We grew up chanting to our childhood tormentors, “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” It was pretend bravado as some words cut deeply into our psyche much as a pipe leaking behind a bathroom wall silently undermines its structure. Emotional abuse is like that. Abused women tell me it is more debilitating than the occasional thump or punch. “My broken arm healed, my bruises faded but when he says, “you’re too stupid to understand” I feel utterly useless,” said 26-year-old Sally. Other women don’t even recognise their partner’s putdowns as being indicative of an abusive relationship. Many counsellors don’t see it either.
It is my view that we must identify and name emotional abuse for what it is as too often it is the ‘elephant in the room’. Abusers are expert at presenting as a rational, reasonable and even likeable person. If anything the partner seems to be the one using derogatory language and maybe it is true, but that is usually only one half of the picture. She lets off steam in a safe-enough environment and he drills into her self-concept in the privacy of their home. He can sit there smugly knowing she wouldn’t dare to behave like that if it were just the two of them present.
Emotional abuse in relationships usually starts slowly so that women are undermined by it before they realise its insidious effects. Anyone who is subjected to emotional abuse, whether male or female, needs to step back and recognise it for what it is. The abuser is not okay. They put you down to build themselves up. It is merely a tactic of control that you must recognise as such so that the hurtful words lose their punch. A secure person would not put another person down. There is no need and they know it would be a cruel thing to do. Unfortunately when you are crushed by hurtful words the abuser feels superior and will, in all likelihood, do more of it. Don’t give him that weapon. Take back your power.
Firstly, recognise the put-down and mentally label it as a tactic of control. Secondly, when things are settled between you, tell him calmly and clearly, in few words, to stop calling you names (repeat the actual words he uses). Thirdly, follow through with indignation every time he name calls.