Brenda knew something was wrong in her marriage to Bill, but she was unable to put her finger on what. She felt like she was abused but he never hit her, so she minimized and even dismissed any warning indicators that something else was off. She was intentionally exploited by her husband; endured regular insults and rejection, alternating with affirmation; and felt manipulated into doing or saying something out of character.
Abuse is not just physical. There are many other forms of abuse, such as sexual, financial, emotional, mental, and verbal. While some of the other forms of abuse are obvious, mental abuse can be difficult to spot and explain. Abuse can happen in a home between spouses, from a parent to a child, in social situations between friends, and even at work from a boss to an employee. The sex of the abuser or the victim is irrelevant. Abusers can be both male and female.
It starts simply with a casual comment about anything: color of the wall, dishes in the sink, or the car needing maintenance. The remark is taken out of context by the abuser. The abuser misperceives their spouse’s remark as disapproval of them in some way. No matter how hard the spouse tries to explain that wasn’t their intention, it doesn’t work. The abuser calls them a liar and is off on a tirade, which ends in the spouse feeling like they are losing their mind.
Here are eight typical mental abuse tactics using Brenda’s experiences with Bill as an example.
- Rage – One minute everything is fine and then out of nowhere, Bill would unleash in a rage. In a fit of intense, furious anger he startled and shocked Brenda into compliance or silence. Brenda would do whatever he demanded just to reduce the intensity of his rage or make it stop. Over time, she would learn his triggers to avoid his rages. He would not take responsibility for his reactions, instead, he blamed her for losing it.
- Gaslighting – Bill would lie about what Brenda did in the past, making her doubt her memory, perception, and even sanity. He claimed and gave evidence of her past wrong behavior further causing doubt. As this continued, she began to question what she said a minute ago. She even thought she was losing her mind. Bill used this to further take advantage of her.
- The Stare – This is an intense stare lasting 1-2 minutes to longer durations with no feeling behind it. At times, it would feel creepy. Bill did this to scare Brenda into submission and frequently mixed it with the silent treatment. Bill would even do this at social gatherings giving her “the look” which meant he was upset about something she said, who she was talking to, how long she was talking, or even her not giving him enough attention.
- Silent Treatment – Bill would punish by ignoring Brenda. Then he let her “off the hook” by demanding an apology even though she wasn’t to blame for whatever upset him. This was done to modify her behavior. Bill also had a history of cutting others out of his life permanently over small things. Brenda learned to fear the silent treatment as a worse experience than a rage.
- Projection – Bill dumped his issues onto Brenda as if she were the one doing it. For instance, he would accuse her of lying when he lied. Or he made her feel guilty for doing something wrong when he did the act. This created confusion for Brenda. She started to feel as though she was the unhealthy extension of everything he didn’t like about himself. She struggled to see where he ended and she began.
- Twisting – When Bill was confronted by Brenda or another person, he would twist it around to blame Brenda for his actions. He would not accept responsibility for his behavior and instead insisted that Brenda apologizes to him. He was relentless in his demands that it was Brenda’s fault. When she resisted or fought back, he would add other abusive behavior such as verbal assaults or threats until she was no longer able to take it and succumbed to his demands.
- Manipulation – A favorite manipulation tactic for Bill was to make Brenda fear the worst, such as abandonment, infidelity, or rejection. Knowing of Brenda’s abandonment as a child, he played on that fear to manipulate her into doing what he wanted. Even in instances where she would normally reply “No,” he used her fears as a control tactic to get her to agree to do something she wouldn’t. It didn’t take long before Brenda could not recognize herself as she allowed him to manipulate her into doing things she never wanted to experience.
- Victim Card – When all else failed, Bill resorted to playing the victim card. He would claim that his feelings were being hurt and it was Brenda’s job to make him feel better. Sometimes, he would bring up things from his past and accuse Brenda of triggering uncomfortable feelings and then demand that she take responsibility. This was designed to gain sympathy and further control her behavior.
Once mental abuse is realized, a decision needs to be made. Are you going to continue in the relationship or leave? Whatever you choose, do it with an awareness of what is happening, the trauma this invokes, and methods to counteract the mental abuse tactics.