Imagine if, halfway through your first date, the guy called you stupid for having bought a house in an up-and-coming neighborhood that he didn’t like, told you that you had a bland palate, and for good measure tacked on that you’d gained weight since he’d first met you. No second date for him, right? In fact, his number might be blocked.
If, one month into dating, he grabbed your arm and dragged you out of a restaurant – embarrassing you in front of the other patrons and staff – going on and on about how this was supposed to be a cheap vacation, how you’d blown the budget already, and you spent too much, you’d hopefully take a step back from the relationship. At the very least.
And if he did any of the above in front of your friends, if they’re anything like mine they’d be sitting you down for a–what the hell do you see in him, you could do better–intervention. But over the course of my marriage, all of the above –and much, much more– became my reality.
That’s one of the problems with verbal abuse. The abuser doesn’t pile it on all at once, or at the beginning of the relationship. It builds slowly. It’s an offhand comment here, often disguised as a compliment. It’s cold, distant behavior which turns into being showered with warmth and love once you do what they want.
Verbal abuse can be cold, distant behavior which turns into being showered with warmth and love once you do what they want.
For example, early in our marriage, my ex lost his job. Sometime during his six-plus months of unemployment, he started nagging me for an Xbox. I’m depressed, I need a pick-me-up, I deserve it, it will help me get over being laid off–I lost track of the whining. I held out for a while, pointing out time and time again that spending four hundred fifty dollars on a gaming system when he didn’t have a job was irresponsible, only to have him push back by pointing out the amount of money in our savings account. I reminded him that we’d need that money if he hadn’t found a job when unemployment ran out, he’d back off for a few days…and then the cycle started up again.
Men sulk and pout and whine. Media portray it as a female attribute but in my experience, the behavior has nothing to do with gender (neither, by the way, does verbal abuse, which is the more prevalent form of abuse for women to engage in). I gave in after a while and bought him the gaming system and all of a sudden I had a sweet, loving, complimentary partner again. Until the next time he wanted something we couldn’t afford.
It also can take the form of supposedly loving requests that are really designed to control and isolate you. Abusers isolate. Slowly but surely your friends are crowded out of your schedule, the double dates turn into “but I just want to spend time with you”, he’s too tired to go to a party with friends, you end up running late and missing a lot of events, until he is the only person in your life. And even if you try to do something you love, you’re punished for it.
Case in point, my son was a little over a year old and I hadn’t been to dance class in so long that my shoes had grown dusty. I asked my ex to watch him for a few hours one night so that I could go to ballet. It took some persuasion but he finally agreed to let me leave. Moving my body again, seeing friends, it felt good. Until I got home.
“Oh my God, C has been such a brat!” my ex exclaimed as I set my bag down by the back door. “He’s been playing politics and whining for attention.” When I knelt down to pick him up, C clawed at my breasts, pulling down my leotard and desperately trying to latch on. “Did you feed him dinner?” I asked. My ex blinked. “Oh. No.”
“He wasn’t being a brat. He was hungry.” It was past seven o’ clock at night, C wasn’t yet at an age when he could self-advocate or identify that he was hungry, and my ex had been too lazy to think “hey, maybe I should feed my kid”. But after that night I was too worried to leave C alone with my ex. I didn’t go to dance class again until after I left him and filed for divorce.
Verbal abuse is closely linked to emotional abuse, and both are particularly insidious. Our society now recognizes physical abuse for what it is–the black eye, the bruised arm–but focusing on this form of abuse leaves other forms less well-known. It wasn’t until friends started telling me that they thought I was being abused that I started to look into it, and realize what was going on. As long as I wasn’t getting hit I thought it didn’t “count.” But the emotional and psychological toll that verbal abuse takes on someone is quite real.
It can take years, and a lot of therapy, to build up your self-esteem and confidence after getting out of a verbally abusive relationship. Even though I’ve grown confident and strong professionally and in my friendships when I started dating someone seriously a few weeks ago I realized that I still had work to do. Be gentle with yourself. The process of destroying your self-worth didn’t happen on the first date, it took time. So, too, will healing. It’s not easy work but you are worth it. And, someday, you won’t need external validation to claim and know that worth. Promise.
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