Yesterday my 12-year-old daughter asked, “How does someone NOT know they’re being abused?” It’s a really good and thought-provoking, important question.
Victims are conditioned and brainwashed by their abuser — whether a family member, a spouse, a boss, it’s someone with whom many hours, days, months, sometimes years, are shared — to believe the abuse and behaviors are normal and acceptable. That nothing is wrong. This happens over time, and so gradually, usually so covertly, that the abuse is long in place before a victim begins to piece together that most of this dynamic isn’t good or healthy. There may have been red flags early on, but the victim is taught by her abuser, from the beginning, to ignore any warning signs.
Tactics used by the abuser to convince his victim the abuse is normal and acceptable include:
*minimization (of her feelings and his behaviors)
*gaslighting (twisting and manipulating the literal or emotional reality of a situation)
*impression management (convincing people outside the abuser-victim dynamic that life is good, even “perfect,” and treating her with respect and adoration for an audience, which in turn brainwashes the victim into believing the facade, too)
*victim blaming (“If you hadn’t done such-and-such, you wouldn’t need punished,” or, “You’re too sensitive. If you weren’t a baby…”)
*name-calling and belittling, constant criticism
*isolation (controlled, intentional separation from family, friends, public activities)
*intimidation (physical force, bullying, mind games—see all of the above)
*coercion (persuasion, more mind games) and more.
Most victims, at some point, begin to understand that things aren’t right. She’ll periodically think she might deserve better, that he should treat her better. But why? How? She’s been convinced so well and for so long that the problems are hers alone, and what manifests is dependency, confusion, lack of confidence, low self-esteem, anxiety, etc. She, too, is involuntarily minimizing the abusive behaviors, contributing to impression management, blaming herself, believing that if only she could fix a certain flaw, everything would be better.
It’s also important to point out that the abuser is going to further muddy these abuse waters by the “good” behavior he bestows upon his victim every now and then. These tricks ensure she will be further spiraled into doubt and confusion about the truth of their relationship: love-bombing, gift-giving, high praise, reward, general spoiling, affection, bragging on her accomplishments to others, and more.
It makes sense that she’s not going to realize for herself, let alone be able to articulate to anyone else, that the world she lives in is one of abuse. This is why education and advocacy are so crucial in the crusade against domestic abuse.
If you see yourself in this post, please find someone to talk to. Find someone with experience dealing with abusive situations. Do this alone. Couples or family counseling is NOT the answer, as all the tactics used against you for so long will be present in therapy, and you’ll wind up the bad guy. Just like always.