Verbal abuse is often difficult to detect, recognize or even explain. Many women live in controlling relationships for years without being fully conscious of their ordeal until much later. They may become aware of their increasing feelings of discomfort, anguish, loneliness and confusion, but never associate them with being emotionally abused. Gender abuse is rooted in power and control. It involves the repeated and systematic use of a series of mechanisms, such as constant put-downs, threats, humiliation, isolation, abusive anger, blaming, etc., in an attempt to exert coercion, dominance and exclusive control over another person.
Verbal abuse occurs in all sorts of relationships, such as parent-child, teacher-student, towards the elderly, people of minorities, etc. While men also experience verbal abuse from women, it is still much more pervasive in women than in men. Verbal abuse leaves no overt scars, like with physical abuse, but it often precedes physical abuse.
Proper identification is paramount. One of the reasons verbal abuse is difficult to identify is because there are several myths surrounding gender abuse.
Here are some myths which commonly circulate in society:
- Myth 1 — Men have the right to control and "discipline" their spouses. It has been like that for centuries and is practiced across all cultures. It is the "natural" things to do. There is nothing natural about "disciplining" one's spouse. The expectation that men should be tough, aggressive and dominant and women as passive is a reductionist stereotype which justifies male violence. Although Western civilization has been organized around patriarchal structures (or its opposite, matriarchal structures), there have also been reports of non-hierarchical cultures with different organizational modes.
- Myth 2 — Women need to be controlled for their own good. No free adult should need to be controlled for their own good. This is another justification for the exercise of violence against women. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights."
- Myth 3 — Verbal abuse only affects a small percentage of the population. While not as easy to detect as physical violence, domestic abuse is much more common than one would think, and has been reported to be relatively widespread.
- Myth 4 — Both partners participate equally in the abuse, and it is therefore just as much the woman's as the man's responsibility. All too often, verbally abused women make numerous attempts to change with the aim of stopping or deescalating the abuse, with very little success. This myth is often elaborated by therapists who may unwillingly perpetuate the abuse.
- Myth 5 — Women often "do" things to provoke the abuse. No one deserves to be abused, humiliated or threatened, whether there be a "reason" in the aggressor's mind or not. Blaming the other for one's aggression is manipulation, a way of justifying one's aggressive behavior.
- Myth 6 — Abused women are masochists, or else they would leave. There are many possible reasons why a woman can't leave a violent relationship, including lack of options due to economic dependence (in extreme cases, because their spouse has prevented them from seeking work), isolation from friends and/or family, fear of harmful consequences to themselves or loved ones. Moreover, culturally women are also led to believe that they are responsible for the well-being of relationships. So when conflict occurs, they often tend to feel that they are not only responsible for it, but that they should also be able to "fix" it at all cost. Men are not expected to be "relationship-fixers."
- Myth 7 — Abuse occurs in response to marital problems, such as spousal communication difficulties, stress, or financial problems. This is one of the most common but also most harmful misconceptions, often encouraged by inexperienced therapists by focusing on things such as communication problems, and not on the abuse itself.
- Myth 8 — Verbal abuse is less damaging than physical abuse. The effects of verbal abuse may actually leave much deeper scars. This doesn't, not by any means, mean that physical abuse isn't harmful. It is, and it is a serious violation. But physical abuse is visible, socially condemned, and generally disapproved. Verbal abuse is invisible and receives relatively little validation.
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