It is abuse, even if he didn’t hit you. It is abuse even if you aren’t bruised or bleeding.
It’s hidden abuse, and it’s just as damaging as physical battering.
Anne Blythe, founder of Betrayal Trauma Recovery, meets with Shannon Thomas, author of Healing from Hidden Abuse: A Journey Through the Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse and Exposing Financial Abuse: When Money is a Weapon.Together, they validate victims of hidden abuse and empower them to find safety and healing. Listen to the free BTR podcast and read the full transcript below for more.
What Is Hidden Abuse?
Hidden abuses are the types of abuses that you don’t see, that we don’t necessarily have obvious bruises and injuries from. They are the types of abuses that are more covert, and they are hidden. They include financial, emotional, psychological, sexual, and spiritual abuse.Shannon Thomas, author
When victims identify that they are being covertly abused in any way, they can set boundaries to separate themselves from the abuse and then begin their journey to healing.
Will I Ever Heal From Hidden Abuse?
The short answer is, yes.
You absolutely can and will heal from abuse as you find safety, support, and empowerment. Shannon Thomas outlines six stages of healing from hidden abuse.
Stage 1: When You Don’t Know It’s Hidden Abuse
Women know that something is wrong, but they can’t pinpoint exactly what it is. Often, they blame themselves. The gaslighting, lying, manipulation, and constant attacks can make it difficult for victims to see reality.
This is when they really feel like they can’t come up for air. Their life is like a snow globe being shaken up and they don’t have the education or the terminology to be able to describe what’s happening in their life. They just know that things are not okay.Shannon Thomas, author of Healing from Hidden Abuse
Stage 2: Learning About Hidden Abuse
At this stage, women may find resources and connect with other victims to learn about hidden abuse.
Empowerment through education is an essential foundational piece for healing.
Stage 3: When You Realize You Are A Victim of Hidden Abuse
The moment or moments where they come to an awareness of exactly what they’ve been living with and dealing with, that thing that they couldn’t put their finger on, but they knew was not right. It can be very bittersweet because it’s ‘I know I’m not crazy. He may have told me I was crazy and has spun me in all these different directions. I know now what I’m dealing with,’ but that’s a really hard reality to face, and it can be very painful, but also very freeing.Shannon Thomas, author of Healing from Hidden Abuse
During this stage, it is absolutely pivotal that women receive safe support from others who are trauma and abuse-informed.
Stage 4: When You Begin Setting Boundaries To Separate Yourself From Hidden Abuse
What are boundaries? Courages actions that women take to separate themselves from abuse.
Many victims need support as they take baby steps to reclaiming their safety and peace.
Stage 5: When You Begin To Restore What Your Abuser Took From You
Abusers steal many things from their victims: safety, self-confidence, physical health, even relationships.
When safety has been established through boundary-setting, women can begin to reclaim what was taken from them, including pieces of themselves.
Stage five is taking control and restoring what can be restored. This comes down the road where we start looking at those things that were lost during this relationship. It could be the way they view themselves. It could be relationships with family and friends. It could be a wide range. It could even be their health.Shannon Thomas, author of Healing from Hidden Abuse
Stage 6: Maintaining Your Healing
Victims can take heart as they work through the stages of healing, understanding that healing is a process and doesn’t suddenly occur.
Maintaining your healing will include boundary-setting, surround yourself with safe people, and continuous empowerment.
This takes time. This is not a quick fix at all, and we may loop to different stages throughout this process. Even on a given day we may be in boundaries and go back to despair and go back to blaming ourselves, and then having to go back to education to get grounded again.Shannon Thomas, author of Healing from Hidden Abuse
Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group Supports Victims of Hidden Abuse
At BTR, we understand the devastation, grief, and terror that can accompany hidden abuse.
Every victim of hidden abuse deserves a safe space to process trauma, share their stories, express difficult feelings, and connect with other victims who get it.
That is why the Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group meets daily in multiple time zones: to offer women support when they need it.
Join today and receive the compassion, validation, and support that you deserve.
Welcome to Betrayal Trauma Recovery, this is Anne.
I have an amazing author on the podcast today, but before I get to her, our Betrayal Trauma Recovery Group, which has multiple sessions a week, is the least expensive way to get immediate help. We hope to see you there soon.
I have Shannon Thomas on today’s episode. She is the international best-selling author of Healing from Hidden Abuse: A Journey Through the Stages of Recovery from Psychological Abuse and Exposing Financial Abuse: When Money is a Weapon.
Shannon is the owner and lead therapist of an award-winning counseling practice and co-founder of the non-profit Keep Dreaming Big Project. As a leading trauma therapist, Shannon is one of the few in the field to bridge the gap between pop culture and clinical advice.
Shannon has been featured in top media outlets including Oprah magazine, Associated Press, Business Insider, Yahoo!, Yahoo! Finance, Teen Vogue, Reader’s Digest, Elite Daily, Bustle, and now Betrayal Trauma Recovery, so we are really grateful to have her on.
Her book, Healing from Hidden Abuse, is on our website at btr.org/books. If you click on it, it will take you directly to Amazon where you can purchase it. This book has been published in multiple languages and serves as a road map for book studies and host groups in 11 countries.
Shannon also coined the Six Stages of Healing from Hidden Abuse model, which has favorable reviews and high applause from readers and medical professionals around the world.
Shannon understands the need to be an overcomer. Life has thrown some interesting twists and turns along her path and we are so happy to have her on today, welcome Shannon.
Shannon: Thank you. Thank you so much. I’ve been looking forward to getting a chance to chat with you.
Anne: You are the international best-selling author of Healing from Hidden Abuse and Exposing Financial Abuse.
Can you describe hidden abuse for our listeners?
Shannon: You bet. Hidden abuses are those abuses and behaviors associated with them that are not as obvious. As a culture, we’ve really come to understand what domestic violence is when it comes to physical abuse.
Hidden abuses are those other types of abuses that you don’t see, that we don’t necessarily have obvious bruises and injuries from. They are the types of abuses that are more covert, and they are hidden. They include financial, emotional, psychological, sexual, as well as spiritual abuse.
Anne: When you talk about sexual abuse, that’s something that we talk about quite a bit on our podcast. The sexual coercion that happens when a man is using pornography or having an affair and not letting his wife know about it, so she does not have the ability to give consent to be in the relationship because there are all of these behaviors that she doesn’t know about. That’s one thing that we talk about quite frequently, but I’m really interested to talk about the other ones.
Can you give one example of abuse that a lot of people or the general public wouldn’t necessarily say, “That’s abuse,” or “That is clearly abusive,” once they’re educated about it?
Shannon: I believe that psychological abuse is one, as well as financial. With the financial abuse, there is a wide spectrum to it. It ranges from being exploited financially, used for what we can give, all the way to being controlled by finances, being controlled by an abuser with finances and everything in between.
I think there’s still a lot of confusion around what exactly financial abuse is, so I wrote Exposing Financial Abuse as an exposé. It’s full of survivor stories, in their own words, and we included everything, whether it would be marriage or business partners or family. I think there is the biggest gap in knowledge around financial abuse and exactly what it involves.
When it comes to psychological abuse, we’re starting to get more understanding on a general range as we’re talking about gaslighting, there are more articles on intermittent reinforcement and some of the terms that go along with psychological abuse. I still think that it’s not as understood as well as it needs to be and often it’s clumped in with emotional abuse, and those are very different.
Anne: They’re very different, but they are all very similar in some ways too. Wouldn’t you say that they all come from the heart of entitlement attitudes. They’re all coming from the same place but exhibiting themselves differently or would you not agree?
Shannon: No, I think you’re right about them both coming from a place of entitlement and selfishness. I think the key difference is that people who are emotional abusers can get better. They can come to an awakening that their behavior is toxic, that they’re perpetuating, maybe, what they grew up in and they can get help and they do get sustainable changes going on in their life.
Psychological abusers don’t do that. They may, for a very short time, be in the doghouse and change the behaviors and may even try to go to counseling. But it’s mostly for manipulative purposes and as soon as the dust settles, they are right back to baseline behaviors.
Even though entitlement, lack of attachment, and all of those lacking in empathy can come with both emotional and psychological abuse, emotional abusers can get better and change and have changed lives and changed relationships.
We don’t see that with true psychological abusers. Any change is only temporary and for their own gain.
Anne: What is the difference between emotional abuse and psychological abuse?
Shannon: The difference between emotional and psychological abuse is the intent. Emotional abusers, I like to say, are wounded and they wound other people. They’re messy. They don’t necessarily have a sense of how their behaviors are impacting others. There are no excuses for it. It is still terrible, it is abusive, and it has to change.
Psychological abusers get entertainment out of the trauma they cause people. I don’t believe emotional abusers do. They’re abusing out of their own dysfunction. They will give authentic apologies but then go fall right back into behaviors that they don’t want to be doing themselves.
They can feel shame. They can feel remorse. We see this with folks that need to go through rehab programs. We see this with people who really need to step away from the habits that they’ve created that are unhealthy.
Psychological abuse is wanting to deconstruct a person’s identity of themselves through things like gaslighting. A psychological abuser gets entertainment out of the harm and chaos that they can cause. You can see the smirk. You can see the game playing and you can see that they are gaining some energy from all of this dysfunction that they leave in their wake. Those are two really different people.
Anne: That is really interesting because as I think about our community, they are all wives and ex-wives of porn users who went down the porn addiction route or the porn addiction recovery route without having the abuse identified, but all of them have also suffered emotional, psychological, sexual abuse, the hidden kinds.
It wasn’t seen by therapists or other people who were thinking, “Oh, he’s just sick, let’s handle him with gloves, let’s make sure he’s okay, and you need to be supportive of his recovery,” sort of thing, while they’re still being abused. It is such a dangerous situation.
Once women understand what’s going on, healing from it is a process, as you know. So, in your book Healing from Hidden Abuse, you develop a recovery model that follows Six Stages of Healing from Abuse. What are the six stages and how are they helpful to victims of abuse and betrayal?
Shannon: The first stage is despair. That’s the stage where we really don’t have a sense of what’s happening, we just know things are out of control. This is also the stage where a lot of people will have a lot of self-blame. “If only I was a better spouse.” “If only I could be more patient. “If only, if only,” and they really feel like they can’t come up for air. Their life is like a snow globe being shaken up and they don’t have the education or the terminology to be able to describe what’s happening in their life. They just know that things are not okay.
We go right into the second stage which is education. That’s where, in the context of psychological abuse, we give them—and I give them in the book—some key terms that are foundational to psychological abuse, like I said, the gaslighting, the intermittent reinforcement, narcissistic injury. We talk about the stages that these types of relationships go through which are idealize, devalue, and discarding stages. There is a distinct pattern with a psychologically abusive relationship.
The third stage is an awakening. This is where people have a moment or moments where they come to an awareness of exactly what they’ve been living with and dealing with, that thing that they couldn’t put their finger on, but they knew was not right. That gut check becomes now very aware because they’ve gone through the education and they can talk about it. They describe these hidden abuses as trying to describe air. It’s very difficult without the right terminology.
The awakening can be very bittersweet because it’s “I know I’m not crazy. This other person may have told me I was crazy and has spun me in all these different directions. I know now what I am dealing with,” but that’s a really hard reality to face, and it can be very painful, but also very freeing.
Then after we come out of the awakening stage, we get right into the fourth stage, which is boundaries. “What am I going to do now, now that I know what I’m dealing with?” Some people choose to stay in the relationship and set what I call “Detached Contact Boundaries.” Other people get to a point where they can’t do this relationship and they try to go no contact, to whatever version they can, depending on children they share and things like that.
The fifth stage is restoration. This comes down the road where we start looking at “What are those things that were lost during this relationship?” It could be the way they view themselves. It could be relationships with family and friends. It could be a wide range. It could even be their health.
Many times, these types of toxic relationships deeply impact the wellness and health of the victim. In restoration, we look at those areas that we can bring restoration to, but there are times and moments and memories that we can never get back and we have to grieve those. But that stage five is taking control and restoring what can be restored.
Stage six is maintenance. “What do I do now that I have walked through all of these stages?” This takes time. This is not a quick fix at all, and we may loop to different stages throughout this process. Even on a given day we may be in boundaries and go back to despair and go back to blaming ourselves, and then having to go back to education to get grounded again.
Those are the six: despair, education, awakening, boundaries, restoration and then maintenance.
I think they think, “Well, I don’t want to make something out of this.” Like, “If it’s not abuse, I don’t want someone to talk me into thinking it’s abuse.” Some women are just afraid of even getting educated about it because they think, “If I find out he is abusive then that’s going to be really bad. I want my family to stay together. I don’t want to get divorced. What options do I have?”
Can you talk about that fear of becoming educated?
Shannon: Yeah, there is a huge fear, and I think you touched on both of the reasons. I think part of it is, like I said, awakening is very hard and it’s painful. Also, the boundary stage is where a lot of people get stuck because, “I’m out of despair, I’ve been educated, I’ve had this awakening that, yes, this is very real, and now what am I going to do?”
It is going to take quite a bit of what I call mental gymnastics to go back to not knowing what you know now. That is intensely frightening. I’ve also heard from a lot of clients, over the years, and people that I’ve spoken to who’ve said, “I don’t want to make a big deal out of nothing. This is not abuse. I have never been physically harmed,” “Every marriage has problems.” Depending on their faith community it can also be, “You’re supposed to be in this ‘Until death do you part or until you have some biblical grounds to leave.’”
There’s a large range of belief systems about divorce and marriage. I think people avoid wanting to read the books because it’s fear, it’s also, “My situation doesn’t fit into this, so this isn’t going to be relevant and I’m already stressed and busy. This is going to be a waste of time.” Then there’s the subconscious “I bet my life is going to be in here and that’s going to be really painful.”
Anne: I just want women to become educated about it. That is the goal of Betrayal Trauma Recovery. That’s what we have been doing since I started podcasting.
I really think it’s interesting how we get labeled as man-haters or they just want women to get divorced. People accuse me of all sorts of things when, really, I just want to educate people about abuse. It’s pretty cut and dry. It’s not like I’m trying to cut every man’s private parts off or something.
I just want to educate people about abuse. Abuse is a behavior, and people can change their abusive behaviors, if they choose to. A lot of them don’t choose that, and you need to stay at a safe distance until those abusive behaviors have stopped.
It’s pretty cut and dry but when you bring up the word “abuse”—and I’ve been surprised at how people think they already know everything about abuse, or the walls go up and they push back and they don’t want to learn about it. They do not want to be educated.
Shannon: I have really seen that with the financial abuse. People even in the abuse recovery community have this lackadaisical attitude when we know that up to 95-99% of abusive relationships, domestic abuse involve a financial abuse component. That’s a huge number. Yet, even in the recovery community itself, it has not been a topic that’s really been addressed.
I wrote Healing from Hidden Abuse in 2016, so it was part of that first emergence of books from Jackson MacKenzie and Shahida Arabi, there really weren’t that many books out there at the time. Now you look, and we’re almost at four years, and there is a plethora of information, some of it not very good. There also was Lundy’s book before all of ours, but there were a few. There were very few books out there.
When we went to do some research for the financial abuse book, we could find no books that were specific to financial abuse in a relationship. There were some podcasts, there was a couple of blogs, there were a few books about finances and rebuilding, but nothing specific that told survivor stories about how money is used as a weapon.
That’s why I wrote that book, really as an exposé to pull back the curtain. I think that, when it comes to needing to get to the physical place so that people realize, “Okay, I’m in an abusive relationship,” that is the heart of the problem that we’re still seeing.
I was really glad to see that The Today Show did a piece on gaslighting with Maria Schriver. We’ve got some large news outlets that are touching on gaslighting specifically, but we also need to be discussing the other mechanisms of psychological and emotional abuse, so that victims don’t have to get to a point where they feel like, “Okay, now I’m having to look that I’m being abused,” when, like you said, abuse and things that qualify as abuse were happening way before anything became physical because the truth is that it doesn’t always become physical at all, but all that damage is already there.
Anne: Yeah, and in my case, we’d been going to therapy for seven years. I’d been staring it in the face, trying as hard as I could to hit what the problems were head-on, and because I went down the pornography addiction route and they never talked about abuse—abuse wasn’t even mentioned, which I think is crazy now—because I was hitting it as hard as I could by going to therapists, reading books about addiction, I’m thinking, “If I, a proactive person who wants to solve problems, is going at this as directly as I can and I can’t figure it out for seven years, this is serious.”
This is really serious. This isn’t something that is maybe I just didn’t know because I’m from some backwoods place or whatever. No. This means that anyone could have this situation. Just the lack of education about abuse is astounding to me and it’s astounding that trying to solve a problem for seven years and looking at it like that, I still didn’t find it until he got arrested for assaulting me.
That still stuns me. I think we probably went to over seven therapists.
Shannon: I think it should stun you. I personally think there is a real problem in the mental health field, and I am a therapist and I’m more than happy to say that, because I think it’s true. I think one of the things that are an issue is that our counseling programs have, historically, not trained people coming out of a master’s program to identify hidden abuse.
They have obviously gone to identify domestic violence, but that is changing for sure because I myself have gone out and spoken to different classes. I know other therapists are doing trainings. I know we are starting to get there. I think we have a holistic problem within the mental health industry that they do not recognize other forms of abuse besides physical.
Anne: I could not agree more. I absolutely agree with you.
Shannon: I think they’re using a model, as a whole, that is an addiction model that we would use when it comes to alcohol, drug addiction, those types of things. The difference is that, in alcohol and drug addiction, yes, there are exploitive behaviors that happen, but they are not the same type of exploitive behaviors that happen when you are dealing with a sex addict.
We’re using these models of looking at porn addiction from an addiction model like drugs and alcohol, but the game playing and the manipulation and everything that goes on underneath it is actually more in the model of psychological abuse.
Shannon: That’s where I think we get seven years of therapy without the word abuse ever coming up. I think that’s a major problem.
Anne: I agree, which is why I started Betrayal Trauma Recovery. This is why I started podcasting. It’s just stunning to me, still, that there is an entire industry that is basically asking abuse victims to “Don’t make a decision about your safety until you’ve been in couple therapy for six months,” or whatever. I mean stuff like that, that is pretty industry-standard for sex addicts, just absolutely should not be happening in an abuse situation.
Shannon: Well, it ends up being terrorizing to the victim.
Anne: Yeah, absolutely. I say drug addicts abuse drugs, alcoholics abuse alcohol, and porn addicts and sex addicts abuse people. That’s what they abuse. They are abusive in their behaviors. They are abusing other people. Other people are their drug, and that’s what makes it so scary and difficult.
That’s the whole point of Betrayal Trauma Recovery is to catch women who are going down that pornography addiction recovery route and say, “Whoa, you need to be educated about abuse because this is not going to help you.”
Shannon: We also see that in the porn addiction or the very traditional sort of model of porn addiction recovery and where we’re asking family members or partners to be a part of that recovery.
We also see in a faith-based community, where you have somebody that their faith is important to them and the abuser is saying the words that need to be said so that they can gain the sympathy and then all of the responsibility is now being put on the victim to keep this marriage together and to be “not giving their marriage over to the devil.”
All of this pressure is put on the victim, when the focus needs to be on the perpetrator’s behaviors.
Anne: Absolutely, and on her safety.
Shannon and I are going to continue our conversation next week. I’m so grateful for her time. I’m grateful for all women who are sharing their stories of hidden abuse and betrayal and the emotional and psychological abuse that they suffered while they were being betrayed, unknowingly, and then afterward when they found out about their husband’s double life or when they found out about the psychological abuse that they experienced and they tried to confront their abuse and then sometimes the abuse escalates, sometimes it gets better depending on the situation.
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Until next week, stay safe out there.