Insidious is a word we often hear to describe psycho-emotional abuse because it is deceitful, underhanded and cunningly disguised loving-kindness. For this reason, most people who are targeted for this kind of aggression do not realize it’s happening to them until long after the fact. It is only when the damage has been done to the individual’s well-being and quality of life, that they discover that trail of exploitative tactics used to take advantage of them.
This book helps men reflect on their lived experiences and recognize how subtle patterns of abuse can manifest in relationships with manipulators.
Holding space for male survivors
Some of the unique challenges male survivors face are gender stereotypes, specifically that men cannot be abused and in domestic abuse discussions men can only be the perpetrator or the aggressor but never the recipient of abuse. In reality, some men experience domestic abuse in interpersonal relationships in the context of family abuse and intimate partner abuse, both in heterosexual and same sex relationships. Therefore, it is essential to hold space for male survivors of domestic abuse.
What you will learn in ‘Are I In An Emotionally Abusive Relationship? (Special Edition for Men)’
While the focus of the first half of the book is on recognizing patterns of emotional abuse in men’s interpersonal relationships, the workbook section helps men tap into their agency and opens up vistas for healing and growth.
After the relationship health self-assessment exercise, the workbook uses your discoveries to help you gain fresh insight about where you are today and what actions are necessary to help you reach your goals.
I would like to end this post by reiterating the message I shared with Veronica in the interview: I developed this tool for male survivors in the hope that men and boys will know that they are seen, they are loved, and they can heal.
I guarantee there is an entire generation that will instantly relate the word isolation to the 2020 COVID-19 crisis.
I do not.
I will not.
Every time I hear that word, my past haunts me.
Images flash in my mind.
But they are not of the present social distancing, wearing a mask, quarantine, and antibody testing. The images brought to my mind remind me of a different place, a different time when I was a different person.
The smaller a malignant narcissist can make your world, the more you will feel dependent on them.
Isolating the victim makes it easier for the manipulator to distort the third partys’ perception of the victim and dominate the narrative.
An Invisible Prison
The last few months of social isolation have been extraordinarily difficult for me. I am reminded of my current strengths daily, as well as the person I used to be. In the blink of an eye, I remember things I wish I could forget.
When I was a married woman, living in a New York suburb, we had an electronic gate at the end of a very long driveway. Located in a well-to-do, bucolic neighborhood, the gate was attached to a concrete wall separating the house from the road – from the world.
There was a large metal box on one side of the front wall, which contained the gate’s motor and electronics. I did not know how to open nor operate the secured machinery. And there were video cameras everywhere. An ordinary person would think they were for security purposes — but I will get to that.
You can be living in the dark hole of abuse – and not realize how bad it is until you start telling other people what is happening.
The man I was then married to was in total control of operating the gate. On good days, I had a code to get in and a motion detector operated to let me out. However, on bad days when he felt I was disobedient when I had not been silent or had not worshipped him accordingly – he disconnected that gate when he left for work, abandoning me in a home with what I believed was no way out.
My sons would have to walk around or climb over the gate to get to the cul de sac for their school bus. When the gate was rendered inoperable – my world shrank and became even more restricted. I was ordered to remain at home until further notice.
Isolation was a punishment. It was deliberate. It was a minute component in the cycle of abuse.
Survival Mode in Coercive and Controlling Relationships
Looking back, I wonder: who was that woman who received such punishment?
I could not drive a car out of the driveway with that damn gate stuck closed – but why didn’t I walk around it like my sons?
I never even considered it. I obeyed him. I lived in constant fear.
I was married to a man for almost two decades who used isolation amongst other Coercive Control tactics to dominate me. In the years since my divorce, I learned that his behaviors are consistent with narcissistic abuse.
In my case, other kinds of harm were added to the mix, such as domestic violence, and financial abuse.
During my lengthy, high conflict divorce, the man who would later be known as my “ex” was diagnosed by several forensic psychologists as:
having anti-social personality disorder, and
being morally bankrupt.
Did I ever hear of those terms before court-ordered reports?
For almost 20 years, I was so deep in survival mode, that I did not even consider there to be personality disorders and distinctions. It was just my way of life, a way of life I needed to survive for my children.
How Coercive Control Destroys Support Systems
Gradually, friends left my life, my family became estranged, people I had known for years stopped contacting me.
Eventually, the only human contact I had was with my children’s teachers and occasionally parents of my children’s classmates. But even those contacts diminished.
I tried socializing with other people in our community – as couples normally would – but that never lasted too long.
My ex-husband would tell me that people didn’t like me or only bothered with me because they thought I had money, convincing me that all break downs in communication with the outside world were my fault.
For many years, I never questioned it.
I was a class mother for my sons in school, an assistant soccer coach, a softball mom, etc.
I lived my life day to day as a mother of two sons whom I cared for and practically raised alone as their father showed no interest in them until I began to stand up for myself, mentioning divorce.
Throughout their childhoods, my sons learned that the only time their father showed them attention was when they would mirror his interests. My sons eventually understood how the equation worked, dropped their interests and passions, and reflected their father.
No more soccer, softball, or basketball. Playdates were few and far between.
Getting back to that gate at the entrance of my home address — everyone thought it was to keep people out when, in reality, its purpose was to keep me in.
There were days I just stayed at home, often recovering from bruises, with no means of escape.
I guess I was so traumatized, controlled, and terrified that I did not dare climb over that gate to get out. I remained at home, in fear, until I had a release date that my then-husband determined. The security cameras were strategically placed around that gate to allow him to keep an eye on my comings and goings, recording it on six small television screens within the home and backed up on the Smart House computer system.
There were years of physical, psychological, emotional, and financial brutality. I would be locked in a bathroom, locked in a closet — a prisoner in my own home — all to disarm me, to break me.
But here I am, despite it all. My life turned out to be one of survival over adversity. It is not one of victimhood.
Little by little, I mentioned what was going on to people, I started to read, and believe I deserved better.
You can be living in the dark hole of abuse – and not realize how bad it is until you start telling other people what is happening.
The Effects of Coercive Control on Children
Here is a shout out to anyone married to a narcissist.
They will not want you to leave them, not even when they have a backup plan waiting in the wings in the form of their new supply.
As much as they use isolation to control their victim, narcissists fear abandonment.
If you have children with a narcissist, be prepared for the brainwashing of those children. The narcissist’s lies will be spewed and repeated, eventually destroying the relationship between you and the very children you love so dearly.
When a narcissist knows you are on to them, they will use whatever will hurt you the most to get you back in line.
You can become isolated from the children who were once your entire world – alienated.
During the last few years living under the same roof, my ex did all in his power to separate and isolate me from the children I cherished. He wanted me to be as alone as possible.
Isolation in a COVID-19 World
That word again – isolation. It is a gate that separates you from your children and the world.
Lately, I’ve gotten so tired of hearing people complain about not seeing their families, not seeing their friends, not going out to restaurants, or on vacations. I’ve become inundated with people whining about how they can’t hug their grandchildren or go on their beloved shopping sprees.
Of course, these times are a challenge. But honestly, I think I’ve lived through worse. I often thank my Higher Power that at this very moment, at this very time – I am not in isolation with the man I was once married to.
During this harrowing time of health crisis in our world, I am not isolated as I was in my past. This time, my isolation means I choose to stay safe.
Psycho-emotional abuse describes any non-physical pattern of behavior that intentionally harms an individual’s mental state and undermines their ability to reach their full potential. It is a portmanteau of psychological and emotional abuse.
This kind of abuse can occur within a variety of contexts. For example, it can take place in intimate partner relationships, in family relationships, in friendships, in the workplace, etcetera.
Above all it is used to manipulate and control another person or people.
Other definitions of psycho-emotional abuse
Dr. Marti Tamm Loring defines psycho-emotional abuse as, “An ongoing process in which one individual systematically diminishes and destroys the inner self of another.”
Professor Dorota Iwaniec describes it as hostile or indifferent behavior which:
Damages the individual’s self-esteem,
Debases their sense of achievement,
Diminishes their sense of belonging,
Prevents their healthy and vigorous development, and
Takes away the individual’s well-being.
Characteristics of psycho-emotional abuse
Psycho-emotional abuse is subtle and can be tricky to spot – even by the person experiencing it!
Abusers often disguise their malice as good intentions, which confuses the person they target and deceives most bystanders.
At times, the aggression is overt and takes place in front of witnesses. However, in these instances most people do not understand the nature of this kind of aggression and so they fail to recognize that abuse is taking place.
Some of its characteristics are:
It is a pattern of behavior.
The harm it causes is deliberate and intentional.
The target experiences the behavior as harmful.
The abuse may be overt or covert.
It may or may not occur in the context of conflict.
It may not immediately seem aggressive.
The aggressor may camouflage the abuse as caring, love, or humor.
The targeted person’s vulnerabilities are exploited to cause them to feel confused, insecure, and unsure of themselves.
It may manifest as neglect.
The abuse causes harm to the targeted individual’s well-being.
Abusers are cunning enough to understand that psychological abuse is a bloodless crime which usually enables them to escape accountability for the harm and devastation they cause.
This is because the theatre of the abuser’s aggression is not visible to the naked eye.
While the recipient of the abuse has no physical symptoms, the emotional wounds may be catastrophic.
A common occurrence is when an aggressive and/or narcissistic person feels intimidated by the presence of someone who they believe has qualities or privileges they do not. They may seek to resolve these painful feelings by asserting dominance over the person they regard as a threat.
In some instances, the abuser is externalizing their toxic shame and placing their burden on the victim. In this way, the abuse strips away the authentic identity of the target and assigns to them a new one that encompasses the parts of the abuser’s persona which they despise and reject.
What are the effects of psycho-emotional abuse?
The cumulative effect of psycho-emotional abuse is the erosion of the recipient’s self-worth and trust in their judgment.
They use a variety of tactics to convince the person they target that they brought the abuser’s aggression on themselves.
They defend their aggression and escape accountability through the process of scapegoating. This is done by using the targeted individual’s vulnerability to excuse the abuse. By blaming the person they victimize, they absolve themselves of any wrongdoing.
Abusers often silence targets by using threats and intimidation. They enlist agents to gang up on the target. The result is that the targeted individual may experience fear, anxiety, dread, and panic.
Prolonged psycho-emotional abuse can lead to adverse health outcomes. It may cause chronic anxiety which can impact the targeted person’s physical and psychological well-being. Over time, this may cause depression, complex post-traumatic stress, and auto-immune disorders.
Comparisons to Coercive Control
Coercive Control and psycho-emotional abuse are both power- and control tactics.
Psycho-emotional abuse may refer to harm inflicted on men, women, and children by abusive men, women, and children.
Coercive Control originated as a descriptor, Dr. Evan Stark, used to describe the entrapment and subjugation of women. It points to a specific kind of gender-based violence, namely how abusive men prevent women from “freely developing their personhood, utilizing their capacities, or practicing citizenship.”
Coercive Control may include isolation, monitoring, sexual abuse, financial abuse, and bodily harm.
Dr.Stark underscores that Coercive Control is more akin to hostage-taking and kidnapping.
“We must stop characterising Coercive Control as only psychological abuse,” Forensic criminologist Dr.Jane Monckton Smith of Gloucestershire University explains, “Psychological abuse is a method used by controlling people to exert and maintain control. Coercive Control is a campaign made up of any or all of these things which then trap people in a relationship, and make it impossible or dangerous to leave.”
Gaslighting is the distortion of another person’s reality. It’s purpose is to undermine their sense of self-mastery. It is a feature of Coercive Control and psycho-emotional abuse.
The United Kingdom recognizes Coercive Control as criminal behavior. Laws prohibiting coercive and controlling behavior came in to force in 2015. The legislation is gender-neutral and applies to anyone experiencing entrapment and domination.
IMAGINE LIFE WITHOUT the ability to generate authentic joy, love, or compassion. It’s hardly a stretch to suggest that one’s internal ecosystem would be a bleak and desolate landscape. However, if you were to open up the mind of a pathological narcissist and look inside, what you would find is a psychological wasteland riddled with persecutory objects.
The ambiguity of malignant narcissism is that its outward manifestations are often the opposite of the internal reality, which is a gaping void. The gnawing emptiness within is a catalyst for narcissistic pretensions that serve to preserve their idealized false self. Chest thumping boasts of supremacy are a safeguard against the toxic shame that has engulfed their true self.
Where others have a conscience, the pathological narcissist has a vacuum. For this reason, they are on a constant hunt to consume anything that might fill the void. Alcohol, narcotics, pornography, sex, gambling, people – you name it, the narcissist ravenously devours it. But it doesn’t fill them up because they are bottomless pits.
When narcissists encounter people who are able to manifest constructive emotions the narcissist cannot, it wounds their pride, stirs their jealousy, and causes a narcissistic injury.
What is a narcissistic injury?
A narcissistic injury is a threat to the narcissist’s false self. The threat may be real or imagined. What matters is that the narcissist’s steely psychological armor is penetrated and they experience a painful reminder that their false self is an illusion.
Sensing danger, their ego sends all hands on deck to rescue the false self from annihilation. For this reason, narcissistic injuries go hand in hand with narcissistic rage.
The narcissist’s first line of defense is a disavowal of reality. They devalue the threat, stripping the individual of their humanity and reducing them to the status of object. The narcissist’s ego then fractures the object as it resorts to primary defense mechanisms, such as splitting and projection.
Someone who was once all good is now all bad. A person once hailed as the light of the narcissist’s life becomes the very heart of darkness. The threatening object is made wrong so that the false self can be right. Thus, the narcissist vindicates themselves from any criticism, wrongdoing, and – most importantly – shame.
The more the narcissist uses splitting as an ego defense, the more anything resembling a cohesive identity unravels. Whenever the ego splits an object, an identical split takes place in the ego itself, causing it to become fragmented. The more a narcissist splits off from the abuse they inflict, the more it escalates.
The narcissist is a paper tiger. Their psychological structure is too feeble to grasp a self-concept with any complexity. They are satisfied to worship an illusion of their perfect false self. This disposition is common in toddlers, but it’s crippling in adults.
The construction of a false self may have shielded them from adverse childhood experiences in their early years, but it is maladaptive in adulthood as it prevents them from living authentic emotional lives.
The need for emotional bonds disgusts them. Yet, paradoxically it is also something they covet.
While the false self mimics edifying emotions, it does not experience them. A kind of emotional rigor mortis defines the narcissist’s existence.
How do narcissists cope with narcissistic injuries?
Their fragility sends them on predatory crusades to boost their ego. They may sustain their insatiable false self with adulation or attention or with cruel power trips utilizing coercive control, and psycho-emotional abuse.
Narcissists believe that by destroying a person or thing, they obtain power over it. They accomplish this through deception, seduction, and psychological cannibalism. To the narcissist, this affirms their imaginary superiority.
It is their way of making the false self appear real.
SOMETIMES IT CAN SEEM as if narcissists possess such extraordinary manipulation skills they appear to bend reality to their will.
This is made painfully clear when they inflict harm on someone and, astonishingly, escape accountability by flipping the script and blaming the person they’ve wronged.
Narcissists are expert at erasing the pain they cause from the narrative. They wipe their hands clean by projecting their malice, aggression and treachery on to the target.
The more malignant a narcissist is, the less of a conscience they have. This makes them able to blame the survivor with such ease and skill that, once the narcissist has spun their web of deception, the survivor appears to be the aggressor and the narcissist their hapless victim.
In many cases, survivors are left reeling as their abuser blithely revises the fact of their aggression, twisting the truth into a narrative that bears no semblance to what actually transpired.
This is because narcissists have mastered a tactical maneuver that effectively grooms individuals and, indeed, entire social groups by controlling their perception of events.
The name of this strategy is DARVO.
What is DARVO?
DARVO is an acronym for Deny, Attack, Reverse, Victim and Offender. It is a defense mechanism used by manipulators to evade accountability for the abuse they inflict on others.
The term was first presented in a 1997 article by Jennifer J. Freyd, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon and founder of the Center for Institutional Courage.
According to Dr. Freyd, “The perpetrator or offender may Deny the behavior, Attack the individual doing the confronting, and Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender such that the perpetrator assumes the victim role and turns the true victim – or the whistleblower – into an alleged offender.”
Denial is used by the abuser and bystanders in their clique. It usually sounds like:
Ididn’t do anything, but if I did, it wasn’t that bad.
It never happened, but if it did, it wasn’t that bad.
Thus, the abuser is able to craft a scapegoat story which is used to cultivate biases against the target and rally bystanders to their cause.
“This occurs, for instance, when an actually guilty perpetrator assumes the role of ‘falsely accused’ and attacks the accuser’s credibility and blames the accuser of being the perpetrator of a false accusation,” explains Dr. Freyd.
In a DARVO climate, no amount of evidence will suffice as proof of the abuser’s transgressions. The target will not be believed within a social circle that has been groomed by a narcissist, psychopath or other manipulator. On the contrary, the target will be subjected to a terrifying campaign of victim-blaming by the group.
Once the abuser has successfully secured the bystanders’ support and conditioned them to perceive the survivor as the perpetrator, the clique collectively subjects the survivor to the merciless process of scapegoating.
If the survivor lives through it, they are usually driven into isolation and social death. Other outcomes can include homicide or death by self-annihilation. The narcissist, psychopath or manipulator’s endgame is the complete destruction of the target.
DARVO as a collective grooming tactic
The cognitive distortions created by DARVO cultivate an ecosystem of moral corruption. Members of the peer group are encouraged by the narcissist to engage in polarized or black and white thinking.
The group’s empathy for the narcissist is weaponized and used to encourage negative biases about the recipient of the abuse. Narcissists, psychopaths and other manipulators do this in order to ensure that members of the dominant clique become indifferent and callous about the betrayal of the survivor.
The desensitization of the group opens the door to the objectification of the targeted individual and once this is accomplished every kind of violence becomes acceptable.
Examples of this can be seen in manifestations of anti-semitism, racism, sexism and homophobia.
Why do bystanders participate in collective betrayal?
In other words, bystanders yield to betrayal blindness in the interest of looking out for themselves and to avoid the loss or pain they might risk if they sympathized with the target.
They assign more value to their relationship with the abuser so it follows that it’s in their best interest to empathize with the narcissist not with the survivor.
In fact, in many cases bystanders may stand to gain more social capital if they lend their support to the narcissist. So it is usually a combination of greed for gain and an instinct for self-preservation that eclipses any ethical or moral considerations in the bystander.
In other words, members of the clique adapt to conflict within the group by “turning a blind eye,” to the harmful behaviors of the narcissist.
The longterm effects of DARVO on survivors
Many survivors feel psychologically obliterated by the trauma of experiencing DARVO. It can have disastrous consequences for the survivor’s mental health. For example, it can cause severe anxiety, panic, depression, and post-traumatic stress which, in turn, can adversely impact the survivor’s physical wellbeing.
DARVO invalidates the survivor’s lived experience. It inflicts further pain and suffering as the wronged party is cheated out of any measure of justice. Instead, in addition to the original violation, survivors are persecuted and blamed in spite of the fact that they are the wronged party.
Rejection from their peers and the narcissist’s immunity to being held accountable is a constant cascade of salt poured in the survivor’s wounds, causing them to be repeatedly re-traumatized.