Resources for surviving emotional abuse
May 6, 2015 8:17 PM   Subscribe

I'm seeking techniques, advice and resources on how to protect oneself in an abusive relationship.

The abuse is verbal, emotional, though rarely aggressive and never physical. This is a marriage. There are young children involved, and the victim has given up paid work to handle childcare. It takes the form of denying the victim respect by saying they "aren't worthy" of it or "haven't earned" the right to participate in joint financial decisions. The abuser wants the victim to sign a post-nuptual to ensure that the victim will not (in the abuser's words) "profit from" leaving the relationship. There is frequent invalidation of the victim's role as the primary caretaker. Even when the contributions the victim makes are listed, abuser discounts them as things that are easy, take no time and things the abuser does anyway, so therefore, they don't count as contributions. (Abuser does some housework, but not nearly the same amount.) Childcare is not considered a contribution since people entrust their children to teenaged babysitters, which somehow proves that it's too easy to count.The abuser tells people that the victim does nothing, contributes nothing to the relationship. Abuser has told the victim flat-out that they do not respect, love or like the victim.

There are many attempts to "help" the victim by the abuser telling them they are too passive and too lazy followed by a number of examples of things the abuser thinks the victim should have intuited and done without the abuser having to say so. (Example: victim should have just known that the abuser wanted the kitchen counter cleared of all items, even though usually most family members keep things there.) Abuser sees small lapses in housework (as simple as a glass left on a table or cups not put in the cabinet in their preferred way) as personal affronts and signs of disrespect. Conversely, if the victim does assert themselves and directly state what they need, they are criticized for "attacking" and berated about paying more attention to the abuser's moods so as to avoid upsetting them. The victim is too dependent, and yet when the victim does anything that benefits them, they are being selfish. The abuser complains that having the victim home with the children is too expensive, yet if they are offered a job, they can't take it because they wouldn't make enough. There is also gaslighting.

It's not feasible for financial and other reasons for the victim to leave right now. How can they protect themselves while they prepare?

Already in play: Therapy, anxiety medication, marital counseling. Long-term escape plan. Victim's looking for work now.
Victim has survived previous verbal abuse and is determined to stay strong.
What does the victim need to make it through?
posted by Les Socks Du Mal to Human Relations (14 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
The National Domestic Violence Hotline can be reached at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY 1-800-787-3224. This organization is available "24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year to provide confidential crisis intervention, safety planning, information and referrals to agencies in all 50 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands," and is an opportunity to learn more about financial and other resources that may be available.

Information about how to find an attorney, including free and low-cost legal resources, is available on the MeFi Wiki Get a lawyer page.
posted by Little Dawn at 8:36 PM on May 6, 2015 [5 favorites]

If the abused person could get ahold of this excellent book, it would probably help them just to be able to parse the no-win, sick game that they are being subjected to by the abuser. The victim's therapist may be able to provide some info on how to safely plan to leave situations like this as well as additional resources.

Under no circumstances should the victim sign any legal documents provided by the abuser. The victim needs to find their own lawyer on the down-low, stat.

Wishing the victim all the best, I hope they find peace and thrive.
posted by Klaxon Aoooogah at 8:41 PM on May 6, 2015 [8 favorites]

Seconding the linked Why Does He Do That: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men. I was in an emotionally abusive marriage and this question triggered a lot of my feelings from that time; that book (which I read after the marriage ended) is the first time I suddenly understood what had happened (and I had extensive training in the dynamics of abuse).

It is also extremely important that the people supporting her are actually supporting her, which means not putting pressure on her to leave. Abuse survivors are dealing with one person telling them to ignore their own instincts and feelings; supporters need not to step into that same role of telling the survivor what to do.

Something that helped me, prompted by a therapist's question asking how I could feel most grounded and strong, was imagining myself as a giant tree with an immense root system every time my abuser got wound up. I was strong, I was secure, I was grounded, no matter how out of control my abuser got. It didn't solve the abuse, but tapping into that feeling of immovable strength was immensely useful. If trees don't do it for her, then maybe just picturing whatever comes to mind when she thinks of strong, safe, secure.
posted by jaguar at 9:02 PM on May 6, 2015 [7 favorites]

Quantifying helped me enormously with the gas lighting. I had to track things for health reasons, and I started counting how many times I did other things, and realised I was doing a staggering amount of stuff compared to my ex-partner, and it was in black and white.

I can have a conversation with him where I come away convinced I'm a lazy entitled selfish person, because he knows exactly how to spin things with so many years experience. Having the numbers helps enormously to go back and undo the crazy and remember that no, I'm not a money grubbing lazy cow and he really did do that awful thing. Get her to keep track SECRETLY of how much she actually spends (turns out I'm actually frugal! and can budget, who knew) and how many hours a day she spends doing xyz, tasks and so on. It really did help me mentally at the start. You can get password protected phone and web apps that let you log in to update and quantify just about anything.

She needs her own money more than anything else. She needs to have her own bank account and her own money, even if it's $50 from grocery bill change she's scraped together. Start putting that together - banks will set it up so it's all online only, and she can leave the ATM card with a trusted friend if she's scared to keep it at home for now. But she needs her own money. She can start tracking her own understanding of the bills in her own budget (YNAB or Mint or whatever) and NOT show it to him - just start figuring it out on her own. It doesn't matter if it's incomplete, just start gathering what info she can track. And she should start taking photos of financial documents and keeping them in a private password locked Evernote account for later with the lawyer so she's ready when he leaves her and knows what the financial situation actually is.

It does get better. Every baby step makes her a little bit stronger. He'll push back, and she needs friends and support and she will have to decide if he's dangerous or not at some point because that changes what you do, but she can have a better happier life. She deserves better.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:03 PM on May 6, 2015 [3 favorites]

Quantifying helped me enormously with the gas lighting.

Oh, yes! My version of that was counting up the number of people in my life who had ever described me as "selfish" and "lazy" (one: him) versus the number of people in my life who had described me as "giving" and "motivated" and "compassionate" and a huge number of other non-selfish things (too many to list). Which is another reason supportive friends are helpful; they can remind the survivor that not everyone sees her as incompetent, selfish, lazy, etc.
posted by jaguar at 9:06 PM on May 6, 2015 [8 favorites]

Living this one myself except I am on the separated/getting a divorce side. Hang tough, find a good lawyer, only communicate with spouse via email. Good've got a wonderful life ahead of you, you just have to grab it!
posted by OkTwigs at 9:12 PM on May 6, 2015 [9 favorites]

it would probably help them just to be able to parse the no-win, sick game that they are being subjected to by the abuser.

Essential. This is the book that helped me name and understand what was happening, and allowed me to slowly detach from my ex (i.e. to limit my emotional investment in the outcomes of particular interactions, as well my larger hopes for the relationship). It has good advice on how to respond to different patterns of verbal aggression - I found it very useful at the time.

Opportunities for stress relief are important. I spent months (years, really) jacked up to level 20, feeling tense and sick to my stomach most days, cognitively overloaded. I couldn't think clearly at all while feeling under threat 24/7. Not always easy to do this - I remember worrying and ruminating even when physically away from the home or my ex. But visits with close friends and family did help reduce some stress. Even an hour away from the house here and there will help in its way.

(Related - they should take care of their health in general. I caught every bug going while I was with my ex. I'm sure that my immune function wasn't at its best, due to regular acute and chronic stress. Great if she can try to eat well and get prompt medical care when she needs it.)

It helped me to talk to non-judgmental friends about things unrelated to the relationship (or how I was wasting my potential, or anything along those lines). Light chat and warmth, mostly warmth, and being treated normally, as if I was the person I was before the relationship, helped bring me closer to myself, at least temporarily (because I really had forgotten. These relationships reduce people to raw nerves).

When I was close to being ready to leave, I took a writing class, with the aim of finding something that was my own. (I guess I wanted to start saying things, at that point.) It did a lot to help remind me that I was an autonomous, creative person with inherent value, with my own intelligence. I don't think I would have been able to do it when I was in the thick of it, though.

I'm glad to hear your friend is working towards financial independence - that is mission critical.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:51 PM on May 6, 2015

[OP has been very careful to avoid using gendered pronouns in their post; let's please try to be respectful of that. We don't know the gender of either the abuser or the victim.]

One thing that helped me during an abusive relationship was getting involved in regularly-scheduled group activities. It was nice having a built-in reason to get out of the house, and knowing there were people who would miss me if I didn't show up was really helpful for maintaining self-confidence.
posted by zebra at 10:01 PM on May 6, 2015 [6 favorites]

Childcare is not considered a contribution since people entrust their children to teenaged babysitters, which somehow proves that it's too easy to count.The abuser tells people that the victim does nothing, contributes nothing to the relationship.

With all due respect, it is likely the court will disagree. The primary caretaker of the children is often awarded temporary custody, and temporary possession of the home may follow a similar logic. Child support may be handled by the state after government benefits are issued, and there may be programs to help with finding work or going to school.

They need their own money more than anything else.

I agree - child support, food stamps, child care subsidies and other resources likely are available to help provide basic income, and free or low-cost legal assistance may be able to help with things like temporary custody, alimony and housing.

Local support organizations can help guide people to community resources, and offer support even if someone isn't ready to leave.
posted by Little Dawn at 10:19 PM on May 6, 2015

Oh and the kids will likely have very mixed reactions to her/his growing independence in that they will be happy to see the parent happier, but also confused and upset by the controlling parent's anger and rage, and worried that they are causing it, or blame the escaping parent for causing it because as little kids, they are too scared to confront the controlling parent and risk being abused or unloved/rejected as well. So the escaping parent needs to not rely on the kids' approval and affection as a source of emotional comfort alone, as tempting as that can be in a dysfunctional home. Think longterm - it's good for kids to see that their parent can leave an unhealthy situation and stand up and make a better life for themselves and their kids, but the kids will be as much sad and angry in the short term, even if the changes are for the better.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 11:01 PM on May 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

Where I live at least, hired caregivers make big bucks (seriously) and let me assure the survivor here that their contributions are incalculable, these contributions are worth that much and more.


One counter-argument is that any legal document must be approved by each party's legal representation before signing. I wouldn't use that card unless the pressure was absolutely dire. It's a known and accepted fact, however, so go ahead and tuck that info in the back pocket.

It is also fairly true that any legal agreement signed under duress is invalid, BUT DO NOT SIGN ANYTHING.

In the shorterm, the survivor can use a nuanced formula for assuaging grievances, while not taking the bait of arguing their position or admitting to anything untrue. That's a lot of effort, tho, and the better move is...

Retain a lawyer immediately and find a quick and safe way out. Waiting for "the right time" kinda doesn't exist at this stage.

Good legal representation can help, and obtaining someone familiar with abuse will be ALL the difference, especially for the children in involved.

Many hugs. I grew up with this. Your life restarts when you escape. Do that. Be well.
posted by jbenben at 11:23 PM on May 6, 2015

I just noticed that you mentioned marital counseling. It's usually actively discouraged in abusive relationships. From the Why Does He Do That book linked above:
Couples counseling sends the abuser and the abused woman the wrong message. The abuser learns that his partner is “pushing his buttons” and “touching him off” and that she needs to adjust her behavior to avoid getting him so upset. This is precisely what he has been claiming all along. Change in abusers comes only from the reverse process, from completely stepping out of the notion that his partner plays any role in causing his abuse of her. An abuser also has to stop focusing on his feelings and his partner’s behavior, and look instead at her feelings and his behavior. Couples counseling allows him to stay stuck in the former. In fact, to some therapists, feelings are all that matters, and reality is more or less irrelevant. In this context, a therapist may turn to you and say, “But HE feels abused by YOU too.” Unfortunately, the more an abusive man is convinced that his grievances are more or less equal to yours, the less the chance that he will ever overcome his attitudes.

The message to you from couples counselng is: “You can make your abusive partner behave better toward you by changing how YOU behave toward HIM.” Such a message is, frankly, fraudulent. ABUSE is NOT caused by bad relationship dynamics. You can’t manage your partner’s abusiveness by changing your behavior, but he wants you to think that you can. He says or leads you to believe, that “if you stop doing the things that upset me, and take better care of my needs, I will become a nonabusive partner.” It never materializes. And even if it worked, even if you could stop his abusiveness by catering to his every whim, is that a healthy way to live? If the way you behave in the relationship is a response to the threat of abuse, are you a voluntary participant? If you have issues you would like to work on with a couples counselor, wait until your partner has been COMPLETELY ABUSE-FREE for two years. Then you might be able to work on some of the problems that truly are mutual ones.
Does the current therapist know about the abuse?

If the abused person could transition to individual counseling (likely with a new therapist) and stop the couples' therapy -- white lies like "I think I really need to learn how to be a better partner" or "I have so much to work on myself" might be helpful -- that might serve them better. If such a suggestion is liable to set the abuser off, however, the abused person should trust their instincts on whether to suggest it. If they can get individual help anyway, though, that would be ideal -- a lot of domestic abuse/intimate partner violence organizations will provide free or low-cost therapy to abuse survivors, even if they're still in the abusive relationship.
posted by jaguar at 7:48 AM on May 7, 2015 [5 favorites]

Make the long term escape plan a short term escape plan and network with everybody and their mother to find somewhere to escape to and borrow money for a lawyer if necessary. Seriously, fuck this noise. "Don't let perfect be the enemy of good." Don't plan everything and have it all depend on finding the "perfect" job or finishing some emotions or boundary building workbook, or skill building techniques to rebuff gaslighting. Just focus on physically leaving the proximity of abuser. So in the case laid out here, that would include finding a place and some legal counsel on custody issues.
posted by WeekendJen at 8:00 AM on May 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

I wish that AskMe could provide legal advice about what to do, but AskMe is not able to assess all of the facts nor apply the relevant laws, which vary by location. Questions about how the laws apply to this situation, including the legal significance of the proposed post-nuptial agreement, can be answered by a lawyer, and my hope is that free or low-cost legal assistance is available for at least the start of a family law case, and then alimony and employment income will help with the cost of an attorney, if free legal resources are not available for the entire case. In addition, a local support organization for survivors of domestic abuse may have legal advocates available to provide support during the court process, and they may be able to help with finding an attorney who has experience with cases like this.

The abuser complains that having the victim home with the children is too expensive, yet if they are offered a job, they can't take it because they wouldn't make enough.

This is one of the reasons why trying to wait until the victim/survivor has their own financial resources doesn't seem completely feasible. It sounds like the victim/survivor is employable and has a very good chance of becoming financially independent in the future, but it may only be possible to get and keep a job after leaving this toxic situation. There are financial resources available from the government and nonprofit organizations, and finding community support may be the fastest way to achieve independence and protect the children.
posted by Little Dawn at 8:11 AM on May 7, 2015 [4 favorites]

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