emotional abuse

While physical violence leaves behind tangible scars, emotional abuse is just as prominent in relationships and affects victims in ways that can be harder to detect. 

Sophomore Megan Davis hadn’t expected to feel like a slut that night. She’d done nothing wrong. She’d danced alone — sometimes with her friends, but alone nonetheless. Her doubt crept in as she realized she’d worn a shirt with a keyhole cut-out in the front, a detail her long-distance boyfriend wouldn’t approve of. Her choice to go out often became an argument, especially if she’d call him once back at home.

“He would say that I was a dumb bitch for getting drunk and to not call him when I’m like that,” Davis, using a pseudonym to protect her identity, said. “And he would say ‘I bet you’re calling me because you feel guilty and you were a slut and did things that you weren’t supposed to do.’”

Other times, she’d FaceTime him before a night out to see how he was doing. If he disliked her outfit, he’d begin to cry and say she needed to change. Dressing like that would embarrass him and embarrass their relationship. Everything wrong in the relationship was her fault. It was always her fault. These were the times in which she felt the most lonely. 

He’d then apologize the next day, swearing it’d never happen again — but it always did. This is a common cycle in emotionally abusive relationships.

Abusers aim to control, punish or humiliate through verbal assaults. Over time, they can remove a victim’s sense of self and ultimately drive them to agree with the abuser, especially in instances of gaslighting.

Gaslighting has become a popular form of emotional abuse, according to Arianna Sessoms, JMU’s prevention coordinator and survivor advocate. Through manipulative means, abused people begin to question their perception of reality and sanity. For Davis, this came in the form of her mentioning issues she had in the relationship and her boyfriend — who she no longer dates — projecting his own insecurities on her. 

“He’s told me before that he’s insecure. That’s why he’s telling me I’m a slut. He’s insecure. He just needs reassurance,” Davis said she’d tell herself. “He knew I was the type of person to make excuses for people and see that other side. He took advantage of that.”

In a particular case, when his phone died at a female friend’s house and he didn’t respond for 24 hours, she asked what had happened and if she should be worried. Immediately defensive, he made her believe she was crazy and accusatory despite her never being so.

“He just went off and was like ‘Are you really going to accuse me of cheating when I know you go out all the time and make out with guys and hook up with guys but I can’t have female friends?’” Davis said. “He’d then tell me I knew nothing of loyalty. Only he did. He’d tell me I was immature and to fuck off.”

Sessoms says this form of projecting insecurities and jealousy is a primary indicator of a toxic relationship, but since it’s romanticized in the media with movies such as Twilight, people lose sight of what a healthy relationship is. It’s also not discussed enough to counteract popular culture.

With the Red Flag Campaign, Sessoms hopes the conversation of dating violence — which one in five college students experience — and positive relationships will be pushed to the forefront. The campaign aims to establish the signs so a friend or family member can help prevent unhealthy relationships in others.

“The mental, emotional triggers — whether it be fear or paranoia — it really does impact a person on all different levels,” Sessoms said. “It’s why it’s important to educate and prevent ahead of time and not get stuck in the cycle and deal with the after effects of it too.” 

While bruises are tangible and physical violence is the most detectable form of abuse, emotional or psychological abuse is just as prominent. With difficulties in measuring patterns and its prevalence, the physical effects of emotional abuse, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and loneliness, are overlooked according to HealthLine.

Similarly, because emotional abuse is subtle, 57 percent of college students say it’s difficult to distinguish the signs, even though emotional abuse targets a person’s psychological well-being. Forty-three percent of college women in relationships also report experiencing abusive dating behavior. 

Women from the ages of 18-25 are the most susceptible to this form of abuse, which often serves as the precursor to physical and sexual abuse according to a 2013 study done by Gunnur Karakurt, an assistant professor for family medicine and health at Case Western Reserve University.  

Sessoms attributes this to the excitement of one’s first relationship. Between the comfort of a new relationship and a societal shame against being alone, red flags can be overpowered by emotion and a desire to fit in.

She reiterates reaching out to someone you know and recognizing trust is vital in these situations. For those who may not have those resources, the advocates at The Well in the Student Success Center are there to talk and be a support system.

“Sometimes people need that reassurance that ‘No, you’re not crazy, and what you’re experiencing is absolutely valid and it’s absolutely not OK,’” Sessoms said.

It’s common for victims to get stuck in a cycle in which they can’t get out, especially when the relationship started out healthy, according to Sessoms. When abusers don’t always seem like an abuser or the victims don’t realize the severity of a situation, unhealthy relationships easily take root.

In Davis’ case, he was 24 and she was 18, a fact she’d initially overlooked. Now she says there’s no reason someone that age should’ve gone for her.

He gave her an ultimatum in the early stages: Either they date or they couldn’t be friends and ever speak again. It’s that level of manipulation Davis feels is a red flag, whether it be forcing a relationship quickly or portraying possessive qualities.

Along with this, came shame. 

“You think about it in a textbook way and you can imagine that and say ‘Yeah, that would be obvious to me,’” Davis said. “But it’s different when you’re in it. It’s different when it’s a real person and you care about them.”

Despite her friends urging her to get out of the relationship because of its toxicity, Davis didn’t listen to her gut. She says feeling like you’re in love with a person changes your perspective and regardless of how much training you’ve received about the topic, you’ll continue to justify the other person’s actions. Davis wishes she could tell others experiencing similar situations that it doesn’t mean they’re crazy. 

“People ask me ‘Why did you love him?’ But there were many, many good times. If a relationship was all bad, no one would stay,” Davis said. “That’s something people overlook. There are good times. And if anyone feels like they’ve been in an emotionally abusive relationship or are in one, they’re not stupid people. It’s not your fault.”

Feelings of inadequacy and insignificance can take over at times, according to Davis. She says choosing to be above the voice putting you down isn’t easy, but with the reliance of good friends, it can at least be a first step.

“I always felt like I had to be something more than myself. But just know that you will be enough for somebody,” Davis said. “The person who will treat you right, you will be more than enough for that person.” 

Sabrina Moreno is a senior media arts and design major. Contact Sabrina at morenosx@dukes.jmu.edu.