While in a conversation with a new friend I noticed the awkward moment coming to pass where I need to share more of my story than of what you see on the outside: southern momma of three, witty fabulous wife to my lucky husband, blah blah blah. Ha! To fill in the gaps there are bits of my past that write the story. My story. And it doesn’t sound like a pretty tale. It usually ends with someone whispering that she was sexually assaulted too or that her sister was in an abusive relationship. More than not there’s a hint of identifying with me, sometimes a brief look of pain or even shame. There’s always an apology for what I went through, always kind words and appreciation for being honest.
My life experiences all weave together to explain lapses of self-confidence in my life, or why I never thought I’d be happily married with children until I met my mister at 33. And where in this world being divorced is highly predictable and even cheered on as a rite of passage when two folks try but happen to fall out of love, for a church going “good girl” it’s still difficult for me to bring up my truth without a bit of dread.
What occurred today in talking with my friend about the various types of abuse beyond getting socked in the eye was zeroing in on what verbal abuse looks like. I was sharing with her that you know what to do if your spouse breaks your arm or throws you down a flight of stairs. To me that was a green light to leave that the world would nod along with. But when the world can’t see your bruises and scars, even praising your “beautiful” couple-hood, you doubt that what’s happening to you behind closed doors is really a form of abuse. Paired with extreme derogatory comments made over time, your self worth is lower than basement level. “Maybe this is how all marriages really work? Maybe he’s right. Maybe I am an idiot, crazy, hideous, garbage, worthless, etc.” If there are no broken bones, is this really abuse?
A few minutes prior when discussing our mutual love of writing I had said to my friend “I just love how words are so powerful. They truly heal.” Then my friend shared how great God is in that the very thing that had been used to cut me down time and again in my previous relationship – words – were the very thing that I want to use now to encourage others. Where words once broke my heart, God took that very tool and used it for good. Words were once the weapons to silence me, but for the grace of God they are a wellspring that distance me from that past while allowing me to provide hope to others possibly in that very dark and lonely place.
The scary thing about verbal abuse is that it can be tied to emotional abuse serving a double whammy. When the effects of verbal abuse aren’t working for the abuser then it can escalate to physical abuse or bullying such as pinching, arm twisting, barricading in a room or pinning the victim to a wall or bed while leveraging the hateful words. Unfortunately most women in such a situation are in too deep when they realize other folks who love them don’t talk to them in such a degrading manner. Or the abuser has done such a bang up job of shredding the victim’s self worth that the victim actually internalizes all of the negative comments hating herself even more for being so “pathetic.”
The verbal abuser doesn’t usually come out on the first date with “you are such a piece of trash, nobody would want you. You should be grateful I’ll sleep with your fat ass.” It’s a slow, diabolical, quicksand sort of happening so if the victim has a moment of awakening as to how she’s treated, she’s already drowning without a lifeline. If he’s a successful abuser he has already cut off her communication with her best friends or damaged her relationship with her family either directly or by poisoning her mind against them. He may even force her to choose him over them.
Throw in the shame of divorcing within the church or having to admit to co-workers, friends and family that you are separating to their utter shock. Being “verbally/emotionally abused” is usually news to those even in the closest circles due to the outgoing charming nature of some abusers. Years of shame has probably caused the victim to cover all along for the abuser. In fact she may have woven a beautiful story to the outside world. For me it was the thought that my parents would have to admit their daughter was a divorcee in their Christmas card. Yes looking back that reason to freeze in my misery seems ridiculous, but at the time it kept me in the abusive relationship from verbal/emotional to finally physical when I knew it was time to bow out. And the irony of the Christmas card? My Mother received at least ten calls and cards from dear friends admitting that they had been divorced years earlier only to one day find love so to encourage me and let me know they were so proud.
So how do you know when it’s abuse? Do you know how to teach your daughter and your son the warning signs in their future relationships? I could have written up a few pointers and several came to mind, but I think that Dear Abby nailed this red flag warning list years ago so I’ll let her list do the talking:
(800) 799-SAFE (7233)