Is it just the reality of marriage – that there are ups and downs? Good and bad times?
Or are you experiencing emotional and psychological abuse?
Anne and Virginia, a member of the BTR.ORG community, are discussing the realities of hidden abuse – and what you need to know about emotional and psychological abuse. Tune into the BTR.ORG podcast and read the full transcript below.
What do emotionally & psychologically abusive marriages look like?
For many women in our community, including Virginia, emotionally and psychologically abusive marriages follow cycles of seemingly peaceful, connected, and intimate times – followed by disconnected, confusing, and sometimes overtly abusive times.
What do “Good Times” with an emotional abuser look like?
Victims express that the good times are so good. The abuser seems to make real effort to change, including:
- Attending therapy
- Attending church
- Attending 12-step programs
- Being engaged with the family
- Halting pornography use, or using it less
- Being more respectful and kind at home
- Being more responsible with substance use
- Being more responsible with money
- Encouraging or allowing the victim to practice self-care, including joining support groups
Victims may feel hesitant to bring up the “bad times” so that they can just enjoy the “good” portion of the cycle. They may feel that they’re walking on eggshells in order to prolong the “healthy” period. They may hope and believe that the “good” or “healthy” period is permanent and then feel devastated when the “good” period ends.
Think of “Good” as “Grooming”
At BTR, we’ve come to understand that the “good” part of the cycle is often the abuser simply grooming the victim. “Relapse” into abusive behaviors is not part of the recovery process. In fact, it’s an important part of understanding that the abuser wasn’t actually doing those seemingly healthy behaviors to permanently change because they want to become a healthy, kind person – they were doing it to keep the victim engaged in the relationship.
What do “Bad Times” with an emotional abuser look like?
When the grooming is over, the abuser may:
- Stop attending any meetings (church, 12-step, therapy) and insist that the victim “forced”, “coerced”, “manipulated”, or “threatened” them into going.
- Become hostile, violent, angry, or passive aggressive toward the victim/family.
- Begin sexually acting out and may lie or gaslight about it.
- Gaslight the victim into believing that any problems he once admitted to are non-existent and that she imagined them or exaggerated them in her head.
- Gaslight the victim into believing that she is controlling and is therefore the problem.
- Sexually coerce, assault, and/or rape the victim.
- Verbally abuse the victim.
- Create confusion and chaos with word salad, gaslighting, and other manipulative tools.
- Become disengaged and disinterested in the victim and the family.
- Become irresponsible, secretive, or controlling with family finances.
- Control the victim’s privacy and time, insisting that it’s for her own safety.
BTR.ORG Is Here For You
At BTR, we understand the exhaustion, terror, and extreme frustration that comes from the intense pendulum swings of an abuser’s behavior. It’s devastating. You deserve support – consider attending a BTR.ORG Group Session today.
Welcome to BTR.ORG. This is Anne. I have a member of our community on today’s episode. We’re going to call her Virginia. She’s been interacting with us on social media about a few concepts, and so we invited her on to talk about it. Speaking of social media, we’re on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, and we’d love to interact with you there.
Also, if you want to comment on this particular episode, scroll down to the bottom and comment. So many women do that, and we appreciate all of your comments and you sharing your experiences with us. So as Virginia is following us on social media, there’s a couple of things that came up and she reached out, and we’ve been having these kind of really cool conversations about it. So we’re going to start with an info-graphic that we posted. We will put this on the episode so that you guys can see this, but Virginia, talk about this info-graphic and why it caught your eye.
“What I Thought My Marriage Was; What it Actually Was”
I saw it on Instagram. It has two different graphs and one says, “What I thought my marriage was”, and it shows a graph that kind of goes up and down, up and down, but it has a trajectory that’s going up and then it says, “healthy, hard, healthy, hard.”
It’s kind of like a stock market, maybe graph where it’s going up and down, but it’s going up in general, and so it’s like “healthy” is when it goes up and “hard” is when it kind of dips down a little bit, but then when it goes back up, it goes back up even higher. So if you want to see this info-graphic, go to Instagram, we’ll put it on the day that we post this. So there’s that, and then there’s a second part of it.
And then underneath “What I thought my marriage was”, it says, “What it really was”, and instead of the “healthy” and “hard” points, it’s actually “grooming and abuse, grooming and abuse”, and the “grooming” just gets more extreme and the “abuse” stays the same, so it’s not that the marriage is improving, it’s that the grooming is just improving and abuse is still there.
“I was just experiencing abuse and being groomed and experiencing abuse.”
Well, and even the abuse is actually probably getting worse, but you can’t go lower in a graph.
I created this info-graphic because that was my experience. I thought as we did pornography addiction recovery, and we went to all these therapists and he did 12-Step and all the stuff, that we would take a step forward and then sometimes two steps back and then two steps forward and one step back. And because the pornography addiction recovery industrial complex told me he’s going to have relapses and progress, not perfection and stuff like that, I thought, Oh, we are improving over time, but of course it’s not just going to be a perfectly straight line to success. We’re going to have ups and downs along the way. And so then when I took a step back and realized it was abuse, I realized it was just kind of like a circle. I was just going around in circles. I wasn’t ever actually making progress, I was just experiencing abuse and being groomed and experiencing abuse. What stood out to you when you saw this?
“I thought we were on this upward trajectory”
I would say it resonated with me pretty instantly in my marriage. I thought that we were on this upward trajectory, that these different little breadcrumbs that I thought were these big improvements and that we still had hard times, but marriage is hard and things are still getting better. I thought I was on that upward trajectory, but then it wasn’t until I was able to really set some boundaries and to take a step out of that vortex, that abuse cycle that you were describing, that I was able to see my marriage for what it was, for the abuse that I was experiencing. And it just suddenly just clicked for me, and this just captured exactly how my marriage went and the experience that I had.
Let’s talk about the factors that would lead a woman to think that these are just kind of the regular ups and downs of either marriage in general or maybe the regular ups and downs of being in a relationship with a man who is addicted to pornography or maybe has a mental health issue or something like that. Let’s talk about the factors that may stop a woman from realizing that it’s abuse.
When bad behavior is tolerated, because “worse” behavior takes a pause
I think for me, just the actions he was doing were “positive”. He was going to church, he participated in an addiction recovery group. He did all of the things that you would think of when you think of recovery or healing or improving on an unhealthy relationship. Even just times when he would apologize, I thought that was improvement or times when he maybe would not gaslight me. I thought that that was positive and thought maybe –
“Congratulations. You didn’t lie. I’m so proud of you!”
Seriously. Yeah. I would be like, Oh, wow. He just took money out of my wallet and didn’t think I saw, but he didn’t try to convince me that he didn’t do that. And there’s this narrative that as long as you’re going a group, as long as you’re going to therapy, if you’re going to church, that those things automatically just make you into a healthy person who does not abuse people. I think that it’s obviously much more complicated than that, but I think that there’s this idea that just doing those things equals “I’m a good person”.
Women are conditioned to tolerate abuse as long as abusers claim they’re trying to change
I think there’s also the societal idea that everything is “fixable” kind of: “As long as you’re willing to work on it and you go to therapy, of course there’s going to be a solution”. I think women run into this when they might go to clergy for example, and they might share with clergy, “Hey, these are the things I’m experiencing.” Now, most of the time, unfortunately, the woman doesn’t know that she’s experiencing psychological or emotional abuse, so she’s not able to say, “Hey, I’m being psychologically and emotionally abused”. She might just say, “Well, he’s lying to me and I just found this out”, and the first thing people think is, Well, he needs therapy. Rather than thinking, Oh, whoa, you need to separate, a lot of people go right to, Oh, he needs therapy or he needs an addiction recovery program. In fact, I was talking to my uncle the other day, I was telling him about a perpetrator.
People focus on getting the abuser to therapy, rather than getting the victim to safety
He listened and then at five o’clock in the morning the next day, he emailed me and he’s like, “This guy needs a treatment program!” I called him and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s what his wife thought for 15 years. She tried to get him into all these programs, but he wouldn’t go. Or he would go and they were like, “Yeah, he’s doing great”. Nobody ever was like, “Hey, this is abuse. You need to get to safety”. That’s rarely, rarely what people advise when victims are going for help. I think it’s just because the victims themselves don’t realize they’re being abused and then the people that they go to for help (and this is really just most therapists, most clergy, most people around), they really genuinely think, Oh yeah, let’s get this person to therapy. That’ll help. They don’t realize that it actually might make it worse.
I also think there’s an idea that marriage is hard, so as long as he’s “working on it” by going to a treatment center or going to therapy or whatever he may be doing, they think that “As long as he’s doing those things, then you just kind of have to stick it out. Marriage is hard, no one’s perfect”. Those kinds of ideas, at least were in my mind, and made it difficult for me to even consider the option that, Maybe not all marriages are this hard. Maybe not all marriages are abusive, and I think that’s one idea that kind of kept me stuck.
Abusers are often great at manipulating therapists
Well, even if they knew it was abuse, I don’t think most people know that therapy’s not going to help. I mean, even if you know it’s abuse, then you’re like, Wow, it’s abuse. Okay, we need to get him into therapy because he’s abusive because he has childhood trauma or he’s abusive because he feels shame or something. I don’t think they realize that that’s not why he’s abusive, number one, and therapy will not help, and most therapists think, Oh, I can help. They don’t realize they’re going to get manipulated and gaslit themselves, and so they don’t know that they’re unable to help abusers.
So many of the women in our community, their husbands went to therapy and the therapist was like, “Yeah, he’s doing great”, and they thought maybe they were doing great, and then they realized, No, they were just lying to the therapist. It’s pretty problematic.
Find helpful info-graphics in “Trauma Mama Husband Drama”
I think our info-graphics are amazing. We work really hard on trying to give visual representations for some of these really difficult concepts that when you see them visually, it’s like, Ohhhh, I get it. I feel like a lot of the info-graphics that we produce and that we post on our social media platforms really help women understand. We have collected all of those and put them in the back of Trauma Mama Husband Drama, our picture book for adults. It really helps them be like, Oh, I get it now, because they can kind of see it in a way that’s different than if it’s explained to people. As you’ve been interacting with our accounts and with these info-graphics that we have produced, what’s your take on why these are so helpful for victims?
I know for me that when I even learned the term “betrayal trauma”, that it was so validating and so almost empowering in a way because it gave me language for the experience that I was going through. And the info-graphics do something similar for me. I feel that they capture my experience in a way that sometimes I’m unable to even just describe with words. It’s very therapeutic. It’s a way for me to share with other people what I might be feeling. It’s visual, it’s simplified, and it’s aesthetically pleasing. It’s got everything, so it captures my experience.
“These info-graphics help women sort out why emotional and psychological safety is a really important safety issue”
As I work with our graphic designer to create these info-graphics, we go through so many iterations. I’ll have an idea in my head and we’ll be like, Okay, people listening to the BTR podcast or clients that we have who come to our daily group sessions or individual sessions or all the women that interact with us on our social media platforms like on TikTok or on Instagram, I want them to really understand this. So I’ll draw it out, send it over to the graphic designer, and she’ll send something back. And then we just go back and forth sometimes for a really long time, and then I always revisit them. So maybe six months a year later, two years later, I’ll look at it again and be like, Oh, wait, we’re missing a piece, and so I’m always making sure that these are being updated and that we’re really getting feedback on them so that they are really useful to people.
It’s my goal to make sure that women really understand this is a safety issue and why. And these info-graphics, I think, help women sort out why emotional and psychological safety is a really important safety issue, that it’s not just like, Oh, he’s not punching me, so I guess it’s okay, but it is psychologically harmful to you. It feels like a punch to the gut or damaging to your soul to have this type of abuse happening and to be exposed to it.
“It’s emotional abuse, and it’s damaging”
Another thing with the info-graphics that I find really helpful, and you were just kind of talking about this: I feel like it’s so easy for me to overlook the experiences that I’ve gone through that were emotionally abusive and just think, Well, it wasn’t physical. He doesn’t punch me, he doesn’t hurt me physically. It’s not that bad. But when I see it in the info-graphic and I see it, it’s so obvious. And it’s apparent that what I am experiencing is abuse. It’s emotional abuse, and it’s damaging, and I’m being sucked into this abuse cycle of grooming and devaluing. And it just makes it so clear for me and helps me to navigate my next steps to safety.
I think it helps people see reality; clear out the manipulation, and clear out the gaslighting and see things for what they really are, because reality, truth is the way out of abuse. And when victims are trapped in abuse, they might be telling themselves certain things or parroting the abuse, not even knowing that (they’re not participating in their own abuse) that’s the abuse talking. They actually think it might be their own thoughts, not realizing that, no, that’s an abusive script that they’ve accidentally adopted that is keeping them trapped.
Have you taken our Living Free Workshop yet?
I’ve also taken the Living Free Workshop from Jane and the workbook that comes with the workshop also had so many visuals and artwork, and it’s so beautiful. And again, it captures what I’m experiencing. It captures the reality of my situation, and it’s simple and it’s easy to understand and it helps me to digest my own experience. I just really appreciated that.
That is our strategic workshop. It’s called BTR.ORG Living Free. And when I say “strategy”, it helps women with thought strategies, with communication, tactics with your abuser, and also strategic boundaries: actually setting boundaries that help people to get safe. It’s a four-week workshop. We’ve been through a bunch of different iterations, so make sure that you go to the website to get the latest one.
The workbook is very robust. It’s got artwork, we have 30 exercises that women do as they take the workshop over the four weeks. We’ve worked really hard to make it really clear and actionable, simple. I think a lot of advice people get is like, “Don’t let him take your power away”, or just weird stuff that’s kind of triggering, number one…
“If he emotionally or psychologically injures you, there’s no way to just be like, oh yeah, no big deal”
“What do you mean?! I’m not trying to let him take my power away!” It’s so frustrating. People will say stuff like, “Well you know he’s a jerk, so why are you letting him bother you?” And you’re like, “Well, if I get punched in the face, I’m going to get a bruise. There’s no way I can not get a bruise”.
And so I’m speaking metaphorically here. If he emotionally or psychologically injures you, there’s no way to just be like, oh, yeah, no big deal. I mean, he just psychologically abused me, but it wasn’t that big of a deal. You’re always going to get hurt. There’s no way to control that.
So these strategies really help give women action items to protect themselves because it’s not your fault that you’ve been abused. It’s not your fault. You’re experiencing emotional or psychological abuse. There’s nothing wrong with you. You are not sick or ill or weak or anything like that. At BTR, we view you as injured. Through no fault of your own, you were injured, and these tactics will help you get to a place where you’re not being injured anymore. Because they are skills that are useful that we’ve all had to learn, and it stinks because if you weren’t being abused, you might not have to learn them per se. But I do think they’re important skills for everyone to learn for their safety in general.
Yeah, the workshop for me was invaluable. I felt like I learned so much about, like you were saying, specific actions I could take and specific situations. It was just super helpful.
Come back next week for more with Virginia
We’re going to pause the conversation here, but Virginia is going to be back on next week’s episode. We have this metaphor we’ve been talking about a lot. It involves french fries, so if you like french fries and you want to know how to get to safety, make sure that you stay tuned for next week. Until next week, stay safe out there.