October is domestic violence awareness month, so I want to talk about a little-recognized form of DV: emotional abuse.
I have experience with this, and I’m afraid to talk about it. Emotional abuse is not widely recognized as DV and I fear I’ll be accused of crying wolf because I got my feelings hurt. I’m going to tell my story anyway because I want people to know that DV doesn’t have to be physical to be real. From the US Department of Justice website:
Domestic violence can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, or psychological actions or threats of actions that influence another person. This includes any behaviors that…manipulate, humiliate, isolate..blame, hurt, injure, or wound someone.
Emotional Abuse: Undermining an individual’s sense of self-worth and/or self-esteem is abusive. This may include, but is not limited to constant criticism, diminishing one’s abilities, name-calling, or damaging one’s relationship with his or her children.
Sexual Abuse: Coercing or attempting to coerce any sexual contact or behavior without consent. Sexual abuse includes, but is certainly not limited to, marital rape, attacks on sexual parts of the body, forcing sex after physical violence has occurred, or treating one in a sexually demeaning manner.
My ex intermittently said that he loved me, and then that he didn’t. When I said that this hurt me, he said I was being hostile and irrational. He suspected that he had an STI, but withheld this information for months. He once tried to get me to have sex after I said no – groping me and attempting to force my legs apart. That was the only time I ever raised my voice, and finally he stopped.
When I tried to leave, he’d say I was overreacting, that he didn’t want to break up over one fight. I stayed. I thought I deserved no better. My self-esteem had been low going in, and the abuse degraded it further. It wasn’t until after a close friend died and he told me that he thought my friend was “weak” that I saw clearly and got out.
Things got worse. One minute he’d whine that he was a miserable coward for walking away from the one person who understands him. The next minute, he’d tell me that he had a new girlfriend. Then he’d try to get in my pants again: being physically seductive in person and sending me explicit e-mails when we were apart.
I put up with this, hoping that I could help him change. It was constant chaos until I realized that – unlike with my other exes, with whom I am friends – I had to maintain no contact with him at all costs.
I went through hell when, a few months later, he was assigned to be a contractor in my office. I was worried that I’d have to quit my job to maintain no contact. I’m so grateful to my boss and HR team, who understood that maintaining no contact was crucial to my well-being and took steps to protect me so that I didn’t have to resign. A lot of women aren’t so lucky.
His attorney sent a nasty letter in response to the work situation, which rattled me. But he did say that he’d leave me alone. I had to fight tooth and nail, build a wall, dig a moat and scorch the earth for a thousand miles in every direction. But I’m well and truly rid of him.
If you see your own experience reflected here, take heart. You have the right to stand up for yourself, and you have the right to be angry. But you don’t have to be the standard bearer for the truth by holding onto your anger, either. Because holding onto that anger hurts you, and whether you are angry or not is irrelevant, because it’s impossible to erase the truth. So if someone doesn’t believe you, that doesn’t erase what happened. If someone tries to downplay the pain of your experience because things never got physical, it cannot erase the truth. If your abuser tries to play the victim, or claims that none of it ever happened, it doesn’t erase the truth.
Your experience cannot be erased, and neither can you.