How victims in lockdown can understand and recognize psychological abuse

How victims in lockdown can understand and recognize psychological abuse

The stress of the pandemic and limited access to social support systems can create a breeding ground for abuse, even in homes where it was not previously present.

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The devastating effects of COVID-19 are far spreading, affecting every aspect of our life from health to relationships to finances. On top of this, being in close quarters with family can create a new kind of tension — in some cases, terror. For victims and survivors of domestic violence, home may not be a safe haven; it can leave the survivors trapped in an escalating cycle of tension, power and control. The stress of the pandemic and resulting limited access to social support systems can create a breeding ground for abuse, even in homes where violence was not previously present.

Abuse is repeated misuse of one’s power and authority over another person in hurtful and damaging ways. Abuse mostly happens in close relationships and among family members. Being socially and financially dependent can make it difficult for victims to escape this cycle of dysfunction. There is not always a clear direction of abuse; in many cases, the line between abused and abuser is blurry, leaving both parties confused, heartbroken and stuck in a constant state of depression, anger and fear without seeing any way out.

[Read the Indian SCENE’s May 2020 story on COVID-19 and domestic violence reporting at local non-profit Mai Family Services]

Domestic violence experts understand abuse to come in many forms: Sexual abuse involves forcing or coercing someone into a sexual act without their consent. Physical abuse involves treating someone with violence and initiating unwanted contact. While it may be common to associate physical abuse with visible marks, it is important to note that not all physical abuse leaves visible marks.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men in the United States have experienced violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. Most of this abuse goes by unreported, often due to fear of further abuse. Psychological or emotional abuse erodes a person’s sense of self-worth. It may be more difficult to detect, but leaves victims scarred internally nonetheless.

Due to the insidious nature of psychological abuse, it is most difficult to identify and many victims don’t seek help until years later. This type of abuse is most confusing; it attacks victims at the very core of their being, leaving them feeling worthless, weak and powerless. Psychological abuse includes chronic verbal aggression, aggressive body language, menacing looks or tones of voice and blatant name calling, creating fear, confusion, insecurity and instability. Our ability to recognize it can help us take steps to restore our self-worth and safety and stop this cycle for once and for all.

In my Ayurveda practice, I see a wide variety of patients, experiencing everything from digestive issues to anxiety and depression, from weight gain to feeling lost and disconnected, from hypertension to just feeling unwell. As I work with them to uncover the root causes of their symptoms and complaints, past unresolved traumas sometimes come up. Patients are almost never aware of the connection of their current state of health to what happened years ago, and many of these patients have suffered from physical, sexual and psychological abuse in their early childhood. Connecting the dots helps them lighten up the psychological and subconscious weight they have been carrying. Here, I share some examples from my clinical practice and the experiences of the victims in parentheses:

  • “There she goes again.” (Feelings of disapproval and dismissal)
  • “You have no friends because no one gives a s— about you.” (Feeling bad about oneself)
  • “You are an a—hole and good for nothing man who does not know…” (Feelings of being flawed, less than, unloved)
  • “His wife dresses so much better.” (Loss of confidence)
  • “Where the f— is dinner?” or “What the f— have you been doing all day? (Sense of terror and fear)
  • “Anyone can do what you do.” or “It does not take all day to do this.” or “What are you doing the rest of the time?” (Feelings of being controlled)
  • “I am going to divorce your a— and you are going to be alone for the rest of your life.” (Feelings of insecurity)

Psychological abuse is about mind control, constantly undermining the victim and in many cases isolating the victim from family and friends, disrespecting boundaries, twisting conversations, protracting arguments, giving the silent treatment and withdrawing love and affection, sometimes offering grand gestures like big trips or expensive gifts in between. 

The resulting symptoms of psychological abuse are lack of self-esteem, personality changes, withdrawal and feeling depressed, anxious or suicidal. The victim may also try to rationalizing the abuser’s behavior: “Well, they are a good person”; “I really love them”; “At least they don’t beat me like others do.” Victims may find themselves constantly trying to win abusers’ approval, finding ways to get away from them, stalling coming home and only feeling relief in their absence.

Nothing justifies or excuses abuse. It’s OK to be vulnerable; it’s OK to seek help. These are among the most difficult and sensitive conversations to have due to the deep shame that both parties may experience, but, it is much more damaging not to talk about abuse. It is important to end the stigma associated with abuse, otherwise we run the risk of suffering in silence, perpetuating this cycle and remaining in danger. Those looking in from the outside must refrain from judgment. As a society, we have an obligation not to add more fuel to the fire. We must deepen our understanding and open our hearts.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at (800) 799-7233, by texting LOVEIS to (866) 331-9474 or at thehotline.org

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