Emotionally Abused Women
Beverly Engel is a marriage and family therapist. She joined us to discuss the emotional abuse of women, how to stand up to an abusive partner, get out of an abusive relationship, and even deal with emotional abuse in the workplace.
David Roberts:HealthyPlace.com moderator.
The people in blue are audience members.
Beginning of Chat Transcript
David: Good Evening. I'm David Roberts. I'm the moderator for tonight's conference. I want to welcome everyone to HealthyPlace.com. Our topic tonight is "Emotionally Abused Women." Our guest is author and marriage and family therapist, Beverly Engel. Beverly has been in practice for about 25 years. She has also authored about a dozen self-help books, focusing mainly on women's issues. The one that may interest you tonight is entitled: Emotionally Abused Women.
Good Evening, Beverly, and welcome to HealthyPlace.com. We appreciate you being our guest tonight. So we're all on the same track, can you please define "emotional abuse" for us?
Beverly Engel: Emotional abuse is any type of abuse that is not physical in nature. It can include everything from verbal abuse to the silent treatment, domination to subtle manipulation.
There are many types of emotional abuse but most is done in an attempt to control or subjugate another person. Emotional abuse is like brainwashing in that it systematically wears away at the victim's self-confidence, sense of self, trust in her perceptions and self-concept.
David: Sometimes, we all take "jabs" at another person. At what point is it classified as "abuse?"
Beverly Engel: Emotional abuse occurs over time. It is a pattern of behavior rather than a one time incident.
David: Some people have difficulty determining if they are being abused. How does one know if they are being emotionally abused? Are there signs or symptoms we should look for?
Beverly Engel:Whenever you begin to doubt your perceptions or your sanity, when you become increasingly depressed, when you begin to isolate yourself from those who are close to you - all these are signs of emotional abuse.
David: What is it within ourselves that allows us to be emotionally abused?
Beverly Engel: Most often it is low self-esteem. Victims of emotional abuse usually come from abusive families where they either witnessed one parent abusing another or where they were emotionally, physically or sexually abused by a parent.
David: Let's say, for instance, that a person is being emotionally abused. What can they do about it?
Beverly Engel: The first step, as in most things, is to acknowledge the abuse. Then I recommend people go back into their childhood to discover who their original abuser was. This information will help the victim understand why she chose to be with an abusive partner in the first place.
She will also need to begin setting clearer limits and boundaries. More than likely, since she has not trusted her perceptions, she has been allowing her partner to walk all over her in many ways. Once she recognizes she is being abused she will need to let her partner know she will no longer allow such behavior. This does not mean he will necessarily stop but it will alert him to the fact that she is now aware of what is going on.
A woman who is being emotionally abused also needs to reach out for help. More than likely she has become isolated from others, perhaps because her partner is threatened by her friends and family. She needs to end this isolation in order to gain more strength and clarity, either by joining a support group, a chat room such as this one, or by seeking therapy.
David: You know, Beverly, many women are afraid to "stand up" for themselves and say, "please don't say or do those types of things to me anymore." One of the things they are afraid of is that the abuse might escalate or, on the other end of the spectrum, they might end up all alone without their spouse or partner.
Beverly Engel: Yes, these are real concerns. Sometimes emotional abuse can escalate into physical abuse. And sometimes standing up to an abuser will make him leave the relationship, but the price of staying silent is too big a price to pay.
When emotional abuse escalates into physical abuse, there are usually signs along the way that the other person is violent. If this is the case, it can be too risky to stand up to this kind of person. So I wouldn't recommend it. But a woman can still take a stand by leaving the relationship, by insisting they seek therapy, etc. If there have been no signs of violence, most women are safe in taking a stand. Emotional abusers push their limits. They will go as far as their partner will allow.
When they learn their partner will no longer allow it, some will back off. Others may try different tactics. Still, it is worth the risk. Many emotional abusers don't even know they are being abusive. They are merely continuing a pattern they themselves learned in their childhood, most likely from their family of origin.
Some emotional abusers are shocked to realize they are acting like their parents and some are willing to get help in order to stop the behavior, especially if they feel they will lose their partner if they continue to be abusive.
David: Here are a few audience questions on this subject:
Maera: My boyfriend just left me and I know consciously he is an abuser, but I want to call him so bad. It is like an addiction. How can I break that?
Beverly Engel: I suggest you take this time to focus on yourself if you can. Work on revisiting your family of origin to discover why you chose an abusive partner. Try to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. Try to keep yourself occupied in positive ways instead of allowing yourself to obsess about him.
David: You mentioned a moment ago, that some men don't even realize they are being emotionally abusive. I'm wondering if you would categorize "emotional abuse" as being a "lesser" evil than physical or sexual abuse?
I ask that because some women just say "well at least he doesn't hit me."
Beverly Engel: Not at all. Emotional abuse can be just as damaging as physical or sexual abuse and sometimes even more so because the damage is so deep and all encompassing.
When you are hit, the pain will subside a lot faster than emotional abuse, which continues to go around and around in your head endlessly. There is nothing worse you can do to a person than make them doubt their sanity or their perceptions.
Emotional abuse damages your self-esteem and sense of self to such a degree that many women are unable to leave the situation for fear they cannot make it on their own. If you are told every day that you are stupid, that no one else will ever want you, that you are making things up you will not have the strength and courage to believe in yourself. Soon you'll feel like the only option you have is to stay with this abusive person.
David: Here's an audience comment that speaks directly to what you are saying Beverly:
alfisher46: My husband will never leave me. He wouldn't have anyone to control. He's never hit me, but he has gotten violent and scared me. Yes, he refuses to believe he is abusive, then he is nice, then it starts all over again. He has my head spinning in circles. These bruises don't heal.
Beverly Engel: Yes, some women find comfort in the fact that a man will never leave them. These are usually women who were abandoned in some way when they were growing up - emotionally or physically. But again, the price you pay for knowing he will never leave you can be your very sanity.
paprika: If a person feels like they are walking on eggshells around their partner, are they most likely in a mentally abusive relationship?
Beverly Engel: Paprika - yes, this is exactly how women in an emotionally abusive relationship feel. They are afraid to say anything for fear of angering their partner. They are constantly blamed for anything that goes wrong. They feel like they have to be careful about everything they say and do.
oiou40: I was emotionally abused when I was an adolescent by my father. I have been in counseling three different times and the feelings go away for a bit but always come back. What can I do to really deal with them to the point that they no longer interfere with my life?
Beverly Engel: oiou40 - My first question to you is why have you been in therapy 3 times? Why did you stop therapy each time? Sometimes the answer to your question is simply that you need to stay in therapy longer and keep working on the issues with your father. It takes time to overcome emotional abuse, especially if you were a child when the abuse first began.
beth2020: How can you overcome the fear to take the first step? To stand up to someone is my biggest fear.
Beverly Engel: beth 2020 - I understand. Fear can be crippling. Perhaps you aren't quite ready to stand up to someone yet. Perhaps you need more time to heal from the emotional abuse from your past and to gain more self-confidence by surrounding yourself with supportive people.
Keep trying Beth. It takes time to gain the courage and confidence to stand up for yourself. You can start by leaving a room or your home when the abuse begins. That way you won't be adding more abuse to your already wounded soul.
David: I think that's a good point, Beverly. You don't have to stand up to anyone to get help for yourself. You can still get therapy, attend a support group, and see supportive friends without confronting the abuser.
Beverly Engel: Yes, standing up for yourself may be the last step, especially if you've tried in the past and were knocked down (emotionally or physically).
David: Here's a comment from another audience member facing a difficult situation:
alfisher46: I'm still in denial about being abused because it doesn't happen all the time, but he has threatened me and threatened to take my daughter. He's got me right where he wants me. I'm scared to come home. I never know if he will be happy or mad. I have learned how NOT to set him off - by keeping my mouth shut. I keep telling myself I need more time also, but I keep getting depressed.
Beverly Engel: Alfisher46 - Yes, when an abuser threatens to take your children they do have you where they want you, but in most cases, that is all it is - a threat. Legally, he more than likely will be unable to gain full custody of your child.
The longer you stay in the relationship the less strength and courage you'll have to leave. And you do need to consider your daughter's welfare. She is being emotionally abused by being in his presence as he abuses you. She is learning very bad lessons about relationships by watching you and your husband interact.
I know it is difficult but you do need to continue working on coming out of denial and you need to seek some help. A good therapist will help you gain the strength to leave. I am concerned about the fact that you say you are depressed. This is not a good sign at all. Please seek some help.
David: I remember at the start of the conference, you said emotional abuse can really wear the victim down. I'm getting a lot of comments from people who are "too emotionally worn down" to do anything positive to help themselves. What would you suggest to those people?
Beverly Engel: I suggest they seek professional help or join a support group. You may not be able to do this on your own. There is no shame in saying that you need help.
I am not trying to drum up business, but I do offer e-mail counseling and I am willing to help anyone who has more questions after the conference is over.
David: Beverly's website is here: http://www.beverlyengel.com
Her book, Emotionally Abused Women, can be purchased by clicking on the link.
Beverly also has a companion book entitled Encouragements for the Emotionally Abused Women which lets you know that you are not out there alone and is designed to lift your spirits and focus on positive growth.
Here's the link to the HealthyPlace.com Abuse Issues Community. You can click on this link and sign up for the mail list at the top of the page, so you can keep up with events like this.
If you haven't been on the main HealthyPlace.com site yet, I invite you to take a look. There's over 9000 pages of content.
We have a lot of questions, here's the next one:
Betsyj: What if, in a marriage, the abuse was going both ways from both partners and now, as I am separated on my way to divorce, I feel like I nitpick everyone I meet?
Beverly Engel: This is a very common problem. I am glad you are aware of your nit picking because now you can begin to change. I suggest you look at the following possibilities:
- Have you become involved with someone who is rather passive and have in essence, turned the tables and are now the dominant person in the relationship?
- Do you have a great deal of anger left over from the previous relationship that you are now taking out on your current partner?
- Do you need more emotional and physical space from your partner than you are getting - are you feeling smothered? Sometimes we nitpick so we will start a fight and gain some distance.
GreenYellow4Ever: How can we help women (maybe our own mothers or sisters) if we see that they are being emotionally abused?
Beverly Engel: Good question, GreenYellow. While they might not be completely receptive to it, I suggest you tell them directly if you think they are being emotionally abused. Explain what emotional abuse is since many people don't really understand it, then offer support.
David: We've been talking about emotional abuse at home or in personal relationships. Here's a workplace question, Beverly:
rikki: How would you handle emotional abuse in the workplace?
Beverly Engel: It is difficult since you certainly can't confront a boss or manager very easily, not without risking your job, that is. But if the emotional abuse is severe enough, there are steps you can take, such as making a complaint to personnel or employee relations. In most situations, however, you need to remind yourself that this person has problems and that what he or she is saying to you is not true.
The primary reason why emotional abuse is so effective is that we tend to buy into what the other person is saying and start to doubt ourselves. Get some outside support so this doesn't happen. Talk about the problem with friends so you can get some feedback.
If you are being emotionally abused by a coworker, you can stand up for yourself without risking your job. Simply tell the person that you don't appreciate what was said or that you found their behavior offensive or hurtful. You can add that you assume they didn't mean to hurt you but you would appreciate it if they would stop. This way they won't tend to become as defensive.
The bottom line is - if the emotional abuse is severe, you may need to leave the job rather than allow it to damage you emotionally. No job is worth that.
David: And if it's your boss or manager, and you address the issue, I'm assuming that you would advise the person to have a "plan B" and keep in mind they may have to start looking for another job.
Beverly Engel: Yes. Most bosses who are emotionally abusive are not about to stop simply because you stand up for yourself. In fact, they may increase the abuse. So yes, know that you may need to seek another job.
chinchillahug: I was emotionally abused by a trusted church pastor. He became very controlling. Now, even 3 years after that relationship ended, I'm still plagued with anger and distrust. I am wary of male authority. I've been in therapy but I can't shake the anger. It poisons my being.
Beverly Engel: Are you still in therapy? If not, I suggest you go back into it. You didn't say how your pastor abused you. Was there a sexual relationship? Were you working for him?
chinchillahug: Emotionally abuse, no sexual.
Beverly Engel: I also suggest you discover who your original abuser was. Some of your anger may actually be at this person in addition to the pastor.
David: I know it's getting late. Thank you, Beverly, for being our guest tonight and for sharing this information with us. And to those in the audience, thank you for coming and participating. I hope you found it helpful.
Also, if you found our site beneficial, I hope you'll pass our URL around to your friends, mail list buddies, and others. http://www.healthyplace.com
Thank you again, Beverly.
Beverly Engel: Thank you for the opportunity to connect with your audience.
David: Good night everyone and I hope you have a pleasant weekend.
Disclaimer: We are not recommending or endorsing any of the suggestions of our guest. In fact, we strongly encourage you to talk over any therapies, remedies or suggestions with your doctor BEFORE you implement them or make any changes in your treatment.
Last Updated: 30 March 2017
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD