The Shame of Emotional Abuse

Posted By on Jan 23, 2014 |


This is a guest post by Carrie Schmeck.

I was a victim of emotional abuse.

There. I said it.

It’s still a very hard thing to admit.

Emotional abuse is different from physical abuse in that it leaves no visible scars. There are no bruises to testify. No scratches or broken bones for proof.

Emotional abuse is silent. Unrecognized usually. Often missed by even the victim. It’s a study in confusion, a steady separation of real versus manipulated emotional response.

I hesitate to admit my abuse. Because to admit it is to take on the onus of proof that I was. And to admit it is to feel the shame in spending years as an unwitting victim.

With physical abuse, the evidence is clear. No one questions blood. But they do question what sounds like a sensational claim, an unseen allegation of his word versus hers. It’s a particularly ironic and nefarious conundrum that keeps victims quiet and suffering. At the core of our abuse, we are told we are emotionally imbalanced and we have enough belief in this idea that we stay silent and accept what most would reject at first hint.

I never saw it. In fact, I didn’t even believe it until a friend suggested I look it up. I’m not one for histrionics so I dismissed the idea at first. After all, I am a bright, thinking woman. How could I be emotionally abused?But I was finally at the place where I had had enough of everything. I was ready to say how unhappy I really was, to look at my life for reals and figure out the best course for a fix.

When I finally conceded to browse the internet for definitions, my jaw dropped to the floor.

I hadn’t gone looking to prove something I already believed, I’d gone looking to appease a friend. But there I sat, chilled to the bone and glued to the screen, reading the details of my life. Check, check, check and check. It wasn’t a sort of kind of confirmation. It was absolute and it changed my thinking absolutely.

I was no longer a frustrated wife with emotional issues, as my then-spouse insisted. I was a victim of abuse who needed to save herself.

A physical abuser cannot deny his aggression toward his victim. He may not understand why he snaps and hits, but it’s hard to argue a clenched fist. What’s heartbreaking about emotional abuse is there is probably as much unawareness on the part of the abuser as there is for the abused which makes the admission and strategy for dealing with it rather tricky. To be fair, he seemed equally (and genuinely) horrified to discover his role but we differed on our routes to recovery. He insisted we stay together and he would stop whatever he was doing to cause my emotional issues.

I’ve written before how I don’t like labels and here were two: emotional abuser and victim. Couldn’t I just say he was unkind and forego the colloquialism? Though tempting, in this case, applying a label helped save me from myself.

This was no longer about learning to communicate and do the marriage dance better. This was about getting out from under invalidation and manipulation and finding a safe place where I could sew pieces of my broken perceptions and emotional experiences back together. This was about understanding myself as a willing victim and learning to recognize abusive behavior before it hurt me. I needed to heal and I needed him to show proof he understood his own motives and make moves to change. Abusers don’t just stop. And victims don’t suddenly erect boundaries when our feelings and reality have been so distorted for so long.

For me, there was no other option but physical separation as I educated myself about emotional abuse, how it manifests and its ugly effects. The space proved telling. Not all abusers can live with the guilt long enough to root out causes and move toward health. And not all victims learn to believe in themselves enough to stay free, either. Comparing myself to a physically abused victim, while it might sound dramatic, kept his light-hearted and romantic attempts at reconciliation at bay. Until I saw proof of behavioral change, I wasn’t budging. The proof and movement never materialized.

Emotional abuse is often unintended but it is real and often more damaging than physical abuse. It brings powerlessness, fear, hurt and anger and comes couched as guidance, teaching and advice though its outcomes are belittling, erosion of self-confidence, esteem and value.

Every instance is unique and I won’t pretend I’m an expert except to say, I knew my life when I saw it outlined. If you suspect you or someone you love is being emotionally abused, please educate yourself. Here are a few sites I found particularly helpful:

Counseling Center

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign

Psych Central

Carrie Schmeck is a marketing content and features writer from Redding, CA. Her work has appeared in USATodayCollege,  NextStepU, QSR, Clubhouse and Enjoy magazine. After being married nearly 27 years, she is rediscovering life on her own, enjoying her three (plus one and a half) kids and racking up miles with close friends on her road bike.