September 25, 2006


An Aerosmith tune. It's a more relevant title but perhaps "Janie's Got A Gun" would be more fititng with the topic I'm writing about today although it's not exactly right either.

This will be a big deviation from what I normally write about, but I feel it's something that doesn't get discussed enough & since I have a blog...

Emotional abuse is a big problem not just for the victims but for those around the victims. The way it typically works is a girl meets a guy she thinks is cool & who treats her cool. She keeps thinking he’s cool even as his behavior gradually becomes worse. She admires &/or respects him in addition to caring for him & ignores or rationalizes the deteriorating behavior until it reaches a critical point. By the time she sees it as being bad for her she’s already damaged.

The damage most often is a loss of self esteem or self worth. It doesn’t end when the abuse ends either. For weeks, months, sometimes years (depending on the nature of the abuse & longevity of it) the girl has problems with how she views herself & consequently how others view her. It can & often results in seemingly erratic behavior for the girl. She’ll do things she wouldn’t normally do, or do things in a way that doesn’t seem to fit her personality.

Case in point – A friend of mine was in such a relationship prior to our meeting. Her sense of self worth was approaching zero though she hid it very well. At school or parties she acted normal enough for her friends not to notice. But when pressed she would often break down & confess that she wasn’t deserving of anyone caring for her. Consequently she viewed my caring for her first as misplaced (he doesn’t really know me he just thinks he cares) & then as me trying to manipulate her (he claims he cares because he wants to sleep with me).

She went from relationship to relationship for years without a break in between them. She was afraid to be without a boyfriend or lover as being alone would have validated (in her mind) the degradation she had suffered. & she followed the same pattern just as those caught in a cycle of physically abusive relationships do; every guy she was attracted to turned out to mistreat her emotionally.

What altered things for her was a relationship where the guy was showing signs of getting physically abusive. It scared her enough that she realized she had things to deal with & took actions to help her recover.

Vary a detail or two here & there & you have a very common way of life for far too many women. The details will vary of course as each person handles things slightly differently but the basics are the same: girl meets guy & thinks he’s nice, guy shows signs of worsening behavior that girl rationalizes, girl realizes guy has messed with her head.

Some women go through it once & that’s it. Any warning signs & they leave. Others go through it multiple times not realizing what they’re doing or is being done to them. Still others shut themselves off as much as possible after going through too much mental trauma.

Another sad aspect of this is that usually (but not always) the girl has someone in her life that genuinely cares, but because of her condition she rejects that caring out of hand, or simply doesn’t take the comfort she could take from it.

I’ve had many friends over the years that have gone through something similar to what I described above. Some have been platonic relationships others have been of a more romantic nature. In each case there came a point when their behavior was so erratic that they seemed very unstable. “Tailspin� is how a few of my friends used to describe it as their actions made as much sense as a plane going down out of control. It was most obvious in folks who seemed the most stable prior to the damage occurring, but it was noticeable to some degree in each of them.

The difficult part for me & presumably for anyone who cares about someone suffering from the after effects of emotional abuse is that there’s little you can do for them. It takes them realizing the damage that’s been done to them & then wanting to straighten themselves up. No one can do it for them & it’s not that different from what you go through with a pal who has an alcohol or drug addiction. You watch helplessly until they attempt to help themselves & then you be as supportive as you can.

From what I’ve seen the worst damage occurs when the girl belittles her self worth. She doesn’t understand how anyone could value her as a person, since the guy she admired/respected/cared for/loved treated her like dirt. She feels she deserves this sort of treatment – that her value is not as a person but perhaps as a possession. When someone tells her that she’s beautiful or that they care she assumes it’s insincere & there’s an ulterior motive. The justification is usually along the lines of “After all, who could really care for me or think I’m attractive?�

Some girls start to equate their self worth with their willingness to perform sexually. Flirting or behaving in a bolder than usual fashion towards the opposite sex usually happens when self worth becoming synonymous with sex is present but not prominent. The attention she gets from this behavior helps her think she is valuable, even if only as an object. Promiscuity in girls who otherwise have been very selective of their partners seems to be common enough to note when the above is prominent. If the atypical promiscuity occurs it is either from the girl enjoying the attention it brings her or in very severe cases from her simply thinking that sex is all she’s good for & that she may as well have it with as many men as possible. It can be an outside source of self esteem when that is lacking in the girl’s own mind, or it can be a way to “get back� at an abusive partner or ex-partner.

At times the damage is more subtle. It’s still the same type – a depreciation of self value – but it isn’t as obvious to the girl or those around her. Consciously they rarely admit to themselves that they don’t think they’re desirable or important, but the results can be the same in slightly more subtle proportions.

I had another friend who went through some emotional abuse as a teen. By the time I met her she seemed fine but as we got to know each other the effects manifested themselves. In the end she went back & forth between myself & another guy until she convinced him to impregnate her. I was too young to recognize what she was going through or how to act about it plus I was emotionally involved which always clouds judgment. Last I heard she was still in the same pattern years afterwards. I believe (but I’m not positive) that her motivation was that since she was only useful for sex she’d use it to her advantage.

Decision making can be very tough when suffering the after effects of emotional abuse. The way I believe it works is that the girl’s emotions start to dominate her life (thus partially causing the erratic behavior) & she feels almost helpless in the face of her actions. Most women don’t enjoy the “out of control� feeling associated with it but fear prevents them from altering their behavior. Making a decision, especially of a romantic nature can be frightening in normal circumstances, but especially so for those with emotional damage. Taking responsibility for their actions by making a decision opens them up to blame if that decision turns out badly for them or anyone else. & it’s understandable since the emotional abuse & degradation usually was justified by the attacker as a response to a decision or action.

So some symptoms of emotional abuse are low self esteem/sense of self worth, erratic behavior, rejection of caring from those around her, difficulty in trusting others (& in some cases herself), inability or unwillingness to make decisions, atypical flirting or promiscuity, attempts to avoid responsibility socially & withdrawal (physical, emotional or a combination of both). These are by no means all of the symptoms & the presence of one or even multiple symptoms does not necessarily mean that emotional abuse has occurred but in my experience (which means it’s anecdotal & should be taken with a grain of salt) those are the ones I’ve seen most frequently in women I’ve known to have been through emotional trauma in a relationship. They can occur individually, concurrently or combined in any number. & of course depression can result.

Again not much can be done for someone who is going through this. Being a supportive friend/lover/partner is all that can be done until the person tries to help themselves.

For me that’s the most difficult part. Just seeing an acquaintance go through something of this nature is hard enough, but when it’s a friend or someone I genuinely care for it’s damn near heartbreaking. If it’s a friend that I feel close enough to, or a love interest, or a combination of both it can be almost as traumatic for me as for them. The “tailspin� analogy – well imagine following your friend as she dives down out of control as you keep yelling “Eject!� hoping she hears you before you both crash. But there’s not much that can be done. Trying to tell someone they’re going through this doesn’t usually result in them acknowledging it; much like telling an alcoholic that they need AA rarely results in them attending meetings.

I’ll admit up front that I can be a jerk. But typically I reserve that behavior for those I feel it’s justified upon. A guy I work with who slacks off & causes problems sees that side of me. A pal who says something I don’t agree with doesn’t. Still I’m usually considered a ‘nice guy� or at least a ‘good guy� by most who know me well. With that in mind I have never understood the actions of men who emotionally abuse their partners. Arguments I can understand & disagreements happen. But to degrade the person you’re committed to is simply an inexcusable act. If the person is really that uncool for you then moving on is the proper solution, not trying to use some twisted form of negative reinforcement to mold her into what you wish her to be.

I won’t deny that I’m bitter about the subject. Not just because of the anguish I see the victims go through, but because there have been several times where I cared for someone & wanted a relationship with them but the damage done by previous partners had made that damn near impossible.

As I said when a lady has self esteem problems it can alter her ability to make evaluations. I’m not saying that if it weren’t for that they’d have all fallen for me. I’m saying they’d have been less likely to think my judgment was off & therefore I was unsuitable or that I was attempting to use them for my own purposes. I have friends who have had similar experiences so I’m assuming that it’s not just my bad luck but a more common occurrence.

A little bit about attraction:

There are a lot of guys who see a woman as a means to an end. They think that if they have the woman then they have sex. Or security. Or a potential mother. Or “insert role here�. Usually these can be spotted from a distance by most women, but those suffering the after effect of emotional abuse can have their judgment impaired enough to not realize it until it’s too late.

Other guys genuinely care for the woman. Not as a potential tool of some sort, but they care for her as a person. For myself I like women in general but every now & then one will come along that I just see something special about. It’s not necessarily someone who could be a Playboy model or a rocket scientist or the perfect mother. It’s not that I don’t see their flaws & shortcomings. But something about her makes me sincerely believe she’s the most beautiful woman in the world, both externally & internally. When that occurs then I wouldn’t trade that person for anyone else or everyone else. I just see a beauty in them & want to express the feeling it inspires (which isn’t always sexual).

Unfortunately I have felt that way about women who were in that “tailspin� I keep referring to. When my attempts to care weren’t rejected out of hand it was a struggle to gain their trust & their willingness to pursue anything other than an occasional acquaintance. As I’m still single it’s obvious that none of them worked out in the long run, but not always because of the prior abuse they suffered. Still it made things more difficult for all concerned than it should have been.

I’ve mentioned it a few times but it bears repeating – what occurred most common in my experiences was such low self esteem that my sincerity was questioned. They simply did not believe that someone they thought of as a “nice guy� could care about them, so they assumed I was manipulating them & shut themselves off emotionally to me. I don’t think that my experiences were uncommon though I’m not sure how often this occurs with other people.

What adds sting to injury is they would often end up with men who either were just using them for some goal or with men who continued the emotionally abusive behavior. Don’t misunderstand me – I’m not saying that since they rejected me in some fashion that the men they ended up with were obviously flawed. I’m pretty aware of my attributes & detriments & in general I feel I’d be a better than average partner for some, worse than average for some & for a very few I’d be a much better choice than most others (& with a very select few I’d be close to the mythical “perfect match�). But those that suffered from emotional abuse to any notable degree that I’ve kept in touch with (or heard about after I gave up trying to be in their world) have usually (but not always) ended up with someone who used them or who emotionally abused them.

This is caused by a few things. I’ve covered the lack of self worth leading to an unwillingness to trust that someone genuinely cares about them. Also the desire to avoid making decisions can cause the wrong choice to be made. That one can cut both ways; a guy who leaves the situation after becoming frustrated with the hurdles could be viewed as not really caring, or conversely a guy who sticks around & attempts to break through the barriers could be viewed as not being desirable since he obviously had no other prospects & must have serious issues of his own (or so the reasoning goes). There’s just no way to tell how the chips will fall as it will vary with each woman & her circumstances (as well as her basic attraction to the guy) so any guy who attempts to care about someone in such a state is rolling the dice more so than with someone who had not suffered emotional abuse.

There are varying degrees of emotional abuse. They range from someone casually & occasionally making derogatory remarks to yelling & screaming that seems on the verge of becoming physical. It can be overt belittlement of a partner or a more subtle attempt to manipulate their emotions via fear & insecurity. Baseless accusations of infidelity, claiming the woman is ungrateful for all that’s been done for her, making her feel as if she can do nothing correctly, that she should be lucky to be with someone because no one else would want her, being nice one minute then for no explanation becoming volatile, ignoring or disregarding her feelings or emotions, attempting to separate her from friends or family, making decisions for her, tying her value in the relationship to a specific role (sex partner, housekeeper, mother, etc…) &/or objectifying her are some of the most common forms emotional abuse takes. & because each woman is a different person the effects of the abuse vary in both degree & symptom. I think the base damage is the same in all cases but its severity differs in each case. The very unfortunate women find themselves with multiple relationships (usually in a row) that they receive damage from.

So what can be done? As I said the friends, lovers, family & other bystanders can’t do much. Offering mental & emotional support is all we can do.

For the woman suffering from the effects she first & foremost has to recover her self esteem. But it has to be done in a way that’s not harmful to her. Becoming a stripper or prostitute or generally being promiscuous will make her feel wanted, but not in a healthy enough way for her to regain control of herself. (note: I don’t have any serious moral, ethical or pragmatic objections to prostitution, stripping or general promiscuity IF they are taken up under the correct circumstances.)

She has to accept that not only is she a person with value to herself, but with value to others as well. She has to recognize that she has qualities that make her desirable as a person – not merely as an object or a servant of some sort. Perhaps the hardest part is for a woman in this state to see that despite her flaws she can be cared for very deeply by others & that she deserves to care about herself independently of others.

Taking control of her life is almost as important. Making decisions & accepting the consequences for them can be difficult but it’s necessary to regain control of her world. Accepting that mistakes or bad decisions do not validate the abuse can be hard especially at first, but again it’s something that’s vital to her recovery.

Learning to trust others & to discern between those who genuinely care & those who do not is another hurdle to overcome. It takes time & patience both on the part of the woman & those who care for her. Speaking from experience I can say it’s not easy at all, but it’s not impossible if the woman truly wants to be able to trust people again.

These are all just my thoughts based on my experiences. Take them with as much salt as you wish. I’m not a psychologist or psychiatrist & truth be told I have little respect for those fields for a number of reasons. I'm no expert & I can only see these things from a male perspective. But I have been around the block a few dozen times & this is what I’ve concluded so far. If I seem to have anything wrong corrections are always welcome. I focused on emotional abuse suffered by women because in my experience it’s far more common than for men to suffer it, though men can be victims as well.

& the reason for this musing on the mental health of women who have had very bad relationships? A friend called the other day that had been through a few of them & we discussed the effects they had on her life. One of the things we spent the most time discussing was that it took her a long time to realize what she had been through & its effects on her therefore longer than it could have taken for her to get back on track. So maybe this will help you or someone you know.

Posted by Publicola at September 25, 2006 12:59 AM | TrackBack

The only thing I would point out is that you seem to assume, as do people who are dealing with the subject of physical abuse, that the victim is always the woman and the perpetrator is always the man.

It may happen that way most of the time, but both emotional and physical abuse do occur the other way around and I would submit that they are probably much more common than we are led to believe because men are less apt to seek help or even admit the occurrence of either.

Posted by: Sailorcurt at September 25, 2006 07:58 AM

Reading this post, I had to check to make sure I was on the right page. Not your usual stuff. But good. Damn Good. At the end, I found myself asking one question: Why are you attracted to these basket cases? It seems like some kind of 'knight in shining armour' complex. If you figure it out, write an entry on that. I'd like to see it - because I have the same damn problem... Really sucks to go through life alone watching people you could/would/do care about throw away promising lives.

Posted by: Anon at September 29, 2006 08:54 PM

In my experience it's been the women moreso than the men although you are right that it happens both ways at times. I was mainly speaking of my experiences & thought I did mention that men are victims at times, just not as often.

we're all basketcases at some point. I know I sure as hell am at times, I'm sure you are too along with every other human being on the planet.

But I'm attracted to a specific woman for some reason or another (but varies enough that I don't see a pattern) & generally I can accept their flaws if I think they are decent people. It's not that I set out to find women who have had traumatic relationships (most of the time I've found out after something had begun) it's just that a good portion of the women I've been close to over the years have had them at some point or the other. I think it means that it's more widespread than most folks realize. I don't have the knight in shining armor complex, I just don't give up on people that I think are decent to begin with.

Posted by: Publicola at September 30, 2006 01:50 AM