Abuse, Authenticity, Being True To Yourself, Cultural Traits, Culture, Emotional Abuse, Human Nature, Lovers, Physical Abuse, Quality of Life, Relationships

What is Abuse? A New Look at an Old Evil

(About a 5 minute read)

It is quite easy to see and dismiss non-physical abuse as merely to-be-expected normal day-to-day interactions between men and women.  This dismissive attitude is helped along by our tendency to think of abuse as in all ways extreme.

For instance, if a man punches a woman hard enough to leave a bruise, most of us would see that as abuse, but how many of us would if he only lightly punches her arm, or merely slaps were face with much less than head-turning force?  The assumption seems to be that that actions must be notably hard or harsh to constitute genuine abuse.

The same principle applies even more so when it comes to non-physical abuse. Here, some people don’t even recognize verbal, emotional, or psychological abuse as abuse at all.  Furthermore those that do, tend to — again — demand it be harsh or exceptional before they see it as abuse.

A man who reduces his wife to uncontrollable tears with his loud criticisms of her weight and figure is one thing.  But if another man merely unnecessarily criticisms her housekeeping?  How can that be real abuse?  Isn’t that just normal, daily living together as a couple?

But one way to look at abuse is to ask ourselves: Is someone — man or woman — better off with their partner than they’d be alone or with someone else?  It can be done, but I think it’s hard to argue that, if your behavior towards someone makes them feel worse about themselves and life than they would otherwise, you should consider you might very well be abusing that person.

However, I think a much better definition of abuse might be this one: “Abuse is any behavior towards another person that results in their becoming unnecessarily alienated from their true self.”

Now sometimes it cannot be called abuse to alienate someone from themselves. For instance, to alienate a pedophile from molesting children.  Who would argue that’s abuse?

But such cases aside, I think it’s a good working definition of abuse to consider it unnecessary alienation.  Note, however, that this would mean many things not often considered genuine abuse would now need be considered so.

For instance, if I were to criticize your singing skills in such a way that you felt developing them further would be a waste of time — that would now be abuse.  Nevertheless, I prefer alienation as the hallmark of abuse because I am a fierce advocate of our human right to be true to ourselves.

Now and then on this blog I have mentioned that my second wife was abusive, and I have even a few times mentioned that I abused my first wife.  In both cases, I mean alienation.  Only the means were different.  My second wife’s abuse of me would be recognized as abuse by most people, I think, despite that she never physically abused me.

My abuse of my first wife, however, would most likely be thought of by most folks as routine husband/wife interactions.

My abuse of my first wife had a profound effect on her.  She became over time an intensely unhappy woman, withdrawn into herself, and scared to express her own needs and views around me. Ironically, I blamed her for that, saying she was dull and boring.

The immediate cause of my abuse was a felt need to cage and control her.  The larger cause, however, were my insecurities. My wife was one of the most beautiful women I’ve known.  She was jaw-dropping and could hush a room for a moment or two upon entering it.

On the other hand, I’m only average looking, and I’m aware of it.  So, almost from the start, I felt she might wake up and realize she could do so much better than stay with me.  Consequently, I sought to cage her, to control her.  Basically, I went about that in two very closely related ways.

First, I intimidated and dominated her intellectually.  Her opinions on any topic were all wrong and in need of correction.  And not just her opinions, her tastes, talents, and values were out of wack too.  Consequently, she needed my guidance merely to think straight about nearly anything.

But I didn’t stop there.  I sought to alienate and then isolate her from her family and friends, especially her mother.  I did not do that to the extent some abusers do it, but the effort was there nonetheless.

Now expressed as I just have, it might look more pronounced than it was.  At the time, there was not a person around us, not even her mother, who considered my behavior abusive. It was all just normal couple dynamics.  Nothing to see here, move on.

But as I mentioned, it did have the consequence that she was alienated from herself.

Today, I have known so many similar cases that I’m almost willing to believe partner abuse is pandemic worldwide. And one of the most notable things about it to my mind is how widely it is accepted as normal.

From time to time I get emails from blog readers describing how unhappy they are, even though they don’t know why, and then asking me if I happen to know what’s wrong with them.  Is it them? Is it their partner? Is it their life circumstances?  Usually, once I’ve asked some pointed questions it turns out to be their partner is abusing them.

But the striking thing is, they so seldom know it until it is pointed out to them.  Only then does it become obvious.

Questions? Comments?

18 thoughts on “What is Abuse? A New Look at an Old Evil”

  1. I think another working definition might be “dumping your shit on other people.” As you point out in your unusually reflective memories of your relationship with your first wife, you now see how you acted toward her as a consequence of your own insecurities at the time.

    I had the kind of verbally and emotionally abusive parent that you read about. A relationship with my mother as an adult became an impossibility. Her textbook narcissism — well into the state of personality disorder, where no real change is possible — could go underground for longer or shorter times, but it always eventually surfaced in reaction to whatever she perceived as a threat, even if it might be hard for another person to imagine what that threat could be (unless you knew the predicament well). And bam, everything and everyone in her near neighborhood had to be trashed, derided, devalued and berated. It was shit-dumping — ab-use, as in using another person to carry your issues instead of shouldering them yourself. (Interestingly, one of the things that maddened me as a teenager was her repeated injunctions to “USE people!” meaning that I was a fool to choose friends because of mutual liking and loyalty instead of those that I could “use” to get ahead. Whatever she thought that meant.)

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  2. Thank you, Paul, for sharing insights from your first marriage where you behaved abusively towards your wife. I think your honesty – to us, your readers, but more importantly, to yourself – about what is abuse, what abuse does to the other, and the nasty effects of staying in an abusive relationship, is really commendable. I have to applaud that honesty, because you have taken responsibility for your actions, and it sure looks like you’ve learned from it.

    Let’s just say – I can really relate to what happened to your wife in your first marriage. And I know how difficult it is to explain to the world what non-physical abuse looks like… because it doesn’t have a “face”, it doesn’t leave visible “scars”, and it usually looks like “routine” couple quarrels. But this type of insidious daily abuse is toxic, because it quietly drains you the very marrow of your existence.

    I hope more people will be willing to expand their understanding of abuse, and the terrible consequences of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sindhuja, I think long term we’ll win this battle to make people aware of the real nature and scope of abuse. Unless we get knocked back to the stone age by war or something, we’ll win because we have truth on our side.

      Sorry to hear what happened to you. Sounds like my second marriage.

      I will gratefully accept your wonderful compliments for being honest with you and my other readers — but not for taking responsibility for being an abuser. That’s just duty.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for such a candid piece of writing. You must have done a lot of work to have such incredible insight into your past behavior and internal workings. It’s not easy to reveal our dark parts. I applaud you.

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  4. It is a powerful insight that you have learned from your experiences, Paul. Not many people get there, or ‘get it’. I liken it to Chinese water torture – drop by drop until it eventually becomes excruciatingly painful and erodes resistance. When immersed in such a toxic and controlling relationship it is hard to see it for what it is – until something wrests you out of it and you can be an observer of the dynamic.

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  5. Thank you for that observation, Pascal. I think it’s an important one. Abuse — very much including psychological abuse — is not only a core concern of mine, but also something that I think any good society would make a top priority fighting.

    And welcome to the blog. I hope to see you around.

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  6. Paul, thank you for writing on this topic. For a long time, I had no idea I was being emotionally (etc.) abused. Instead, I took refuge in the idea that I was hopelessly damaged/not trying hard enough, because it meant I didn’t have to challenge the status quo (among many, many other complex issues). I was already a lost cause, so why make the effort/go through the pain of change? I thought I must be crazy. He told me I was crazy. But I knew I wasn’t. My counselor knew I wasn’t.

    Over time, things got so bad that I ended up at the hospital, suicidal, mind shattered, and finally willing to believe something different.

    I love my life. I love myself (sometimes too much). But I wanted to throw it all away because the pain of those disparate realities was too much. All those lies ended up like a thousand-piece orchestra in my head, each instrument playing a different note so loudly that it became a wall of sound that was so overwhelming I’d do anything to make it stop.

    I have told people (friends! Elders at my church!) with my own mouth some of the blatantly abusive things I experienced, and they don’t… I don’t know… want to believe me? He’s intelligent and charming and suffering and vulnerable, and people like him. They don’t want to think that he treated me that way, because it sounds ridiculous. Why would anyone say or do such incredibly hurtful things to someone they say they love? It’s so much easier to believe I’m exaggerating or making a play for attention. Or that I’m crazy.

    I know it’s a very uncomfortable prospect, but I wish that we as people would be willing to sit with pain and suffering instead of brushing it aside and avoiding it. I understand why people don’t want to – I didn’t want to, either. But now that I have, I’ve grown so much. I’m a better, stronger, healthier, happier person.

    It’s been about 2.5 years since I found the strength to challenge the lies. I have changed very much. The people closest to me can see that and make appropriate conclusions. But there are also people that I love dearly who are holding out hope that we’ll get back together!

    I don’t understand it except to say that people don’t change until it’s more uncomfortable for them to stay the same than it is to make the change. And unfortunately, when the pain is in someone else’s life, it’s usually more comfortable to turn a blind eye.

    Again, thanks for your post. And thanks for letting me tell my story.

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    1. Thank you for such an eloquent, intelligent, and insightful account on what it’s like to be abused and the fallout from it. I don’t think there’s a thing that needs to be added to it. It’s about as spot on as anyone could get.

      If you’ve only been two and a half years apart from him, you have much to look forward to. It takes a long time to heal from abuse — at least, in my experience — and the journey can be immensely gratifying as you discover yourself making progress.

      Again, thank you. And welcome to the blog. I hope to see you around.

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      1. Thank you 🙂

        It’s been very difficult and very wonderful to, essentially, meet myself for the first time when I’m already an adult. Thank you so much for the very positive seeds of thought. I look forward to watching them grow.

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