Abuse of Abuse

Taking a look at a very bad analogy...

This post has been cowritten with Maria Walters. It includes discussion of domestic abuse, especially emotional and psychological abuse.

Last week, the news reported that the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, an evangelical newspaper founded by Billy Graham, called for Trump’s removal from office. There have been many different takes on what this means… but I don’t want to talk about any of that. Rebecca’s got that covered.

Rather I was struck by a moment when I heard the editor, Mark Galli, defend his choice on NPR’s Morning Edition. I’m used to hearing news that makes me grumbly on my morning drive. But I’m not used to being taken aback so hard that I nearly drive off the road. He says,

But we’ve gotten to a point where those things no longer balance the scale. It’s like a wife who has a husband who’s verbally abusive, but he’s still a good provider. He’s still a good father to his children. She might put up with that and say, on the one hand, yeah, he’s got a bad temper. On the other hand, he’s a great dad, and he’s a good provider.

When that husband begins to physically abuse the wife and actually become physically dangerous, that doesn’t balance the scale anymore. And now that the – the real issue is, should this man be in the house or not? And most of us would say he needs to be out of the house. But he’s a good provider. No. That doesn’t matter. He needs to be out of the house. And that’s how I feel like we’ve gotten to the point in the Trump administration.

Cue my incoherent screams of rage.

The analogy given is one that relies on an antiquated view of domestic abuse that is not only wrong, it’s dangerous. I’ve come so far along in my personal journey with this topic that I had actually forgotten that there are likely many people out there who still view domestic abuse in such a way. So, once the incoherent screams of rage subsided, I decided that a blog post would be in order. However, I wanted to go beyond anecdotal experience, so I enlisted the expert help of fellow Skepchick Maria Walters who works at WomenSV, a nonprofit that works with survivors of domestic abuse. I’ll get this started, and she’ll take over where indicated.

What’s wrong with this scenario

Myth: It’s really only bad if the abuse is physical.

Domestic and intimate partner abuse come in many forms, and each has their own particular damaging effects on an individual. The idea that it’s only intolerable if the abuse is physical is sadly the reason why many people stay in relationships with abusive partners.

According to Ruth Darlene, the founder of WomenSV:

The worst kind of abuse and the type that takes the longest to heal from is the kind you don’t see: the gaslighting, micromanagement of her everyday activities, undermining relationships with her children, doling out an allowance, pressuring to quit her job/have sex/lose weight/get plastic surgery/have another child when she is already exhausted and depleted from raising the ones she has single-handedly/reducing her to the role of servant by having her cook, clean, provide domestic and sexual favors with nothing in return. It turns marriage into a form of human trafficking. But because there are no visible wounds to show she has no authority to call on for help, protection or rescue.

This is just one description of how particularly potent non-physical abuse can be. (Note, the abuser and the abused in a relationship can be ANY gender. However, we’re sticking with the genders described in the initial scenario. Also, this is still the most typical gender match up in such cases, with 85% of domestic violence victims being women.)

As a dorky academic, I was grateful to Maria sending along some of the research that has been done in this field. In a recent publicly accessible study of emotional abuse in relation to age and gender, researchers detail the current state of the field where, though emotional abuse is often a precursor to physical abuse, it must be treated as a separate form with its own set of indications and forms of harm. Effects on emotionally abused women are as severe, if not more so in certain forms, as the effects from someone who has been physically abused. The old view really only gave credence if the woman was in physical danger, but preserving life and limb are not and should not be the only measure of a situation. The person’s psychological pain from various forms of manipulation, gaslighting, isolation, and control can be devastating.

Myth: A bad temper and verbal abuse are basically the same thing.

We all get angry. We all say and do stupid, hurtful things to other people. However, getting angry and blowing up at someone is not necessarily abuse. Darlene says, “As mere mortals we all get angry periodically. There’s a difference between being angry and using anger in order to intimidate/control/coerce/disempower/terrorize another person.”

I have learned that it is all too easy to brush off someone’s behavior as “just a bad temper” or due to outside stressors that are beyond the person’s control. What do you do in that situation? You begin to feel ashamed, because you’re just not supporting that person the way they need it. Or, you feel guilty, because your actions are what is setting off the verbal tirade. You begin to regiment your life around that person’s triggers, walking on eggshells to avoid a blowup. You, “put up with it,” as Galli says. But it’s not just “putting up with” something that is slightly negative in order to enjoy an overall positive relationship. You’re already living in fear, being manipulated, often being gaslighted, and suffering those deleterious psychological effects of emotional abuse referenced above.

On the other side of this, verbal abuse doesn’t even have to be loud or angry. It can take the form of manipulation, micromanagement, or inducing shame without the next door neighbors hearing a thing.

Myth: Spousal abuse does not harm the children.

The hypothetical scenarios involves a man who is apparently being an awful husband but a good father. Might a woman stay in a relationship that is bad for her if she thinks it’s good for the children? Abso-fucking-lutely. It’s the kind of decision that I would never judge, because I honestly don’t believe there’s any blame there for her to take on when she herself is the victim. I do, however, want to poke at one underlying premise: that abuse between the partners doesn’t have an effect on the children.

First of all, you have to imagine a scenario where a person who is doing harm to one household member is not directly doing harm to the most vulnerable members of the house. Though this may be possible, I don’t see it as terribly likely. An abuser can be a totally different person among co-workers or out in public in a way that masks their behavior at home, but how much can that extend within the home? The relationship of parenthood is already one with a built-in power differential in that the parent has more power and influence over the child than the other way around. I’m not a parent, but I only have to skim our sister site, Grounded Parents, to get a sense of the kinds of things that parents have to worry about when raising their children and supporting their emotional well-being. To be a “great” parent, as in our original hypothetical example, he must do more than be a “good provider,” which I took as to mean a financial provider.

In The Body Keeps Score, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk describes the long-lasting effects of various types of trauma. The effects of childhood experiences with a parent resonate far into one’s life, even when the abuse is not overt or the trauma so obvious. Research into attachment theory describes how a child will develop emotionally based on how their primary caregivers respond to their needs. No parent ever has to do this perfectly, but consistent patterns of care, responsiveness, and communication are crucial to healthy emotional development. Issues arise when a caregiver is repeatedly neglectful, unpredictable, or causing fear in some way. This “disorganized attachment” leaves children without an internal sense of security, leading to some of the same effects seen in victims of more acute forms trauma.

Or, to put it more bluntly, when an adult you trust most in the world is shitty to you repeatedly during your childhood, that is probably going to fuck you up a bit.

So, with that in mind, these hypothetical children are, at best, shielded from direct trauma but have one parent (the mother) who is affected by abuse and thus less able to provide emotional support for them. Furthermore, the so-called “bad temper” of the father is likely to cause fear and insecurity in those kids just growing up in an environment where verbal abuse is taking place. At worst, all the household members are subject to the abuser’s manipulations.

Based on all this, I turned to Maria to see if she might be able to add some perspective:

A more nuanced view of abuse

When Nicole sent me the clip from the NPR story, unfortunately, I was not at all surprised. The idea that emotional abuse isn’t as big a deal and really is something that can be worked through is pervasive. Couples are encouraged to talk through their problems, seek marriage counseling and yes, stay together for the kids.

The organization I work for works specifically with survivors in middle-to-upper income areas. What we find is that in areas where there is more wealth and power, the abuse tends to be more subtle and less overt. While we certainly deal with physical and sexual abuse, we often see financial, legal, technological and emotional abuse. Many of the women we work with don’t even realize the word for what they’re going through is, in fact, abuse. If a partner doesn’t physically hurt you, but prevents you from leaving the house, controls what you wear, doesn’t allow you access to money or monitors your emails or internet browser history – that is abuse. It’s just that we don’t typically talk about this in that context.

So education is a big part of our goal and the myths that Nicole mentioned above are very common. I would like to add one more:

Myth: There’s a ‘breaking point’ when the abuse gets to be too much and that’s when a woman makes the decision to leave.

Sadly, the reality of abuse is much more complex. Abusers don’t abuse all the time, in a linear, escalating pattern. More commonly, it’s a cycle. Tensions start to build, an incident of abuse occurs but then the abuser apologizes and swears not to do it again. Often this is followed by a ‘honeymoon phase’ of calm where the abuser is charming, kind, loving… until the tensions start to build again and the cycle starts all over. Women get trapped in the mindset that if they can just change their own behavior so they can keep the abuser in the honeymoon phase, the problem will go away and they can make it better.

Cycle of Abuse: 1 Tensions Building - Tensions increase, breakdown of communication, victim becomes fearful and feels the need to placate the abuser. 2 Incident - Verbal, emotional, and physical abuse. Anger, blaming, arguing. Threats. Intimidation. 3 Reconciliation - Abuser apologizes, gives excuses, blames the victim, denies the abuse occurred, or says that it wasn't as bad as the victim claims. 4 Calm - Incident is "forgotten", no abuse is taking place. The "honeymoon" phase.
Public Domain Image by Avanduyn

But of course, it’s not about the woman being able to do anything to change his behavior – it’s about the abuser choosing to abuse regardless of what she does. Abuse is fundamentally about two things: power and control. What actually happens is that the reconciliation and honeymoon phases start to be shorter and shorter and the abuse starts to get worse – and as that happens, sometimes, the woman realizes it and decides to leave. THAT may be the analogy that Galli was trying to make – that after a while, the abuse gets to be the whole relationship and often that is the tipping point for the woman to decide to leave.

When this happens, she then faces the most dangerous time in the relationship. Abusers use any tools in their arsenal to maintain control over their partner. So money, the legal system, the children, technology, all become weapons. One of the most common tactics of an abuser is to isolate the victim, to remove any social or family structure that they may be able to turn to for help. Add to that the social stigma still associated with domestic abuse and it’s no wonder that on average, a woman tries to leave up to 7 times.

This may seem a lot to unpack from what was basically a throwaway comment in a political message. But, like so many misconceptions ingrained in our societal world-view, it’s easy to forget that every throwaway comment may have someone it directly applies to. About 1 in 4 women and nearly 1 in 10 men have experienced contact sexual violence, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner during their lifetime and reported some form of intimate partner violence-related impact. Over 43 million women and 38 million men experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime. (source: CDC). This is truly an unseen epidemic and learning and having a clearer understanding of the complexity of this issue is crucial in working to end abuse and get victims the help they need.


If you or a friend are dealing with Intimate Partner Violence, you can always contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline. At WomenSV, we also have a detailed list of survivor resources and educational information to learn more.


Nicole is a professor, astronomer, educator, geek, dog mom, occasional fitness nerd, and maker of tiny comets. She is also very loud under the right circumstances. Like what you read? Buy me a coffee: https://ko-fi.com/noisyastronomer

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  1. I’m not surprised at Mark Galli’s rather circumscribed and naive characterization of domestic abuse. From what I hear, the model of the family that Evangelical Christianity promotes is inherently abusive. The father is supposed to be the master of the family, and wife and children are expected to obey him unconditionally, no matter how unreasonable his commands. The only protection they have from blatant abuse is the father’s restraint. And even if the father’s abuse is so blatant that other men in the community notice it and feel forced to step in, the victims are expected to still be loyal to him and to forgive him on demand.

    BTW, this view was pretty much in the mainstream when I was a child, and the laws and practices of society were set up to make it hard for abused women and children to escape an abusive husband/father. We have feminism to thank for the fact that it is more practical for more women, at least, to separate from an abusive spouse. Children, however, are as stuck as they ever were. (Even if CPS steps in and removes abused children from the family, the places CPS puts them in are frequently no better than the original family.)

    Evangelical Christianity also seeks to cut women and children off from contact with anybody outside of their cult, lest they be contaminated with “wordly” ideas.

    1. Ugh, I can’t imagine what it’s like for kids going through CPS. I know in NH the state version of that was found to be failing kids significantly, and had to be overhauled.

  2. That’s like a checklist of the things my wife went through in her previous marriage. And to say it can’t be all that bad, that marriage lasted a year and almost a decade on, she’s still feeling the effects of the belittling, gaslighting, and micromanagement.

    1. I’m not surprised that she’s still suffering from PTSD. My childhood left me with (complex) PTSD, and it still warps my daily life, 50 years later. (Fortunately, I now have a trauma-aware therapist, but it’s still very slow going.) If she was in an abusive relationship for a year, it’s probably Complex PTSD (see Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery), which the usual treatements for PTSD from isolated incidents don’t work for very well.

      No parent ever has to do this perfectly, but consistent patterns of care, responsiveness, and communication are crucial to healthy emotional development. Issues arise when a caregiver is repeatedly neglectful, unpredictable, or causing fear in some way. This “disorganized attachment” leaves children without an internal sense of security, leading to some of the same effects seen in victims of more acute forms of trauma.

      Pretty much describes my childhood. My parents used corporal punishment (belt, switch, etc.) up until around when I was 6, but that didn’t do anywhere near the damage that the constant blaming and attacks on my self-esteem (couched as “correction”) and unpredictable “love” (my mother was pretty narcissistic) and emotional neglect did. I always say “I learned distrust on my mother’s knee.” And the emotional assault was reinforced in every other part of my environment (school, church, camp, scouts, etc.) There was nowhere I felt safe. I didn’t start learning to be human until I got away from home and from my home town. (Not that I feel like I’m a human even now.)

        1. I kind of lucked out. I was actually looking for someone experienced with gender transition, as I was transitioning from male to female. As it happens, the gender transition was fairly easy, but my PTSD kept coming up. (Since it was probably the biggest determiner of who I am, it was hard to avoid.) And it turned out that she was also trained in a lot of the trauma treatment techniques. Perhaps not such a surprise, since most LGBT+ people have suffered serious trauma.

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