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Column: Verbal abuse in the home can be as damaging as fists

Psychological torture can be as destructive as violence – and it’s much easier to conceal, writes Paula McGovern.

Paula McGovern

THIS WEEK, SONAS Housing and Meath Women’s Refuge launched a verbal abuse campaign. Targeting women, this month-long campaign is designed to raise awareness of the issue of verbal, emotional and mental abuse in domestic violence situations. It was launched for St Valentine’s Day because this can be a very difficult day for women in abusive situations, with the focus on perfect romantic love.

I was surprised at the major reaction to the campaign – many people have said to me in the last few days that they never thought about verbal abuse in this way. Most people still associate domestic violence purely with physical violence, or believe it is only significant if there is a physical aspect.

Survivors of domestic violence are all too familiar with the fact that physical abuse rarely happens in isolation. A great deal of abuse can also be emotional, mental and psychological. A physical act of violence is very rarely designed to purely hurt a person; it’s a tactic used to disempower a person and control them. Domestic abuse in any form is a pattern of behaviour that has at its core the aim of controlling and having power over another person.

The tactics of abuse may differ – a perpetrator may use more verbal threats and put-downs, or psychological abuse, or physical assaults – but ultimately the aim is the same: to control and to take power away from another human being; to keep them in their lowly place whatever way possible.

Typically verbal abuse precedes physical outbursts; the physical violence often only happens when the abuser’s verbally controlling tactics are failing to keep the woman ‘in her place’. Some perpetrators never have to raise a finger to their partners because they can gain the level of control they want using intimidation tactics, humiliating their partners, putting them down and making threats. Verbal abuse is just one of an arsenal of controlling behaviours; however it is one that we believe needs more recognition. The reaction we have received in the last few days is testimony to this.

‘Many women identify verbal abuse as hurting them the most”

The irony of verbal abuse is that it is the one form that is so hidden, difficult to prove, so minimised in society and yet it is the one that so many women identify as hurting them the most. If a woman experiences physical abuse she can name what is happening and there are bruises and scars to prove it. Verbal abuse can have a hugely debilitating effect emotionally and psychologically but because of the lack of tangible evidence it can be harder for women to name it or to show its impact.

No one goes to A&E because they have been humiliated and ridiculed and it’s difficult to file a complaint to the guards to say that your partner isolates you from your friends. For these reasons women often stay in situations of verbal abusiveness for a long time.

Survivors of verbal abuse speak about the sense of helplessness they felt, the sense that they have no evidence, no proof, no one will believe them. This can be exacerbated by perpetrators undermining the credibility of the woman with family, friends or outside agencies.

One survivor of verbal abuse said that her husband went into a panic one evening and told her to ring the guards immediately as there was an intruder in their attic. The woman did so but when the guards arrived out he went to the door and told them that this was not the case; that his wife suffers from paranoia and mental illness and so not to pay any attention to calls for help from her again. Other survivors say how their partners would hide their belonging and change the time on the clocks in an attempt to make her think she was going crazy.

This continual undermining and controlling behaviour can be just as destructive as physical abuse, with survivors saying the scars from verbal assaults can last for years; lifetimes. These psychological scars leave people emotionally and mentally broken down, unsure of themselves, unable to recognise their true value and unable to trust anyone or anything. It can cause serious long-term mental health problems and the stress caused by living with long-term abuse can also have long-term physical health consequences.

‘Imagine being called useless, stupid or ugly at every opportunity’

It stands to reason of course. Imagine being called useless, stupid or ugly at every opportunity. Imagine every time you did something; it was wrong. Imagine being unsure of every step you take, knowing your partner was one step behind you, sneering; scorning; calling you crazy. Continual humiliation, criticism and negative comments eventually get into your head. The really awful thing is that living with these pervasive messages can become you – there may be an initial struggle but many women eventually take these messages on as her own identity.

One woman who has been through the Sonas service said her ex-partner controlled every aspect of the household and her personal life and appearance. She said she challenged him for a while but he was so much louder, aggressive and stronger and eventually, without realising, she gave up and slipped into a sort of numb acceptance. She said she began to agree with him that she was the problem; she was the awful, worthless, ugly thing he said she was. He was right – she was lucky he was with her. Like he said, couldn’t he have had the pick of women and yet somehow he chose her, even though she was so awful.

She fell into a depression and took medication to help, which numbed her further. It was only when she saw her partner abuse their child in a similar way and she could see the negative impacts on her child – the low stooped head, the lack of confidence, the sad pained face – she found some strength. It wasn’t easy but she eventually left. She said it took her a long time to fully realise all of the disempowering and negative messages she had internalised. She said what made it even sadder is that she could see her children had internalised some of the negative insults in the same way. She has now regained her lost confidence and is positive about her future again.

To get out of this sort of abuse at home takes a feat of confidence and strength, but these are the very qualities the abuse attacks, making it even more difficult to leave. Sometimes what gives people strength is knowing they are not alone, knowing there is help available and simply knowing that they don’t have to put up with being controlled and bullied in their own home. This campaign is designed to raise this awareness – there is help out there. Verbal abuse is still abuse. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can break your soul.

Paula McGovern is policy and communications officer with Sonas Housing.

The campaign is gendered because Sonas works solely with female victims of domestic violence. Sonas recognises domestic violence as a gendered crime that affects women disproportionately. It uses the internationally agreed definition agreed by the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Sonas acknowledges that men can also be victims of domestic violence. Sonas believes every person, of any gender, race or creed, has the right to live free from abuse.

About the author:

Paula McGovern

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