Some abuse survivors declare with relief at least the abuse wasn’t physical! Maybe they think the mental abuse they suffered was not as severe as someone who was physically abused. Or maybe they’re relieved that they don’t bear the social stigma of the battered spouse. As someone who’s experienced the full range of abuse, I don’t minimize any form of abuse.
Abusers are calculating, finding the most effective control method with the least effort or risk of exposure. Bruises and cuts are difficult to explain to a curious friend or relative, so if mental abuse successfully controls the target, there’s little reason to get physical. The pinnacle of control occurs when the target insists upon being controlled, requiring no effort from the abuser and little risk of exposure.
One way I was controlled was through my guilt about having extramarital affairs. The abuser claimed that I couldn’t be trusted out of his sight because I might have another affair. Despite evidence of his consistent philandering from the start of our relationship, he convinced me that the evidence was meaningless, and I was responsible for the failed marriage. I filled out a daily schedule, outlining where I would be, and if he checked on me, I had to be in complete compliance with the schedule. Through sleep deprivation and attacks on my identity, I came to believe that I deserved the control and dutifully adhered to the schedule. He didn’t have to lift a finger to control me, and there was little risk of exposure because I hid my shame from everyone. I was living in a cage with the door wide open.
When I sometimes resisted control, the abuser became physically violent. For example, if he found I didn’t precisely follow the daily schedule, he would beat me. That’s why protecting my personal safety was so important immediately after leaving the abuser because he might become more violent to regain control.
It would sound silly to claim that filling out a daily schedule was abusive. But, looking at the schedule as a means to control me, it was very damaging. The schedule kept me without access to my own free will. I could not react to unexpected events in the day other than allowed by the schedule, otherwise I’d risk a beating.
Once free of the abuser, processing the harm from physical abuse was difficult but relatively straightforward. I needed to allow my body to recover and restore its functions. With my adrenaline delivery system out-of-whack, rest, healthy food, and regular exercise helped. Reflecting on the beatings was painful, but I recognized that they often happened once conflict escalated – after I was braced for it. While I’d been hurt and humiliated, my body eventually healed.
More difficult to overcome was the stealthy erosion of my identity – a product of mental, emotional, spiritual, sexual, and financial abuse. If I requested sex, he scoffed that anyone would want someone as undesirable as I. But later when it suited him, I was useful as a sexual object. This push and pull of rejection and acceptance crumbled my worthiness like the freeze and thaw of water penetrating cracks in large boulders and reducing them to pieces.
So, let’s measure how destructive the abuse was in terms of harm to the target. Abuse is control and control is all about exploiting the target’s weak spots. In the early part of my relationship with an abuser, he learned how to later control me by plying me about my greatest fears and most guarded secrets. I mistook his concentrated interest for love.
Because we’re all so unique, there’s no universal standard for measuring the harm we experience from abuse. I think we need to measure the harm in our own way – maybe with a top ten list of the most hurtful abuse. I’ll share mine, but it’s only one person’s experience.
- Restricting my ability to spend my own salary
- Requiring me to complete pointless tasks
- Pointing out when I was a misfit in social settings
- Isolating me from my family
- Imposing the silent treatment for days at a time
- Depriving me of sleep and pushing me to exhaustion
- Ridiculing my attempts to be hopeful
- Telling me who I am and discounting my viewpoint
- Restricting decisions on what I do with my time
- Maintaining conflicting sets of standards for himself and me
Notice that hitting me doesn’t even make the top ten list. Here’s the revealing thing about my list, it gives me insight into myself. His abusive tactics were customized to get under my skin. As sinister as his motives were in understanding me, his insights later helped me understand myself.
From my top ten list, I’ve learned that I am hardworking and diligent. My closest friends and family are important to me. I enjoy a peaceful environment and gain strength from hope. Individual liberties and fairness are important to me.
Why did it take me 30 years with an abuser to come up with those simple statements about myself? Because I resisted more subtle methods. I was a tough nut to crack, confused by the noise of who I thought I should be, instead of who I am.
And, I’m in good company. It’s difficult to accurately perceive ourselves. As early as 600 BC, Lao Tzu is quoted in the Tao Te Ching:
Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength;
mastering yourself is true power.
So, when someone tells me at least the abuse wasn’t physical, I’d tell them it might not matter. I’d recommend they instead make a top ten list of types of abuse that hurt the most and understand what insights it brings.