You Can Make A Difference Now (YCMADN): Shackled by Fear (Verbal and Psychological Abuse)

Posted on 10 November 2011


There are no visible scars, but the effects of verbal and psychological abuse are insidious and long-lasting.


MILA (not her real name) is in her 30s, has a stable job and has always been proactive in her life. She took steps to leave an abusive marriage, and won custody of her nine-year-old son.


But if she sees her ex-husband, her body betrays her fear. She starts shaking uncontrollably and she sweats. She stands rooted to the spot, unable to function. During their marriage of 10 years, he beat her and tried to make her sleep with other men. She was verbally abused every day.


She is still caught in the nightmare in her mind, despite being physically free of him.


Lalitha (not her real name), 23, almost died giving birth to her son at home three years ago, because her husband was too drunk to send her to the hospital. She said it was better that she died in front of his eyes than if she sought help from neighbours. At least that way, he couldn’t accuse her of wrongdoing, and she won’t be punished.


There is no underestimating the hold that their abusive husbands had on Mila and Lalitha. They lived in fear for years, and their husbands had total control of their lives.


In our day-to-day interactions, there will be conflict and discord. We experience anger, annoyance, irritability, dissatisfaction and even hatred towards the people around us, including our spouse. We argue and attack each other, verbally, emotionally and in extreme situations, physically.


The question is when does the interpersonal conflict cross the line and turn into psychological abuse?


The Domestic Violence (Amendment) Act 2011 amended the definition of “domestic violence” in the original Act to include acts of causing psychological abuse which includes emotional injury to the victim.


It is abusive when the victim fears for her life and is totally under the control of the other party. A victim of psychological abuse is often cut off from all social contact and has no freedom to act or speak without punishment. Her movements would also be curbed; she could even be forbidden from leaving the house.


Power balance

Although both genders are vulnerable to psychological abuse, most of the abuse is unfortunately targeted at women.


Women are more susceptible to psychological abuse because of how our society is constructed.


At the heart of it, we are still very much patriarchal and men are put in positions of power, says Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) executive director Ivy Josiah. According to Josiah, when a woman is abused, society asks “Are you a good wife/mother/person?” implying that somehow it could be her fault she was treated badly. When the abused is a man, he would never be asked the same question.


We are conditioned to subscribe to gender stereotypes. Men are perceived as the stronger sex; they are strong, they make decisions. Women are supposed to be the weaker sex; they listen, follow, obey.


These stereotypes do a disservice to both genders. Men cannot show fear, regret, shame or compassion, for then they would be devoured by stronger men. So instead, they show anger, aggression, hatred.

Women cannot assert their will, speak out or express anger, because that is the purview of men.


“In any relationship, it is about the balance of power. When the scale is tipped either way, the balance shifts. It is often in these cases that abuse happens,” says WAO social Work Manager Wong Su Zane who has been counselling abused women for six years.


Some women become dependent on their husband financially.To the perpetrator, abuse is about power. The husband whose wife depends on him for money, food and shelter, may think he is now superior to her, that he owns her and that he can do whatever he likes with her. He doesn’t value her contribution to the family as an equal, a wife and a mother to his children.


Lalitha’s husband treated her like a sex slave.


“Our problems began when he started drinking heavily. When my husband is drunk, he demands sex that lasts three to four hours. Because of my difficult childbirth, I experience a lot of pain during sex. He told me I was useless since I couldn’t satisfy him,” says Lalitha.


Wong said the perpetrator usually has to prove he is strong and in control, and the only way to do that is by asserting power over another person.


It comes back to how our society is constructed. With the high esteem bestowed upon men, comes great expectations. When he fails to meet any of those expectations, real or imagined, he loses power.


So, he has to get it back, and sadly, it is often by punishing someone he deems weaker than him.


The husband who is cheating on his wife feels guilty, so he assuages his guilt by making her the bad person who has to be punished, physically and emotionally. In some cases, he resents his partner for the trap that he sees the marriage to be.


After their first year of marriage, Mila’s husband began to vent out his resentment of her. Her job was better than his, and she suspected that he was having an affair. But the psychological abuse escalated when she took out an interim protection order (IPO) against him for hitting her.


“The beating stopped, but the verbal abuse became worse. He even started bringing back other men and tried to make me sleep with them. I refused to, and that made him even more mad at me,” recalled Mila.


It is also about learned behaviour, says Wong. When a son sees his father abusing his mother, and getting his way, he thinks it is acceptable.


He sees not so much the hurt his mother experiences, rather how powerful his father is. When a daughter sees her father verbally abusing her mother, she thinks it’s how it’s supposed to be. A woman should always obey or risk a beating/scolding. These children will grow up thinking that being loud and aggressive equals power and strength, and that women are less than men.


Mila’s son spent eight years in the midst of his parents’ violent relationship. He loves his father, but he is old enough to understand what he did was wrong. But it is hard for a child to reconcile love and aggression; as a result he has been having behavioural problems in school. Mila has sought help for him, but it will be a long road to recovery for mother and son.


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