The Philadelphia Inquirer

Sunday, October 10, 1999

Domestic abuse not just physical; psychological battery takes its toll

On Oct. 17, an interdenominational Sabbath of Domestic Peace will be observed at Temple Beth Zion Beth Israel. The object is to bring leaders and members of various faiths together in awareness of domestic violence. This month - which is Domestic Violence Awareness Month - the Commentary Page will feature a series of essays by workers in the field of domestic abuse. Below, an experienced counselor in the field discusses the ways in which men may emotionally abuse their female partners.

By SaraKay Smullens
The Philadelphia Inquirer

When we think of domestic abuse, what usually come to mind are physical acts of violence.

But abuse has another side: emotional and psychological abuse. Such abuse, with its relentless mind games, blame games and manipulations, exists in home after home. Its frequency and extremity varies from relationship to relationship. While either men or women can be abusive, my focus here will be on men as emotional abusers.

Men who are emotional abusers come from all religions, socioeconomic backgrounds and professions. Frequently, they are exceptionally charming, as well as successful and prominent in their fields.

Psychological abuse is often referred to as "gaslighting" - a reference to the classic 1944 film Gaslight, in which the arrogant and ruthless Gregory, played by Charles Boyer, attempts to drive his elegant and vulnerable wife Paula, played by Ingrid Bergman, into bewildering madness. Like Gregory, emotional abusers, regularly described by the term "crazy-makers," may demonstrate their cruelty publicly. But they often treat their partners with extreme tenderness and kindness in public, exhibiting their abusive behavior unpredictably behind closed doors, usually when a partner believes the relationship is on stable, loving ground.

In many instances, no one, including the person being abused, can detect the slow deterioration of confidence and self-esteem - and the resulting confusion - that is the intent and outcome of psychological abuse. I have heard client after client say, "My husband is really wonderful. After all, everyone just loves him." Or, "If I were different, he'd be better to me. I must deserve the way he treats me, but I don't know what I did."

I also hear the unrealistic fantasy, "If only I could live with his nice side and get rid of the mean and nasty part of him."

Men who are emotional abusers may use any or all of several tactics. In psychological manipulation, a woman's confidence and ability to think for herself are eroded by manipulation, threats, lies and contradictions. Her most valued beliefs are insulted, her feelings ridiculed and ignored. She is humiliated, intimidated, badgered, attacked verbally and demeaned. Her sexual attractiveness is criticized. Affection and intimate communication are withheld, and sexual interest toward others is flaunted.

Any effort to communicate about the issues that undermine her and all opportunities for respectful communication of difference are met with rage and intimidation or silence. If she refuses to conform to her partner's demand for control, she endures threats of violence toward all she holds dear. If she attempts to leave her partner, she is taunted by the threat of a custody fight.

In social isolation a partner is isolated from friends and family, as well as being removed from a familiar or safe geographic location. Financial manipulation involves keeping a partner helplessly dependent in myriad ways - debt, pregnancy, denying her the opportunity to work, creating problems in her work place, refusing to involve her in financial decisions, as well as denying access to money and knowledge about financial matters.

In Gaslight, the character played by Ingrid Bergman is rescued from her abuser by the film's hero, played by Joseph Cotton. In real life, it does not happen this way. A woman who lives with constant humiliation loses the power to assert herself along with the ability to understand and assess accurately what is going on in her life. She lives in a state of intermittent or perpetual denial, as she tries desperately to keep others from knowing the painful realities of her life.

Without professional, community or family intervention, emotionally abused women lose the will to go on. They develop a host of physical and emotional problems and frequently succumb to serious illness and death long before their time.


SaraKay Smullens is a family therapist and founder of the Sabbath of Domestic Peace.

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