It has been said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I believe in many cases, this is true. With our current social situation, I’d like to offer a different picture. Those living in constant fear of saying the wrong thing, expressing doubt in the unapproved direction, or being found to hold any of the latest forms of wrongthink, their road looks different. For the weary individuals being compelled by a social zeitgeist they didn’t ask for, under a vague (but very real) rubric of pressures to obey ever-changing rules they never agreed to, for those exhausted and fearful souls, the road they walk is paved with eggshells.
In late 2018, Kelsey Baker found the courage to do something she never thought possible: escape from her emotionally abusive relationship. Afterwards, the full-time college student and single mom did something equally as courageous. She shared her story with the world.
“Maybe he doesn’t hit you, but he makes you apologize for getting upset after something he did to hurt you.
Maybe he doesn’t hit you, but you have to walk on eggshells every day to ensure he is satisfied enough to remain calm and happy.
Maybe he doesn’t hit you, but he steals your sense of comfort and security leaving you paranoid and “crazy”.
Y’all….. this is so serious.”
Kelsey goes on to describe the emotional rollercoaster her abuser created, as well as the shame, confusion, and hurt that came from being in such a toxic relationship. Brief yet powerful, she concluded her story with a message to anyone who shared her experience:
“Maybe you did everything right but he still wants to victimize himself just so he doesn’t have to put in effort to right his wrongs.
This is not okay. And you are not at fault.
Do not apologize for his mistakes. Do not let him tear you apart to build himself higher. You are worthy of love and happiness and respect.
Please don’t wait for him to change as he carelessly rips apart your soul and everything that is you. Please don’t tell yourself it’s okay or ever allow yourself to get used to it.
He is broken. Do not let him break you.”
Kelsey was indeed not alone. As of this writing, Kelsey’s post has been shared over 134,000 times, and generated over 17,000 comments of gratitude, support, empathy, and encouragement.
There’s something galvanizing about genuine moral outrage, such as the exposure of abuse. Few people could be confronted by Kelsey’s story and not experience a potent mixture of rage and sadness. We want Kelsey to be free, and we want her abuser to be punished. Virtually any other response defies the very definition of human decency. In Kelsey’s case, the abuse is obvious. We read her story, and can all immediately perceive that something awful is taking place. When we read “This is not ok,” we all agree with her assessment. Like her, we conclude that no healthy person acts the way her abuser did, and no healthy relationship exists in such an unstable and corrosive environment. We also tell ourselves that we would identify such behavior if we saw it, and protect not only ourselves, but our friends and loved ones as well. All this moral certitude, yet we turn a blind eye to it every single day.
Abusers: Goals & Strategies
What if I were to tell you that emotional abuse is not only widespread, but has become so ubiquitous, that virtually everyone in the United States is currently experiencing it in some form or another? Some of us are victims, and some of us are perpetrators. Many have unwittingly become both. To support such an outlandish assertion, let’s first look at the profile of an abuser.
-the need to always be “right” or feel “in control.”
-other pathologies, such as undiagnosed mental disorders
Abusers can have a history of being abused themselves, or simply have deep-seeded maladaptive behavioral patterns and cognitive distortions. Whatever the emotions or perceptions that fuel the abuse, the manifest behavior almost always points to the same goal: power and control. In pursuit of this goal (which may never even manifest itself as a consciously-stated realization), abusers employ a number of strategies in pursuit of power over their relationships. These strategies of control can be broadly categorized as methods that “discredit, isolate, and silence” their victims. Here are some examples of the strategies abusers employ, though these are not linear or exhaustive in manifestation. Abusers can begin their quest for control with any or all of these tactics, often with significant overlap.
Those who can do no right tend to remain silent
Abusers will shame, insult, critique, and second-guess everything about the victim, their life, and their choices. No amount of effort by the victim will serve to placate the abuser. As Kelsey said in her Facebook post: “Maybe you did everything right but he still wants to victimize himself just so he doesn’t have to put in effort to right his wrongs.” Attempts to engage with these criticisms as constructive and in good-faith only serve to fuel the abuser’s power. The victim has now bought into the legitimacy of the abuser’s claims.
Those cut off from outside perspectives become trapped in abuse
Commanding and questioning the victim’s loyalty is a large part of an abuser’s success in long-term relationships. As the victim is confronted with a steady stream of personal attacks and criticisms, the abuser uses accusations of infidelity to prevent the victim from seeking outside information or input. All relationships are called into question, and are used to accuse the victim of disloyalty. To disprove these accusations, victims increasingly isolate themselves. Ultimately, this leaves only the abuser as the victim’s primary source of input into their life, and more importantly, their perception of reality.
Those in a constant state of confusion hold a discredited perspective of reality
Abusers are often able to reinforce and maintain control by becoming the very lens with which victims understand reality. Abusers do this by strategically gaslighting the victim, causing them to perpetually doubt their understanding of reality. Gaslighting often begins subtly, with expressions of disbelief or confusion about the victim’s choices or perspectives. Assuming the abuser’s sincerity, the victim attempts to explain the situation or perspective, only to be met with defensive postures and accusations of over-sensitivity. This is fundamentally destabilizing for the victim, causing them to grow increasingly suspicious of their own ability to discern between right and wrong, friend or foe, and true from false.
Victims: Experiences & Perspectives
Now let’s look at the profile for a victim of emotional abuse. For many reasons (including some previously mentioned), victims can be unaware they are in an abusive relationship. However, once a victim has identified they are in an abusive relationship, it can still be extremely difficult for them to leave. In fact, victims of physically abusive relationships endure an average of seven attacks before leaving the relationship. With emotional abuse having so few clear-cut indicators of abuse (i.e. “they hit me”), these relationships can be even more difficult to escape from, especially if there is a perceived threat of violence that never actually manifests.