What do you picture when you think of how relationship violence is portrayed to the general public? Because of the picture that’s been created in our minds by society and mass media, the typical response to that question is raised fists, backhanded slaps, punching holes in the wall, throwing objects, smashing things, etc.
“When I heard the words ‘relationship violence’, up until 2015, I thought it meant strictly physical harm,” said Nanette Chezum, a survivor of an emotionally abusive relationship.
However, relationship violence is far more than just causing physical harm and can even exist when physical abuse isn’t present.
“Abusive relationships do not always consist of physical abuse,” said Debbie Quintana, an advocate for The Alliance in Salida. “Physical abuse is only one tactic used to get the person experiencing the abuse to comply with their demands and can be one of the last tactics used to gain control.”
To create a future free from relationship violence, we must first learn more about nonphysical abusive behaviors and the impact they have on the people experiencing them. From there, you can find ways to engage your friends, family and community in meaningful discussions about the range of behaviors involved in relationship violence.
Other Forms of Abuse
Relationship violence is not just physical and sexual assault but extends to other threatening and harmful behaviors such as emotional, digital, financial, reproductive and spiritual abuse.
“If the person using abusive behaviors can get by with other tactics, they will to prevent doing something that they might be arrested for,” Quintana said.
One of those tactics is emotional abuse – also known as psychological abuse. This looks different in each relationship depending on the individuals involved but generally consists of constantly criticizing them, blaming them for all your problems, attacking their self-esteem and making them feel worthless.
“Emotional and psychological abuse are meant to erode confidence and self-worth,” said Quintana, “so the person experiencing it believes they are unable to function without the person who is using the abusive behaviors making all substantial decisions.”
Often times, it is the mere threat of physical violence that allows a person to maintain power and control in a relationship. These acts of intimidation include giving threatening looks, bullying them, damaging or destroying their property and explicit verbal threats.
“It can become overwhelming and keep the person experiencing the abuse on edge each day as their partner uses threats to instill fear of physical punishment or death if they do not comply,” Quintana said.
One of the more subtle forms of relationship violence, financial abuse is also the most common as it uses money to maintain power and control over the other person in the relationship. According to a survey from the Allstate Foundation, 99% of abusive relationships include some form of financial abuse.1
“Financial control limits the resources a person experiencing relationship violence has access to, to make a safe escape from the abuse,” Quintana said. “Many times, they have no access to money or are given an allowance to only get necessities to survive.”
Impact of Nonphysical Abuse
Remember the old saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,”? Most of us have learned this to be a myth as we grow up but few can speak to its falsehood more than those who have experienced emotional abuse.
“(It) created a state of confusion,” said Chezum, who now shares her insights to others through Stand Up Colorado’s Ask Nanette feature. “It left me doubting myself, my thoughts, my decisions and my actions. I remember carefully choosing my words and tone when I would address issues with him so as not to ‘set him off’. I felt afraid to voice my thoughts and opinions out of fear that I would be scolded and ridiculed.”
What Happens When We Minimize It
Although we aren’t responsible for the stereotypes surrounding relationship violence, we do all play a role in dispelling those mythical images. If we continue to perpetuate those myths, however, the consequences are dire.
“When the world does not portray emotional or psychological abuse as controlling and wrong, then people often find themselves questioning why they might need help in the first place,” Quintana said.
Those doubts are what often keep people experiencing nonphysical abuse from seeking help or leaving or ending the relationship.
“Many clients who come in for the first time minimize or do not understand what behaviors they are experiencing that are abusive,” Quintana said. “I have clients who will make statements such as, ‘I don’t know if I should be calling because I’ve never been hit’, or they will make statements such as, ‘well they only pushed me, nothing physical’.”
If this is the mentality of those experiencing the abuse, how do you think it is perceived by the person who is using those behaviors? Not only will they typically not recognize that what they are doing is abusive, many won’t even believe that they’ve done something wrong.
“I truly doubt he would have labeled his harm to me as relationship violence,” Chezum said. “Looking back, I feel he knew what he was doing to me a majority of the time. I believe his treatment of me is normal relationship behavior to him.”
How You Can Stand Up
Nonphysical abuse – just like all forms of relationship violence – is not inevitable. It is preventable but will take a shift in how we define and perceive that violence.
“Education is seriously lacking in this area,” Chezum said. “I was not informed about verbal and psychological abuse growing up by parents, schools or my community. I had no idea I was experiencing relationship violence.”
Stand Up today and talk with the people in your life about the nonphysical abusive behaviors. Let everyone know that relationship violence – in any form – is not OK.
If you are using any abusive behaviors in your relationship, it is OK to ask for help. You can contact the Stand Up Colorado Helpline where our Colorado-based, trained professionals are waiting to answer questions and connect you with support resources in your area. Call 885.9StandUp (855-978-2638) or visit our website to chat with them online.
1 The Allstate Foundation. Silent Weapon: Domestic Violence and Financial Abuse Survey (2014).