Emotional Abuse: the Invisible Side of Domestic Abuse

More often than not, we associate domestic abuse with physical violence, and assume that this is the only kind of abuse that women can face in relationship. But emotional abuse is a pervasive side of domestic abuse that we don't often hear about. Here, Mary Jackson (not her real name) gives her story of emotional abuse.

This contains material that may be triggering for women who have experienced domestic abuse. 

Not everyone has a full understanding of domestic abuse. I didn’t when I was younger but I do now. By far it is mostly carried out by men against women and often involves bruises and broken bones.

But it’s another form I want to talk about. One that can go alongside the physical or separately, often referred to as emotional, mental or psychological abuse. It’s the one that makes a mess of your head on the inside and takes longer to heal. The one that doesn’t kill you physically but can kill you mentally. And it can be very, very ordinary. 

My partner never hit me, unlike a previous one, but years of chipping away at my sense of self, gradually isolating me from friends and family, aggression, blaming, undermining, silencing, all mixed in with love and affection taught me to live in fear and doubt reality. 

He never called me bitch or cow but would ridicule me, belittle me, intimidate me and shout at me so relentlessly for things I hadn’t done that I could feel my mind believing him. And then he’d always let me know what a great guy he was.

This would be confirmed by others, often women, who would tell me how lucky I was because he was warm and cuddly, could cook a meal and liked babies. 

As well as being a master of deception he was also a master at excuse making. They were endless – stress, childhood, pressure at work, pressure of family, money worries, low self-esteem, depression and so it went on. But always it was because of me.

This isn’t about anger management. It’s the things a controlling man gets angry about that are the problem. Like his partner having contact with friends, family, going away for a night, doing a course, having a conversation with someone (especially if that person happens to be male), in fact doing anything that’s outwith his control, and worst of all, standing up to him.

Many times I’ve heard it questioned (even by counsellors) how someone can have the power to do that unless you let them, as if such a thing is impossible. Well they can and they do and it happens all the time. Many times I’ve heard the myth ‘you just need to stand up to him’. This is precisely when an abusive man will be at his most abusive. He will find a way to punish you, and some women pay for it with their lives.

One of the effects of long term abuse is crippling self-blame. Any suggestion that I was somehow responsible for my partner’s behaviour only hammered me lower into the ground and was a gift right into his hands. On perpetrator’s programmes the fundamental lesson a man has to learn is that he must take one hundred percent responsibility for his abusive behaviour, no excuses.

It took me a long time to learn that my partner would never be my equal. He had to be in control and the only way he could ensure that was to keep me down.

Sometimes talk of glass ceilings in the workplace can seem remote when this is normal life for many women at home. The cost to women’s mental and physical health is huge. Nicola Sturgeon wants to tackle domestic abuse and I hope she means it. So ordinary is it to some degree or another, we don’t know what society could be without its ripple effect running rife through generations of families. As it is with closure of refuges there is no place for a woman (and children) to physically go, and there are no free counselling services specifically designed for domestic abuse - the effects of which can go on for a lifetime.

I hope for an independent Scotland, but without a new way of living that tackles the injustices, inequalities and suffering that result from a prevailing misogynist culture, our country and our world will never blossom. As long as these issues are still with us we will need feminism and we will need women-only organisations like Women for Independence.


If you or somebody you know is experiencing domestic abuse of any kind, you can contact Scottish Women's Aid on 0131 226 6606 or the 24hr National Domestic Violence Helpline (run in partnership between Women's Aid and Refuge) on 0808 2000 247. Women in Scotland can find their local Women's Aid group here

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