Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Continuum of Psychological and Physical Abuse

Psychological abuse is very real, but quite often hard to recognize and even harder to prove. When a person is physically abused, there is more often than not physical evidence left behind in the form of bruises or broken bones, swollen areas etc. Emotional and psychological abuse are different. The victim has scars on the inside that can manifest throughout their lives in the form of fear, withdrawal, low self worth and a low quality of relationship with others. Their personality begins to change over time and even their desire to interact with others on a social level can be compromised. These scars are not visible and are hard to prove, unfortunately.

Before I give you the escalating continuum, I want to give you the definitions of abuse and of trauma:

According to, abuse is defined as:

–verb (used with object)
1. to use wrongly or improperly; misuse: to abuse one's authority.
2. to treat in a harmful, injurious, or offensive way: to abuse a horse; to abuse one's eyesight.
3. to speak insultingly, harshly, and unjustly to or about; revile; malign.
4. to commit sexual assault upon.
5. Obsolete . to deceive or mislead.

6. wrong or improper use; misuse: the abuse of privileges.
7. harshly or coarsely insulting language: The officer heaped abuse on his men.
8. bad or improper treatment; maltreatment: The child was subjected to cruel abuse.
9. a corrupt or improper practice or custom: the abuses of a totalitarian regime.
10. rape or sexual assault.

Trauma is defined as:

A serious bodily injury or shock, as from violence or an accident.

An emotional wound or shock that creates substantial lasting damage to one's psychological development, often leading to neurosis.

Interestingly enough, the main difference I see between abuse and trauma is that trauma is abuse that lasts over time, or whatever has happened to the victim is not able to be dismissed or healed quickly. The wound or shock creates lasting damage. The first time I read through those definitions I was very shocked to see that even in simple definitions, we can determine whether our behavior is abusive or not.

Often, when women talk with me about abuse they don't seem to have a gauge as to how bad the abuse is. There are some women who say, "well, he only choked me once"...or "he pushed me down the hall but I know he really didn't mean it". Abuse progresses as each boundary is crossed and it becomes easier the next time for the abuser to do the same and worse behavior the next time. As time goes on, abuse becomes more severe and more dangerous. In regard to the above examples, on the continuum of physical abuse, choking appears about 2/3 of the way down the list towards the end result of killing the victim. On that scale, it is a high probability that the victim is going to be hurt, maimed or killed if the abuse continues for any length of time. As I've told my clients, it only takes 8lbs of pressure around your neck for 11 seconds to kill you so why would you wait for the next time. It doesn't matter what the intent is, if you are dead there is no coming back from that.

The continuum for Psychological abuse looks like this:

Psychological Abuse (in order of increasing severity and danger)

  • "Jokes" or put-downs that demean the victim
  • Acting like the victim's feelings, needs, and ideas don't matter
  • Enforcing rigid roles and rules for women
  • Controlling through jealousy
  • Isolating the victim
  • Insults and name-calling
  • Yelling and raging
  • Humiliation, throwing food
  • Fist through wall
  • Threats and intimidation
  • Destruction of her property
  • Hurting or killing pets
  • Displaying guns, sleeping with guns
  • Depriving the victim of sleep
  • Abuser threatens suicide
  • Tries to get the victim to commit suicide
  • Threatens to kill her and/or the children
  • Death
If any of these things are happening to you, you would be wise to see where they lie on this continuum and determine how long it has taken the person to get to that place in the relationship.  If an abuser is threatening suicide, that one alone is a huge manipulation which often results in the victim feeling responsible for the life of the abuser and it holds them in a place they would not be otherwise.  My best advice, no matter what the circumstance is would be to call 911 every time there is a suicide threat.  The reason is that if you are not a medical or mental health professional, you do not have the skill set to help a suicidal person.  If they truly need help, they need to be in a safe place with people who can stabilize them and keep them safe.  If they are simply manipulating you, the consequences of that manipulation will be quite distasteful and the person will quickly learn that threatening suicide is not something they want to do.  Either way, calling 911 is a very good and effective way to deal with the issue at hand.  If the person does end up committing suicide there are two very difficult things that may result - 1) the authorities will be asking you why you didn't get appropriate help for the person and 2) you may be left with a burden of guilt that will take you time and counseling to overcome.  The truth is, you are not responsible for a suicidal person....their decision to choose that path is strictly theirs.  What you are responsible for is to do the most appropriate thing for them and that is always to get them the help they need.

The physical abuse continuum looks like this:
  • Holding down, blocking, pinning
  • Pushing or shoving
  • Shaking or jerking
  • Slapping and bruising
  • Throwing objects
  • Punching
  • Kicking
  • Black eyes, cuts, chipped teeth
  • Burning with hot drinks, cigarettes, etc.
  • Causing serious falls
  • Choking
  • Severe beatings
  • Broken bones
  • Hitting with objects
  • Back injuries, paralysis
  • Internal injuries
  • Use of weapons
  • Death
Notice that in each list, the end result is death.  Women don't often think of that as an end result, but our bodies, even though quite resilient at times, are not meant to deal with the type of physical punishment that an abuser can consistently meet out.  Additionally, it is important to point out that in any healthy relationship, these types of behaviors are non-existent.  Abuse destroys on every level so there shouldn't be any huge question as to why relationships that contain these behaviors don't work.  

If this type of thing is happening to you, call your nearest Women's Center to get help, counseling, advocacy or whatever type of help you need to deal with the situation.  There are individuals at these centers who are  trained in domestic violence and abuse, and these centers usually offer their services at little to no cost. If your husband or partner is displaying behavior such as that listed here, understand that he/she will not be able to help themselves.  Even if they promise never to do it again, they will...simply because they need outside, professional help to deal with the issues they have underneath the outside behavior.