Commonly minimized as “nothing really serious – not like physical abuse,” verbal and emotional abuse are perhaps two of the most used tools in the abuser’s arsenal. Too many feel that it’s not really a big deal, because there are no visible wounds seared onto the flesh when these tactics are used – although crushing amounts of them can cause a victim to self-harm. This is problematic, because in general (with exception to the more severe injuries), the wounds on our flesh – bruises, swelling, cuts, bite marks, burns, and welts – heal, even if they leave behind some tangible evidence in their wake while the emotional trauma slowly corrodes and compromises our well-being like acid from the inside where no one can see it happening.
Even as we feel it and know the harsh reality of what has been done to us, those on the outside – those who have the gift of not being trapped in our skin – can deny its profoundly scarring effects on our hearts and psyche because there is no physical evidence to be had. If they can deny its severity, then they can deny it’s a problem. If they can deny it’s a problem, then those of us struggling from the effects of emotional trauma can be easily dismissed. If we can be easily dismissed, then no one has to deal with it or acknowledge that it is a viable weapon used against the victim in overwhelming majority of cases of domestic violence.
In addition to this, a tool used by abusers against their victims that few recognize as abusive is forced sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation is actually a hybrid of emotional and physical abuse, because not only are there profound emotional effects on the victim when sleep deprivation is used, there are also dangerous physical effects as well. I have attempted to search out information about forced sleep deprivation in the context of intimate partner violence and have found relatively little information published by medical and psychiatric resources (that is easy to find or comprehensive, at any rate). Most of what I have found above and beyond surface references made by domestic violence agencies noting it as abuse has instead come from personal accounts from survivors of abuse themselves.
I wanted to talk about the concrete impact of verbal and emotional abuse and forced sleep deprivation, because it is often the “invisible” aspects of domestic violence that are the most damaging and hardest to heal. Too many believe that these invisible methods of abuse are of little consequence because physical abuse is a conspicuous and undeniable danger to any victim who finds themselves on the receiving end. So what, then, makes them so dangerous?
The abuser moves in strong, quick, and hard to shower you or (in many cases) smother you with “love.” Referred to as “love-bombing” during the binding phase, an abuser is manipulating you from day one by manufacturing an appearance of caring about you. Appreciating you. Respecting you. Needing and wanting and loving you. They give us all the things we need emotionally, dote on us, never let us down, and act like they support us. They tell you they love that you’re independent, that you don’t have to rely on anyone, how intelligent you are, how considerate and caring and loving…. and beautiful you are. They devour our emotional core ravenously on a reconnaissance mission falsely presented as earnest desire to get to know what makes us who we are, what makes us tick. They seek with reckless abandon our hurts and fears and disappointments, our secrets, our shame, and our failures.
Because they “care” about us.
Because they want to know everything about us.
Because, they claim, they are in awe of our strength.
They even engage in quid-pro-quo, sharing past hurts and disappointments, mistakes, and shame because they know this helps pull you in. Because you view this as refreshing – this vulnerability that perhaps past partners did not share with you – and you feel honored that they would trust you with this information. And you share more. And more. But beware: you have already become ensnared in their trap.
Verbal abuse is used for a short time on its own as a way to condition the victim to small amounts of negativity without alerting them that something is going wrong. Initially, it can be misinterpreted as the abuser having a bad day, because the behavior has not been normalized (yet) in the relationship. The abuser may snap at you and then apologize by saying they are just stressed out, frustrated, tired, or having a bad day. It’s easy to miss, because do we not all have those days occasionally? And up until now, they have been attentive, and caring, and loving, doing kind things for you and sweeping you off your feet, standing up for you, providing backup when needed, all the while you’re unaware that you are being primed.
Once the abuser feels they have appropriately desensitized you to the appearance of negativity, the verbal abuse takes a dark turn, often becoming overt and cruel. As it escalates, their language shifts to ambiguity that is often missed early on. What was initially offered up as a compliment now becomes a suggestion that you do the opposite (always with a “kind” reason) or questioning why you don’t do what they “suggested” you do before. “You look so good with short hair!” becomes “I thought I told I don’t like long hair.” Before you know it, the “I thought I said…” statements turn into “You know I don’t like that, you must be doing that for someone else.” You begin to feel self-conscious, perhaps unreasonable or as though you aren’t being sensitive to their needs, so you begin to adapt your behavior.
Welcome to the early stages of emotional abuse. While you still remain fairly unaware of their actions being manipulative, you still feel something is wrong. Instead of questioning your partner’s behavior, you begin to question yours. This is a result of carefully manipulated gas lighting. During the early stage of emotional abuse, you may think to yourself, “I must have done something that hurt his feelings. He doesn’t usually act that way.” This is also the appearance of self-blame. Notice in the preceding step in the process that the majority of your reaction is to alter your behavior without necessarily assuming the burden of fault. Many of us do this when we recognize our actions offending, insulting or hurting someone unintentionally without claiming the blame for their reaction. We just alter our behavior out of sensitivity to them.
Why? Because we care about them and don’t want them to be offended or hurt by something we do. Because when we care about someone, we try to show it in our interactions with and treatment of them. But now, you should take notice that it has moved beyond showing respect for someone’s feelings. Now you are beginning to tell yourself that his negative reaction – his anger, his hurt, his offense – is your fault. The difference between this may seem small or insignificant, but it’s really not. It’s imperative that you understand that the divide between them is expansive. One is healthy, and one is not.
The abuser senses when you begin to assign fault for their chosen actions to yourself, and this is precisely the point where they escalate the verbal and emotional abuse into pretty nasty, insidiously destructive, and cruel acts that are an assault upon your emotional well-being. Are you independent? Strong-willed? Do you tend to stand up for what’s right? Prepare yourself to go into battle. Prepare yourself to possibly not so much lose those qualities as have them ripped away from you. Prepare yourself to be figuratively gutted. These traits are the bane of an abuser’s existence, because they are a direct and immediate threat to their ability to assume control of you, and the abuser seeks to liquidate them at all costs.
Yes, they know they are breaking you. That is the point. Once we’re broken, it makes really difficult to leave.
By now, you may begin to question them about why they are treating you this way. The abuser does not like this, because you are asserting the right to think freely. This, too, must be eradicated. For each thing you question, they are ready and waiting for the appropriate responses to through you into confusion.
“I can’t believe you’re accusing me of doing that! Have I ever done anything to hurt you? Have I ever been cruel to you? Who was the one who was there for, supporting you, encouraging you, when everyone else (including your family) turned away?! Who helped you then? ME! And now you have the nerve to stand there and accuse me of hurting you? I have never been so insulted! I would NEVER do anything to hurt you. What’s come over you? How could you treat me like this after everything I do?!”
And so on. By the end of the argument, where you were once so sure in the beginning that you were being mistreated, you now resign yourself to being unreasonable. Judgmental. Critical. You did something wrong, you reason. You must have… and then there is that twinge in your stomach, a mild shrinking back in shame. Where did this come from? This self-awareness? This embarrassment? This self-doubt? This…. shame. This feeling of being the bad person.
Once the abuser is aware that the seed of shame has been planted, all bets are off. They know they have purchased our silence. Expect escalation; just how severe this becomes varies from person to person. No two abusers move through the methods of abuse exactly the same, although they do all employ the same general tools. The tools themselves are all textbook. The level of devastation they wreak, however, is not.
That person who loved and respected you for all your intelligence, character, strength, independence, strong will, and beauty (inside and out) now talks of how much they despise you. How you disgust them. How you are stubborn, rude, and selfish. The names we are called are countless. Their verbal venom has now become intricately entwined in veiled threats of harm – both verbal and physical – and you begin to walk deliberately, carefully across those eggshells just desperate not to break them. Not to crack them under the weight of your shame and worthlessness that now swirls about in your head.
You have been emotionally emptied and stuffed full of garbage, conditioned to believe all the hurtful, spiteful, and cruel things being hurled at you. You have now reached the point where you become resigned to being at fault, and even as you try desperately to change yourself, to be a better partner, you can never do or say anything right. That is deliberate, being sucked in the cycle of chasing futility in vain just so you can be of worth again to him. Wanted. Loved. Respected. At this point, leaving will become a battle. You are completely invested and caught up in the entanglement of loving someone who is doing everything they can to break you so you will stay and take it. Without a fight. They plunder you until you are in submission of them.
There is no greater pain in life to helplessly watch and feel yourself die while you are still alive. Hope sheds away like leaves breaking free of autumn boughs and gliding in a slow spiral to the ground. There is where all hope, self-worth, respect, and dignity necrotizes and absorbs into the earth, and your abuser won’t allow you the peace to so much as mourn the loss of your emotional life or identity at his hand. There is no peace. And often times, as was the case for me, when there is no life, hope, or peace in sight, we can start to think that perhaps maybe being dead wouldn’t be so bad. Perhaps, as was the case for me, we can act on it.
The risk of self-harm, depression, and attempted suicide is but one danger of emotional abuse. It also impacts our pre-existing relationships – family, friends, co-workers, by dissociating from our emotional connections. We, in essence become just as much of a stranger to them as we are to ourselves. In many cases, it doesn’t stop merely at straining but completely destroying those relationships. They may feel slighted, as though we do not care about them, and unable to understand our situation they can turn away. Forget about new relationships. If we cannot maintain relationships we already had, how can we expect to put ourselves out there, baring our vulnerability and daring to extend trust to them when the person who was closest to us – the one person on earth whom we should have been able to trust to keep us safe, love and respect us – decided to shatter us?
It causes us to shrink back away from life in an attempt to protect ourselves from further hurt. Our lives can become a pattern of going through the motions. Opportunities pass, we decline others. Why? We are afraid of failure and all that comes with it: judgment, criticism, not being good enough, possible humiliation, shame, and punishment.
“They’ll all laugh at me.”
“I can’t ever do anything right; I’ll just mess this up, too.”
“I’m too stupid/fat/ugly/worthless.”
“Who do you think you are to try that?”
“What did you think would happen?”
“Who told you that was a good idea?”
“Serves you right. You never learn. I told you so.”
Abuse is difficult enough to survive when enduring the above. So what happens, then, when forced sleep deprivation is thrown into the mix? Digest this first. Part two will come soon.