Hidden Wounds
by Lesli Musicar, M.Ed., R.P.

Sometimes, it isn’t until we get out of an abusive relationship that we realize just how damaging it really was. In the past, many of us thought the only legitimate injuries were bruises and broken bones. But in reality, emotional and verbal abuse can be even more damaging.

When you’ve been physically scarred, it is clear that an injury has occurred. But when the assaults involve words or non-violent behaviour, it becomes less clear. We then tend to doubt ourselves. We minimize the effects, or we compare ourselves to others. “At least I lived to tell the story!” one woman exclaimed. But at what cost?

One client—I’ll call her Jane—came to therapy because her partner had convinced her she was unstable. “I think I might be crazy,” Jane began. She said she couldn’t trust her judgment anymore. Things she used to feel confident with now felt shaky. She could no longer drive on the highway. Even casual conversation at work had become difficult. She worried about “saying the wrong thing” or worse, “saying too much.” I asked what “too much” would mean? Jane needed to tell her story, but was afraid.

At home, Jane said she was “walking on eggshells” all the time. Her spouse constantly criticized her and called her awful names. Whenever she went out with friends or family, he would get angry. So Jane stayed in more often and kept in touch with others by phone. But soon, this too became problematic. There was no privacy. She couldn’t speak freely without “getting into trouble.” Her spouse would accuse her of betraying his trust, of “making him look bad.” So she stopped calling and stopped going out. And, before she realized it, Jane’s world had shrunk to a universe of two.

This meant there were now only two realities: hers and her husband's. There was no longer anyone to bounce things off--no reality checks. She was afraid to tell people at work about her life at home. She felt ashamed. She blamed herself. Jane felt like she was living a double life.

If her spouse's behaviour was hurtful or seemed unreasonable, there was no one to validate this. Slowly, Jane began to lose confidence in her perceptions. Bit by bit, her once solid sense of reality started to crumble. She fantasized about ending the relationship, but worried about what people would think. She fantasized about her partner dying. She even fantasized about killing herself.

Finally, Jane just couldn’t take it anymore. She told her husband she wanted to separate. And just like that, he changed. Before her eyes, he miraculously transformed into the person she had first fallen in love with. He validated her reality, apologized for his bad behaviour, and begged for another chance. Relieved and grateful, Jane agreed to try again. But it wouldn’t be long before the stinging remarks and manipulation resumed.

Sadly, this story is more common than one would think. It represents the classic cycle in abusive relationships. And although the example I’ve given represents a heterosexual relationship, this kind of abuse can occur regardless of sexual orientation.

In most abusive relationships, anger is used as a means of control. As with Jane, it is often used to isolate the victim from her supports. Once alienated, she becomes even more vulnerable to the abusive partner. Then follows a slow and insidious process whereby her confidence is gradually eroded. The victim becomes unsure of her perceptions and shaky about her judgment. She feels small. She may become depressed. The first step in healing is to break the secret. This is often a tremendous relief. It’s human nature to express things that are upsetting for us. But when we feel obliged to remain silent, it only increases our distress. Telling the story is an integral part of our healing. It’s like emptying the poison from a wound: it can’t heal until it’s cleaned out. So tell it as often as you need to. Find compassionate people who will listen. Use creative outlets, such as writing, artmaking, singing, dancing, etc. to express your pain. Join a survivor group.

Find a counsellor.

The next step in processing the abusive relationship is trying to make sense of it. Initially, it is shocking to acknowledge the abuse one has tolerated. And it is profoundly humiliating “To think that I allowed myself to be treated like that!” But it doesn’t matter how intelligent or educated you are, this cannot protect you from abuse.

Often, low self-esteem will make us more vulnerable to abusive people. Issues stemming from childhood can also play a part. They may influence whom we are attracted to and what we will tolerate. Traditional gender role conditioning is another factor putting women, in particular, at risk. In our society, women are raised to care for others and to place others’ needs before their own. This can make us less aware of our own emotional health. Alternatively, it can make us feel “selfish” for taking care of ourselves.

Whatever the explanation for getting stuck in an abusive relationship, it does not make us responsible for being abused. So honour your hidden wounds. Tend to them and allow others to help you heal. No one deserves to be abused. And just because the scars are on the inside, it doesn’t mean they hurt any less.