence 1997), abused women may be prevented from participating in traditional spiritual practices such as sweat lodges or healing circles.
Emotional abuse also involves both verbal and non-verbal communication. Non-verbal controlling tactics include gestures, expressions, and body movements. A raised eyebrow by an abuser can give a strong message to instill fear, without anyone else recognizing or understanding the intent of the gesture. Many women are constantly challenged or criticized on their ability to take care of the home or their children, and told that they cannot do anything right. Some women indicate that if they try to talk to the abuser about his behaviour or problems in the relationship, they will be blamed or subjected to the silent treatment for hours, days, weeks or even months on end (Papp, 56). Women are often called derogatory names by their abusive partners such as slut or whore, and told they are stupid, fat, or ugly on a repeated or daily basis. The abuser draws upon the societal standards set for a woman's size and appearance; a woman's value and sexual desirability is based on how thin, feminine and "pretty" she is. Since men's status in society is elevated when they are with a woman who meets the oppressive standards, they can also tell a woman convincingly that no other man would want her. In some cases, abusers may also control what and how much a woman eats.
Women who are emotionally abused describe "mind-games" or "crazy-making" tactics, where the abuser may contradict a woman, fabricate stories, deny or minimize his actions, or act inconsistently:
It was also pointed out that some men were very nice to their families including their wives when they wanted. For example, one woman related that there was an important guest from India, the husband wanted to show off his nice family and make a good impression. So the week before the guests' arrival, he fulfilled everyone's demands. The child got to eat out and get some new clothes while the wife got to send money to her brother back home (Papp, 69).
South Asian women in Canada indicated that they received many mixed messages from their abusive partners. In some cases they were ridiculed for not adapting to Canadian society, and in other cases they would be criticized for giving up their traditional ways (Papp, 49). Crazy making tactics become more effective if the woman has a history of mental illness, her partner can discount accusations of abuse by insisting she is delusional, paranoid or mentally ill. Frequently, abused women state that their partners tell them that no-one will believe them because they act like a model partner in front of others.
Many abusers use threats to reinforce their control over a woman. Examples frequently reported are threatening: to leave; to kill themselves; to kill the woman, her friends, family or children; to harm her pets or farm animals; to leave her penniless; to deport her or; to ensure that she never sees her children again. Combined with threats, intimidation tactics are used to instill fear. An abuser will: pull the phone out of the wall; punch holes in walls; throw objects; break things that are important to his partner; hover over her; shake his fists or; yell loudly. When they see some but not all threats realized, women never know which threats will be carried out, making the use of threats and intimidation powerful ways of enforcing compliance (NiCarthy, 290).
When a woman has children, her abusive partner may involve them in his control tactics. Some women have reported that abusive partners have attempted to undermine the children's relationship with their mother by belittling her in front of her children or challenging her authority as a parent. Others describe how they have been blamed for any issues involving the children, whether it is problems with their behaviour, school performance or health. In the Focus Group, one woman related that her husband repeatedly said it was her fault that her child was born with a disability. She added that this was often said when the child was present, so that both mother and child were subjected to his abuse.
Emotional abuse and sexual abuse are intricately linked, as emotional abuse tactics are used to manipulate women into compliance with their abusive partner's sexual demands. Sexual abuse, like physical abuse, is an area of woman abuse where there may be some legal recourse, although very few women choose to utilize the criminal justice system when it occurs. It is important to note that prior to 1982, there were no legal sanctions preventing a man from raping his wife in Canada. Simply, it was not possible in law for this to occur. The laws reflected the societal norm that it was a woman's duty to have sex with her husband whenever he wanted it, and she did not have the right to say no. Similar beliefs still prevail, and abusive partners use these beliefs to enforce their will upon a woman, whether through subtle or forceful means.
An abuser may say that he wants to engage in sexual relations because he loves her, and that she must prove her love to him. He may accuse her of having sexual relations with someone else, and interrogate her about other men in her life if she refuses. He may also say that he wants to teach her how to be a good sexual partner, and insist that she view and act out pornography to learn how to meet his sexual needs. If a woman discloses a history of child sexual abuse, he may suggest she liked or deserved it, or even force the woman to act out similar sexual acts. Women who live with extended family have indicated that they were forced to have sex against their will when they were concerned about the presence of family members (Yoshihama, 73). Aside from direct coercion to get women to participate in sexual activity, women with disabilities have also reported that abusers have had sex with them when they were sleeping, unconscious or heavily medicated.
Abusers control women's sexual health and reproductive choices, by refusing to engage in safe sex practices or use contraceptives, or insisting that she have an abortion. An abuser may also use a woman's infertility to abuse her, by demeaning her, threatening to have an affair, or threatening to divorce her (Yoshihama, 73; Papp, 46). Many women have reported that it was easier to give in to their abusive partner's sexual demands than be kept up all night or punished in other ways for their non-compliance. These same women may even deny being forced into having sex with their partners, because they felt they had eventually consented.