Every week I encounter someone trying to escape an abusive relationship. Unfortunately in law school I was only taught to identify two clear types of abuse: physical or sexual abuse, both of which are clearly defined and easily identified as acts involving unwanted touching. But the fact is I rarely encounter those in my divorce cases, and the far more prevalent forms of abuse are (i) emotional or mental; (ii) financial or (iii) digital.
Unlike physical and sexual abuse, which are easy to spot, I’m afraid the other three are not, especially because they don’t leave physical scars or occur overnight. So how does it happen? Well, first you have to understand that the abusers start out as masterful charmers that shower their victims with attention and affection in the beginning. It doesn’t register on your radar that they are implementing sick manipulation tactics designed to gain power and control over you because at first their actions seem to be based on a genuine desire to care for you and protect you. In the interest of looking out for you, they start to screen your friends and family, who ask too much of you and don’t deserve you; they monitor all your moves–when you are at work, when you get home, where you go out; and eventually once they have inserted themselves into your life, they take over the “burden” of managing your money. Ever so slowly, they build up their power, making the other person increasingly dependent on them, and once they feel securely in control that is when you start to see their true colors.
Emotional abuse can be overt such as when someone puts down your intelligence or appearance or routinely assigns negative motives to all your actions, such as claims that you are selfish or lack generosity. But other abusers don’t necessarily lash out in such blatant ways. In fact, one incredibly painful tactic they take is simply to emotionally withdraw– they may ignore their partner for days, completely detach and create an uncomfortably frigid environment at home. Maybe they just disappear for hours instead of days, and when asked about their day they simply provide a one word answer or say “I needed to go out” with no further explanation. There is no doubt in your mind that something is wrong, but you just don’t know how to fix it.
Mental abuse is all about torturing your mind because it is just so difficult to comprehend how your partner, who was once so sweet and kind, cannot even pay you a simple compliment and instead persists now in pointing out all your flaws. They call you horrible names and attribute the worst motives to everything you do, making you out to be some hideous monster while they claim to be the victim in a series of unfortunate events. And as you stand there, dazed and confused, you try to replay various key scenes to see if you can pinpoint where you may have gone psycho, until you get to the point where you are simply terrified of saying anything because you are no longer sure what will set them off.
Financial abuse is usually all about control, or maybe a complete lack thereof. Ultimately to me it is about inflicting harm, so if someone is spending recklessly or racking up debt that later becomes your problem, to me that is abusive. If anyone acts in a way that jeopardizes your financial security, especially after you have set certain ground rules, then you need to call them out on it. Similarly, if you find that you are completely in the dark about all the monthly expenses, income, the bank accounts and outstanding debt, you need to regain control of this situation fast. No one person should have all the access to the family’s funds and financial information, and unless you are a child, no one should be putting you on an allowance.
Finally, when it comes to digital abuse, there are various forms out there, but the scenarios I most often hear about in divorce cases are the ones where spouses install spyware or break into the other person’s email, phone, social media or digital accounts because they want information. Despite good reasons for wanting this, there are numerous legal restrictions involving federal wiretapping and state privacy laws that a person needs to consider. Others, simply cannot accept that the relationship is ending, and so they continue to incessantly call, text, email or digitally stalk a person, and if your request to “cease and desist” further communication and simple self-help attempts to block someone fail, then you need to report the harassment to the authorities.
The sad reality is that there is a tremendous amount of hidden abuse out there, and so if you find yourself experiencing any form of abuse know that you are not alone, and you have nothing to be embarrassed about– it is the other person that should be completely ashamed of him/herself, and you just need to find a support network to get you to a better place. Meanwhile, if you see someone you love is stuck in an unhealthy situation, you need to speak up– but you cannot jump straight to formulating an exit plan without first allowing the person to acknowledge there is a serious problem. When you say something, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a blunt statement like “your situation is toxic and you need to get out.” Each person must come to that conclusion for him/herself, but it may just be enough to say that you are there for them if they need anything or perhaps you can suggest they seek legal advice or counseling.
Ultimately, the collateral beauty I see in all these cases is that my clients that start as victims of abuse become survivors, who go on to thrive after finding great comfort in the love and support of their families and friends. Their wounds do heal, as they gain greater confidence in themselves, but the emotional scars will always remain, and this I say from first-hand experience because I haven’t just heard about these forms of abuse, I’ve unfortunately lived through some of them. While those closest to me know all the details, that to me is not enough because I believe that if we really want to break these cycles of violence, then we all have to speak up and share our cautionary tales.
Just as the old children’s fairy tales did not always have happy endings, same is true with some of the best love stories. I believe in keeping it real, so I refuse to airbrush the picture of what is really out there, and hopefully the rest of you will too.
By Regina A. DeMeo
Here is a clip from Dr. Phil on 5 types of abuse: