It is, of course, good news that the Turnbull government is highlighting domestic violence, what Rosie Batty calls ‘domestic terrorism’. But the emphasis is still on physical abuse, and there are those who believe that unless there are bruises then the situation is not abusive or its not violence. However psychological violence can be more pernicious, more dangerous and more harmful than the physical variety.
Any relationship in which there is name-calling, criticism, defensiveness or stone-walling (ignoring the other), there will be unhappiness. A healthy relationship does not contain any of these.
Because what happens in a relationship where one is called names, criticised, ignored or where one’s partner refuses to accept any liability and attacks rather than discuss an issue, is that we feel unsafe. And if we are unsafe, then we begin to behave in ways which we believe or hope will bring more safety. For some people this is to get angry – anger is a classic response to lack of safety – others will behave aggressively, if only verbally. Of course the reaction is to increase the lack of safety, and so the situation rapidly escalates and an impasse is quickly reached.
Physical violence is tangible, measurable, countable and its easy for others to empathise with the hurt. But if you are living in a home where you are not respected, not valued, given not status or independence, you will feel equally unsafe, and become equally unhappy.
Strangely, many people do not themselves acknowledge that their home is unsafe because of the psychological violence, even if walking through the door gives them feelings of fear and anxiety. perhaps because of their childhood story, many people think its OK for their partners to belittle them, criticise and humiliate them and show disrespect by words or actions. I have several clients who come to me in a state of extreme hyper-vigilence because of the way they are treated in their own homes by the one person they should be able to trust, and who should be supportive and reliable, yet they accept it and the norm. Let me tell you: it is not OK.
When we experience a toxic home in our childhoods its understandable that we believe that emotional toxicity is normal, or even, some form of love. Some people even look for it, because they believe that this is what love and normality looks like. And because bullying and emotional violence can actually become addictive, it is easy to understand why some people not only seek it out but tolerate extreme unpleasantness for a long, long time.
But living in an extremely unpleasant – or even only mildly unpleasant – atmosphere for months or years will erode our mental health and slowly we begin to lose a healthy sense of ourselves and out worth. Even if we don’t consciously question the situation, there will be symptoms which reveal themselves in sleep problems, eating problems, weight problems, and unhealthy negative thinking. If you are unhappy, look first at where and how you are living and ask yourself: is this situation meeting my needs as a human being?
Some people enjoy living on their own but for most of us, a partnership with one other is the norm that we strive to achieve. And having bonded with one person there is frequently the sense that ‘I’ve made my bed and now I have to lie on it’ even if that person turns out not to be the person you though they were.
Domestic tyrants, dictators and bullies initially hide their true selves but slowly the comments start to come out, getting more and more corrosive. Depending on the effect they have on the victim, the perpetrator will start to be more demanding, more critical, impose more cold silences, or start to impose financial restrictions or social limits. It is humiliating and demeaning to have to ask for money for the basics for living, for example, and its unhealthy to feel that you can’t see your friends because your partner doesn’t want you associating with them.
The details of psychological domestic violence vary with every situation but they have a common theme: one person is exerting control over the other and making the other feel unsafe and unhappy. If this experience resonates with you, or you know someone in this situation but they are in denial, the same resources available to victims of physical domestic violence are also there for you. After all, if we can’t feel safe, confident and happy in our own homes, there is something seriously wrong that needs to be changed.
Annie Gurton is a Psychological Therapist and Couples Counsellor based in Sydney’s Northern Beaches. She has been helping people to thrive for many years, and comes with a lifetime of experience. Contact her on 0243 632 657 or visit her website.
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