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Psychological Abuse: A Lesser Known Evil

Posted: November 25, 2012

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On November 25th, International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women, we highlight a form of abuse that is often overlooked – psychological abuse.

By Sadia Raval and Malini Krishnan

As Indian women, instances of physical and sexual violence are not new to us. Abuse suffered by our bodies torments us and makes us feel angry and unsafe. But, how about abuse suffered by just our minds? If left unaddressed, this abuse of the mind or, psychological abuse can grow to be very toxic for everybody involved in it.

How is psychological abuse a form of violence against women?

Many of us have been through some form of psychological abuse, but often do not know that that was abuse. Well, psychological abuse is any behaviour that induces in the victim, a feeling of trauma, anguish, humiliation and helplessness over a prolonged period of time.  Several everyday examples of psychological abuse exist, including:

Repetitive Verbal Aggression – Repeated aggression, such as use of abusive language, name calling ,humiliation and threatening.

Domination  – Preventing someone from exercising their legitimate freedom of choice, for example – preventing someone from meeting specific people, using their own salaries or eating food.

Jealousy –  Suspecting someone of having parallel relations or of betraying trust, stalking someone either personally or indirectly, excessive blaming and questioning.

Why such behaviour is termed as  ‘Abuse’

The kind of psychological trauma and anger that occurs when someone is subjected to such behaviour over months, or sometimes even years, cannot be underestimated. People who face psychological abuse usually feel extremely targeted and helpless. Some lose hope about themselves, others and life. Come to think of it, this is exactly what physical or sexual abuse does – it makes one feel like a smaller, less worthy version of oneself. This is why such behaviour is called ‘abuse’.

Unfortunately however, such behaviour often gets passed off just as part of a ‘stressful relationship’ because it does not leave any obvious scar on the victim.

Unfortunately however, such behaviour often gets passed off just as part of a ‘stressful relationship’ because it does not leave any obvious scar on the victim. Also, traits like extreme anger, suspicion and dominance are seen as aspects of someone’s ‘nature’ or personality. Often other people will say, “But that’s the way he/she is! He/she has been like this since childhood!” Everybody including the victim and the perpetrator consciously or sub-consciously resigns to abusive behaviour as part of one’s personality, and it continues. Recognizing such behaviour as ‘abuse’, as something that needs to stop is the first step towards doing something about it.

Eliminating psychological abuse – What can be done?

When we think of abuse, the image that immediately comes to mind is that of a helpless victim and a cruel, ruthless perpetrator. While this pattern comes about with repeated abuse, often we find in therapy that the perpetrator too is pained and unhappy within. A good number of times, people who perpetrate abuse mean well for the relationship. However, abusive behaviours such as dominance, suspicion and aggression help them feel in control of the situation, like they can influence their spouse. They feel better in the short-run. But, in the long run, they miss out on new ways of connecting with their spouse.

Therefore, any form of abuse involves a unique relationship between two people – ‘the perpetrator and the victim’.  This relationship is unique because, the perpetrator engages in abusive behaviour to fulfil some internal emotional need in him/her, be it a need for power or acknowledgement. The victim, by suffering abuse, fulfils this need. The helplessness of the victim plays an important role in reinforcing the perpetrator. Over a period of time, both settle into their roles, stagnate and continue to suffer.

Eliminating abuse essentially involves breaking this relationship pattern between the couple. It means, working with both, the perpetrator and the victim, to step out of their roles and to discover a new way of connecting to each other, and to themselves.

Working with the victim of abuse

If you face repetitive abuse, you would understandably feel that there is no way you can stop the opposite person from using abusive language or being overly suspicious. Though abuse is definitely very painful and draining, recognize that you still do have a choice. A choice that will perhaps aggravate the situation in the short run, a choice that will perhaps demand more strength out of you and in extreme cases, that will put your relationship at a risk of ending…  a choice of saying ‘no’.

Even if you can begin to see yourself as someone who, if need be, can make the difficult choice of stopping to tolerate abuse, it is a healthy step, both for you and for your partner.

Do you see yourself as someone who does not have an option but to undergo abuse? Even if you can begin to see yourself as someone who, if need be, can make the difficult choice of stopping to tolerate abuse, it is a healthy step, both for you and for your partner. Start by voicing what you feel; by communicating that as much as you care for your partner, you are also compassionate towards yourself and therefore cannot encourage abuse. Get support if needed, from family, from friends, even from professionals. Stand up for yourself, even if it is in your own mind.

By choosing not to bear abuse, you are not betraying your duty, or deserting the partner you otherwise love. You are merely attempting to stop an unhealthy and painful way of connecting to him/her.

Working with the perpetrator of abuse

When thinking of a perpetrator-victim relationship, what often gets missed out on is that the perpetrator suffers too, and suffers a lot. Imagine one perpetually angry person – dissatisfied with almost everything and everybody, nagging others at work, yelling and screaming at their spouse. How do you think this experience would feel internally? This person is definitely rude and hurtful. But is this person happy?

Often, people who are angry, controlling or suspicious are very upset and unhappy within. Maybe they have had experiences in the past that have resulted in them learning abusive behaviour as the only way they can influence their environment or their near ones. They need to be helped to unlearn these behaviours, perceive the world differently and fulfil their emotional needs more healthily. Often, professional help in the form of counselling, under the care of an objective and compassionate facilitator can help them explore their behaviour and work through all their underlying emotions, healing them from within and leading to a healthier marriage and a happier relationship between everybody in the family.

Pic credit: United Nations 

About the authors: Sadia Raval and Malini Krishnan are part of the team of psychologists at Inner Space - A center for counseling and psychological assessment. Sadia Raval is the Founder & Chief Psychologist. You can know more about them at Inner Space Therapy

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