Our emotions are precious and sacred things. They are holy landmarks, revealing to us the inner workings of our souls. Joy reveals congruity with the Holy Spirit. Anger reveals injustice. Sadness reveals loss. Peace reveals trust.
Emotions are fluid, moving from one emotion to the next as they respond to our environment. In most cases, our environment has no intention of harming us - unless you are the victim of emotional abuse.
What exactly is emotional abuse? We’ve already identified in last week’s post that abuse is an attempt to maintain power and control over someone else. Emotional abuse just means that emotions are the weapon of choice. Emotional abuse is usually present along with the other types of abuse (verbal, psychological, physical, sexual). Oftentimes victims of emotional abuse are deeply empathetic and loving people, and abusers will recognize this and turn this natural empathy against them.
During the summer before eighth grade, I met my best friend - Liz Bennett. She had a hugely compassionate heart, and as I was the new kid at school, she quickly allied herself with me, and we became two peas in a pod. Time and time again, she proved herself to be kind, loyal and generous, giving of herself whenever anyone needed help, often thinking very little of her own needs.
I remember her coming up to me excitedly in the cafeteria our senior year, telling me she had started dating one of our youth leaders in secret, a man eight years our senior. I remember being shocked and taken aback, but wanting to support her relationship.
I remember being her maid of honor on her wedding day, trying to muster up the courage to tell her she didn’t have to go through with it, but I was silent. I remember visiting her in their home, watching her convince me that she was happy, that the Lord was just testing her.
Emotional abuse is not easy to identify because the abuse messes with what is unseen: our emotions. Men and women alike endure emotional abuse for years, completely unaware that the pain they feel is willful manipulation of their emotions.
One story Liz told me always stood out in my mind. Liz was a true romantic at heart, and her husband, let’s call him Ralph, knew this. He would often promise her lavish and romantic gestures, then cancel them, blaming Liz as the reason he couldn’t carry them out.
One New Year’s Eve, he had promised that they would have a romantic dinner together and then have a few friends over for a party of sorts. Liz was ecstatic. While Ralph was at work, she bought extra food for the party, allowing herself to daydream how much fun they would have that night. She put on some music, cleaned the house, set up some decorations, set the table, and began to prepare the meal for their stay home date night.
Ralph walked in, tired from his day at work.
Liz responded with a quick hello, mentioning that she was getting the meal ready for dinner.
No response from Ralph. After a few minutes of bustling about in the kitchen, she decided to check on him, wondering why he hadn’t come to see her. She wiped her hands on a paper towel and checked the living room. There was Ralph, sulking on the couch.
“Hey, what’s wrong?” Liz sat down next to him.
Ralph quickly made it known that when he came home, he was expecting a more heartfelt hello.
“I’m sorry, I was making dinner.”
“You just didn’t seem like you were happy to see me.”
“I was - I am! I’m excited for tonight, I just wanted to make sure everything was going to be ready for -”
“It’s like you don’t even care that I planned this whole night for you.”
His words shocked her, even though she’d heard them a thousand times.
“You know I care, I was just busy -”
“Do you even realize how selfish you are? I come home after working all day for you - and you ignore me.”
“Ralph, I said I’m sorry -”
He stood up.
“You kept saying you wanted to have a party for New Years and so I agreed - and this is how I’m treated? For giving you what you wanted?” He rubbed his eyes.
“I try to be the best husband I can be, but you don’t even care. Liz, you don’t care about me.”
Liz stood up and gently led him back to the couch. She texted her friends saying the party was off as she rubbed his back and stroked his ego, their dinner getting cold on the dining room table.
Time and time again Liz asked Ralph for kindness, for some show of affection or respect. It was never given. Ralph was able to twist her words time and time again, blaming her for their problems, making himself the victim, unable to take responsibility for her pain or his own. Liz was left trying again and again to please him, giving more and more of herself, until she was despondent, alone and dead inside.
Liz finally gained enough courage to leave Ralph just this past year. Hearing her stories after she left him immediately brought me to the fights I had with my abusive ex-boyfriend in his car (you can read my story here and here). I would bring up my hurts and my pains, and he would immediately remind me of how busy he was, how he was trying to create a career, trying to create a future for us. He would bring up how much money he spent on me as if the numerical value equated how much he loved me. I would apologize, again and again, promising to think of him more and to think of myself less. Die to self, right?
Emotional abusers will NOT:
Take responsibility for their actions.
Take part in activities their partner enjoys.
Listen to their partner’s needs.
Emotional abusers WILL:
Blame everyone else for their problems.
Criticize their partner.
You might be thinking, “That seems pretty easy to identify.” Here’s the thing - those who are affected by emotional abuse believe the lies their abuser throws at them. They believe that they are the problem with the relationship, so they try harder. They believe their abusers when they say ‘I love you’, even though their actions say otherwise. They want to believe there is good hidden beneath the pain, that the best love is the love that sacrifices everything they are.
If you believe you have been or are the victim of emotional abuse, please know this: it is not your responsibility to help them change. Your heart is so big, my dear, but this is not your battle to fight.
As we identified in last week’s post, abuse injures our personhood - our voice, our community and our power. Emotional abuse causes us to believe that we are the problem, silencing our ability to defend our needs. Emotional abuse convinces us that we must sacrifice everything for the cause of the abuser and the relationship, even if this means moving away or spending less time with our families. Emotional abuse wills us to submit to the needs of the abuser, forcing us to put aside our dreams and passions, taking away our power to create change.
About ten months into my relationship with my ex-boyfriend, I wrote the following poem. Every time I read it I wish that I had seen my own cries for help. But I was lost in the echo of his lies.
My heart wrenched from my chest daily
yet I have known no sweeter face
My angel of light fills my nights
with bitter tears and terror
The ifs and buts and what-
could-have-beens, the how-dare-yous,
you selfish bastard.
I’m the selfish bastard.
Love hurts so much I can’t breathe.
again and again
in the name of
Because I give him so much of my everything,
his very “no” makes me weep,
his “I’m busy” brings death upon
For my love is greedy. My love is jealous.
I’m the selfish bastard.