BUT HE NEVER HIT ME ....
Please don’t ever minimise all the horrors of emotional, psychological, sexual and financial abuse by saying, “But he never hit me ...”
I can see that statement has the inherent resilience of gratefulness within it - grateful that at least you weren’t hit and I applaud such tenacious resilience - but it also denies the reality that you were still hurt. Often hurt in ways that are very serious and life limiting and for which, we have no blatantly obvious tools of measurement such as photographs of bruising, broken bones or bodily disfigurement.
But trust me, there are signs of ‘life disfigurement’ for those who suffer emotional, psychological, sexual and financial abuse, like when you can observe a person’s identity shrinking or their self destructive coping mechanisms escalating.
I have known a woman who attempted suicide several times, to try to escape the consistent and ongoing emotional and psychological abuse of her husband’s gas lighting. Emotional abuse is not just mortal to the human spirit, it can in addition, most definitely also be mortal to the human body. It didn’t matter that he didn’t hit her, she still needed to die to stop the pain. There was no other answer for her because she lived in a society that didn’t recognise such abuse, let alone stop it!
So let’s not minimise abuse just because it doesn’t have an immediate visible physical component. I really don’t like the Big ‘T’, little ‘t’ labels that practitioners often apply in trying to clarify, if not classify, abuse. Such labels imply that just because something wasn’t an immediate physical threat to our life, that our brain didn’t interpret it as so.
Most of us have experienced sometime in our life, the gut wrenching pain of a relationship breakdown. When people describe that pain they use physical metaphors, ‘I felt my heart rip apart’, ‘I’m physically broken’, ‘I cant live without them’ and sadly, some people do suicide after a relationship breakdown. Clearly our brain interprets a threat to a relationship as, ‘life threatening’. So when the person you love demeans you with emotional abuse, or ‘only’ threatens you with physical violence, your brain is very likely to interpret this as life threatening and a small ‘t’ trauma suddenly becomes a very big ‘T’ trauma!
We can all feel it in our bodies, the physical response, when someone is cruel, demeaning, humiliating or abusive. We really don’t need ‘T’ or ‘t’ descriptors to tell us when abuse is happening - we can all sense it - and saying, ‘he didn’t hit me’ is also saying ... ‘but it felt like a blow to my gut, when he hurled abuse at me like that’.
Abuse is abuse. Pain is pain and neither have anything to do with love ... or do they?
Whilst I never stop experiencing my own bodily responses to my client’s stories of abuse, I at the same time, still feel great sadness and empathy for both the victim and the abuser. Yes you can read that again - I have empathy for both parties, even whilst I despise how one, or both, might have wounded the other.
Because I know, without any doubt in my mind, body or spirit, that abuse has its roots deeply planted in primordial fear.
Fear that their partner no longer loves them, fear that they are not enough (and probably have never felt enough despite all their bravado), fear that they will be left all alone and totally unloveable. I have empathy for the broken spirit and limiting beliefs that lead the abuser and their fear filled limbic brain to hijack rational thinking in an impetuous rush to fight for emotional survival. In that moment the abuser sabotages the very thing they desperately seek - needing to feel wanted, to feel safely connected.
Some of you might be hearing my empathic understanding of this automatic/autonomic response, as justification or at least excusing the abuser their unconscious action to fight for emotional survival.
Let me be very clear, there is never any justification for abuse. But there is a lot of ignorance surrounding abuse, it’s causes and the best way to treat it in our society.
I emphatically disagree with the current societal discourse that is invested in shaming abusers in a futile attempt to stop abuse. Shame is already a pivotal ingredient in the abuse cycle. The red hot shame of not feeling respected or wanted, is exactly the emotion that stimulates the fear filled reaction of fight for the abuser. Shame also locks down the voice of the victim as their brain rushes to flight or freeze. Can you imagine anyone proud to say they have been abused, let alone been an abuser - I don’t mean defensively proud, I mean truly proud? No, they feel humiliated and severely beaten, emotionally if not also physically. Abuse completes the circle of shame leaving the participants of the cycle totally confused and disempowered to change what they hate in themselves and their lives. To actually gain the loving connection they are fighting so hard to keep.
A lot of men have grown up in families, and let’s face it, our society, where the only way they have seen that you can get your needs met, is by bullying. A lot of women in our society also grew up in those same families internalising, that they have no emotional voice to speak up. So when couples, both heterosexual and homosexual, desperately fight to be loved, but with a limited emotional vocabulary to achieve that ... they often literally do end up fighting!
I see that when others go to shame the abuser, it’s their own nervous system responding in the very same way the abuser’s polyvagal nervous system did. Their unfiltered outrage and disgust of the abuse impulsively runs to shame the abuser, to emotionally bully them, to stop the abuse. I also observe, more often than not, this shaming of the abuser also splatters the victim with shame. Trauma begets trauma.
Shaming is never the solution to creating healing. Shaming is a pivotal ingredient of entrenching abuse.
Absolutely every abuser I have worked with has, when we finally are able to access their vulnerable feelings, felt immense shame at the hurt they have caused to the person and people they love. (This fact also probably means I have never worked with a true psychopath who would enjoy their cruelty or not recognise it as such!)
So to anyone suffering abuse, be they perpetrator or victim, I would love to empathically welcome you into my counselling room. I would delight in gently helping you to experientially understand your primordially programmed brain and poly vagal nervous system. Both of these when fired by fear, sabotage the safety of connection you both seek. We would use the wonder of a calming strategy called Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), more commonly known as Tapping, so that you could finally both safely engage in healing relationship therapy. Bringing peace to hurt couples is my absolute passion and I call this entire process, Tapping into Relationships - eft2.
When The Dalai Lama says, “We forget the oneness of humanity”, he is also saying that when we hurt another, we hurt ourselves. There is no truer description of domestic violence.
It is a sad debilitating cycle of fear within our desperate human need for connection.
Let’s not add to that hurt by shaming people who have abused. Let’s change the cycle within ourselves and support them to get help. Let’s truly rid our society of the scourge of domestic violence by showing empathic understanding and providing neuro-scientifically informed therapy. We can change the emotionally bereft societal narratives that contribute to our horrific domestic violence statistics by addressing our own shame first. By choosing love over fear to change our world, our society, our selves.