I waited more than two years to tell my family that my marriage was over, afraid to say what had been happening in our home.
There was no way to explain my ex-husband’s ongoing, despicable behavior, and I was ashamed of how I’d put up with so much for so long. I also knew that if there were a chance of saving the relationship, they would never forgive him.
When I eventually opened up to one of my sisters, it was the day after I’d finally gotten him out of the house. She listened, and then firmly told me that I had been in an abusive relationship.
It was one of the most shocking statements I’d ever heard.
How could I, an educated, independent, intelligent, successful woman, be a victim of abuse? I had run my own business, managed people for years, and traveled chunks of the globe by myself. I was even trained as a crisis counselor! It was impossible that I, of all people, could have been so blind.
During my training two years later as a state-certified domestic violence advocate, I not only learned how right she was, but in how many ways I had been living with domestic violence for nearly half my life.
Since that revelation, I have talked to hundreds of some of the most intelligent and capable people who thought the exact same thing, that domestic abuse happens to the uneducated, the weak, the poor.
How is then possible for it to be the second most-reported crime in my upper-middle-class town full of achievers and success stories?
Domestic violence can happen to anyone, regardless of socioeconomic background or education levels, and it includes way more than physical abuse. According to the National Domestic Violence Hotline, it is essentially a “pattern of behaviors used by one partner to maintain power and control over another person in an intimate relationship.”
Emotional and psychological abuse, including narcissistic abuse, are much more insidious than physical abuse, because they do not leave obvious marks.
At the beginning of most relationships, people put their best face forward. In toxic relationships, however, controlling behaviors and intimidation emerge and become more common as the relationship matures.
Some behavior can appear romantic in the beginning. For example, showing extreme jealousy of your friends or family, and not wanting you to spend time on other activities because your partner would rather be together may initially make you feel valued.
But this control is a common manipulative technique that an abuser will use to eventually isolate you from as many people as possible.
Pressuring you to do things that you are not comfortable with, such as having sex, or even doing specific sexual behaviors, is a form of emotional abuse. This is often followed by statements claiming how prudish you are for not wanting to do what the other person asks.
The same goes for pressuring you to use drugs and alcohol when you don’t want to.
Putting you down is another common form of emotional abuse. Insulting what you are wearing so that you not only feel unattractive may lead to questioning your own judgment as well.
This can insidiously make you start doubting yourself and preventing you from making your own decisions, a classic form of manipulation which will gradually make you more emotionally dependent. I have seen countless victims of domestic abuse who find it extraordinarily hard to make simple decisions; they have been told what to do and think for so long that they temporarily forget their ability to do so independently.
Other insidious forms of emotional and psychological abuse are minimizing your feelings, or denying that something happened, which is commonly referred to as “gaslighting.” An abuser also tends to shift the blame for his or her own terrible behavior, using the idea that the victim caused it to happen.
Physical abuse is the easiest to recognize, because there are often visible bruises. Yet emotional and psychological abuse leave painful scars. What makes it worse is that even after exiting an abusive relationship, the other person’s voice often remains in your head, and it takes quite a while longer to heal from that.
Remember, the nature of domestic violence is not just physical injury, but harm through persistent power and control over another person.
For more information on specific types of abuse, see the website for the National Domestic Violence Hotline at thehotline.org, or call 1-800-799-7233.
And if you think you or someone you care about may be in a questionable situation, take our free Toxic Relationship Quiz, which provides more specific examples of emotional abuse. And visit BeenThereGoutOut.com for more information and resources.