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The Hidden Sides of Abuse, Part One: Emotional Abuse

This morning we begin our in-depth series titled "The Hidden Sides of Abuse," which examines those aspects of abusive relationships which we don't often hear about. In today's segment, KSMU's Jennifer Moore looks at that form of abuse which has been called the "silent killer": emotional abuse. The name of the victim in this report has been changed to protect her identity.

Like most people, when 41-year-old "Alice" heard the word "abuse," she used to picture broken bones or a black eye hidden behind dark sunglasses or underneath concealer.

At age 22, she fell in love with a charismatic young man who appeared to be her knight in shining armor. He had a Master's Degree, took her out to nice restaurants, and seemed genuinely concerned about protecting her.

Soon after they were married, however, Alice's husband declared they were moving to New York, and the charm began to wear off.

"Certain things in my own life, like the things I loved doing, he put me down about it," she says. "He would make fun of me. Like writing was one of my things. I loved to write. And he'd tell me, 'Well I'll be the first person in this household who writes a book.' Or, I loved to sing and he would always tell me I couldn't sing. He would always tell me how stupid I was. He would use very huge words and then tell me to look it up in the dictionary."

Alice was quickly becoming a victim of something she had never even heard of before: emotional abuse.

Emotional abuse is the systematic tearing down of another human being in order to gain control over them. It transcends genders, race, and all socio-economic boundaries. Since it doesn't leave physical bruises or scars, it is often the most difficult type of abuse to identify. In some ways, it is also the most dangerous, in that the constant criticism, belittling and humiliation eventually have the effect of brainwashing.

"After so long of being put down, I eventually began to believe him to where I believed I couldn't do anything at all," Alice says. "I believed I was stupid because that was what he told me. And he told it to me just about every day."

Dr. Cindy Baker, a counselor with "Touchstone" in Ozark, Missouri, has conducted 13,000 therapy sessions and focuses primarily on emotional abuse.

"I look at it like erosion," Dr. Baker says. "If you take a huge boulder, and if you have a single source of water continuing to drip over time on the same point, it will erode a hole into a rock, a single water source. And to me, that's what emotional abuse is like, a constant drip, drip, drip. 'You're stupid,' lots of name-calling. Very manipulative."

As it was in Alice's case, emotional abuse is often accompanied by other methods of controlling behavior. Alice's husband kept her isolated from friends and family, kept a very tight rein on the family finances, was physically violent with her, and threatened to hurt himself if she ever left him...all classic signs of an abusive partner.

Outsiders have long wondered why victims of abuse stay with their abusive partners for so long. Dr. Baker says the answer to that question lies in the mind.

"The abuser changes the method," she says. "And so you don't see it coming. And therefore, you can't really say, 'I'm being abused.' 'He's just correcting me. I made the mistake.' And over time, the victim buys into the fact that they are not intelligent, they can't do anything right. I think sometimes, too, the victim will leave if they can say, 'Look, he broke my arm. I need to get out.' But with emotional abuse, it's self-loathing. They are convinced they need to stay so they can do a better job."

Alice says she also stayed to protect the reputation of her husband, who was a minister, and she believed at the time divorce was not an option on religious grounds.

It was actually another church minister, however, who told her this type of behavior was not acceptable in any faith, and began to help her plan her escape.

"The pastor of my church, he and his wife came to get me and my son. We left on a bus, and by the time my ex-husband got home, we were gone."

Alice and her 6 year old son took the bus from New York to her family's home in southeast Missouri, where she filed for divorce after 11 years of marriage.

Shortly after she left her husband, Alice noticed something about herself: she had begun to sing again.

"I took voice lessons for one summer to build my confidence and found out that actually I could sing in every range from alto to soprano and possibly even tenor. And I never knew that before," she says. "And then I went back to school because he had always told me how stupid I was, and I graduated with a 3.02, and I thought that was awesome."

Alice now works in a shelter for battered women in Springfield. She has taken a negative experience and is turning it into something positive with every downtrodden woman who walks through her door.

Dr. Baker and other experts say the damage and scars left by emotional abuse are usually far more lasting than those left by physical abuse. It's true that sticks and stone do break bones, but words can also hurt you.

For KSMU News, I'm Jennifer Moore in Springfield.


  • Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence
  • Family Violence Center (Springfield, MO)