spousal abuse

International Women’s Day and Gaslighting

Post script: I was interviewed in BYU radio about this topic so if you’d rather hear than read about it, here’s the link to stream it. 

Today, March 8th 2016, is International Women’s Day. Although we barely recognize it as a holiday in the U.S., apparently it is a big deal in other countries. My daughter is living in Russia, and she has been advised to stay off the streets yesterday and today to protect herself from all the drunken celebrations.

So, in my own way, I’d like to celebrate women (without the drunkenness). One of the best ways I can think of is to empower women who feel they have lost their voice. Who feel they are of no worth. Who are victims in domestic violence.

What happens in the home is the tutor for future generational relationships. There is a strong correlation in research between those who witness or experience abuse during childhood and subsequent violence toward children in adulthood.

Approximately 15.5 million American children living in a 2-parent household are exposed to partner violence within the past year.  Approximately 7 million of these children witness severe partner abuse such as being beat up, choked, burned, or life threatened with gun or knife. Women are more often the victims.

Today’s households more frequently consist of persons who are not related (such as a romantic partner) and these relationships tend to increase violent behavior. Not surprisingly, adults involved in interparental violence frequently have poor parenting skills.  Mothers are distracted by basic issues of safety and survival.

Today, I want to highlight “Gaslighting” or emotional manipulation, as one of the main types of domestic violence. It is often the overlooked one because it is not a tangible form of abuse. The term is based on the movie “Gaslight” with Ingrid Bergman who is brainwashed and manipulated by her husband and starts questioning her sanity. Men are more commonly the abuser, as depicted in this movie.

The spouse says, “You’re crazy. You’re worthless. You’re a terrible wife and a whore.” The victim may not believe that about herself to begin with, but after so much time, it becomes part of the picture of her self worth.  Physical abuse leaves scars that are evidence of abuse. But emotional abuse leaves scars that often never heal and don’t leave any proof that she is victimized.

So the victim starts to question reality. Her whole self concept comes from her spouse.

Robert Stern, from Yale Center of Emotional Intelligence, stated, “When the person you love persistently tries to redefine your reality and nothing you do or say makes a difference, you begin to see yourself through their eyes. Maybe I am forgetful. Maybe I am stupid. Maybe I am crazy. You start mistrusting or second-guessing yourself.”

Who would ever date, or even marry someone who is so despicable, you ask. Well, an abuser rarely starts that way. He or she is usually very charming. Very doting on the partner, buying her gifts and showering her with words and tokens of love. She begins to depend on these acts as “signs” of his love. He wants to know her every move, not out of anything manipulative, she thinks, but because he loves me so much and needs me every hour of the day.

Hogwash, I say. This is just behavior of a future stalker.

Anyone who says he can’t live without you needs to live without you.

And so the path to gaslighting starts with control and isolation, even while dating. He convinces his wife to quit her job or sabotages her so she has to quit or get fired. He often gets her to move away from family and friends or makes her choose between them and him. “Your mother never liked me. How can you stand to be around her when she disapproves of our relationship? You’re better off without her.”

An example of one husband is when he kept calling his wife when she’s out with friends with excuses like something was wrong with their daughter. She’d rush back and he’s say, “You’re home so early. Were you not having fun?” The wife said, “On one level, I knew I wasn’t crazy, but he wore me down. After a few years, I felt totally hopeless and worthless. He was literally destroying me. I started to feel like suicide was my only way out.”

Abusers use jealousy a LOT to control. They twist “love” by saying they don’t want their wife out with others because they love her so much and don’t want to lose her. He frequently texts and calls and demands to know where she is. During dating, she thought this was flattering because she was so important to him.

Now, it’s become a dependency chain he’s carefully wrapped around her throat.

Belongings and personal items start to disappear and the abuser will blame it on her absent mindedness or forgetfulness. He often brandishes weapons as a sign of intimidation and control. “You never know when I might need to use this.”  Or he keeps a weapon under his pillow so it’s nearby, always in her mind.

Often gaslighting is accompanied with physical and sexual abuse, but not always.

Why don’t women just leave, is the most common response by those on the “outside” looking in. The partner has so severely eroded his wife’s self esteem she feels she can no longer function outside the controlling abusive partner. It takes about 7 attempts to leave before an abused partner finally breaks free for good.

Women who don’t want to lose their children will stay in abusive relationships. Especially those who are only emotionally abused have no proof, not documentation, to show judge or lawyer and vindicate themselves. The abuser will threaten his wife by telling her if she ever leaves, he will take the children by showing she is mentally unfit to be a mother.

Or he’ll tell her if she ever leaves him, he will kill himself, her, or the kids. So she stays out of guilt and fear.

Another might be religion. Partners who attend organized religion stay together in abuse marriages longer. A husband may use religious dominance to justify his emotional control. “God gave you to me; you belong to me and you need to do as I say.” They tell the wife to stop seeing her family because the Bible says to “leave mother and father and cleave unto your spouse.” One wife admitted, “I was like his slave, sexually and physically. But I hid it because I was embarrassed and I didn’t want the marriage to fail.”

Finally, a big reason is money. He has controlled everything. Financial abuse is estimated to be in about 99% of emotional control cases. Some make their partner account for every penny, or only give them an “allowance” if they do some extraordinary act set up by the abuser (for example, she has to get on scale and lose a certain amount of weight) or they run down the wife’s credit rating so she is trapped.

Ginny Graves, author, of an article called “How I Broke Free” with stories of 6 survivors, shares 5 money tips to help protect the abused partner. So I’ll end with these tips to empower women everywhere in the world.

  1. Maintain full access to all credit cards, bank accounts, etc.
  2. Make all money decisions jointly.
  3. Get individual credit cards.
  4. Know S.S. and bank account numbers of you and your children.
  5. Be alert to emotional abuse signs regarding money matters.

Happy Women’s Day. And may it truly be a happy day for all women.