People who know me and who listen to this podcast know that in addition to my passion for Doctor Who, I also have a passion for the radio soap opera The Archers. For those not living in the UK, The Archers is the worlds longest running soap opera, having been broadcast since the mid 1950s. Its centred around the fictional village of Ambridge, situated in the Midlands.
No. I haven’t suddenly decided to change direction and make this a fan blog. The reason I am talking about this programme is that there has been a long running story line highlighting the increasingly abusive relationship between Helen Archer and Rob Titchner – spoiler alert – that ended up with Helen stabbing Rob. Listening to the drama unfold has been and continues to be (Rob didn’t die) an uncomfortable experience as the realism and superb acting do hit home in an almost visceral way. The script writers have done an excellent job, to the extent that the listener did doubt whether she or he is reading too much into Robs behaviour with Helen.
We are also confronted with abuse on a daily basis via the media who frequently report on abusive incidents with so-called celebrities and other popular cultural figure. We are shocked by, but get increasingly desensitised to images of people being hit or shoved, called degrading names or publicly cursed. However, these are overt examples of abuse. It is a sad fact that abuse can very well be underhanded, very subtle, and covert, often going unnoticed by all except the victim - something that protects the abuser and, by its covert nature, creates a state of confusion in the person on the receiving end as they question whether they are being actually being abused.
Someone in such a relationship often feels as though they are constantly walking on eggshells all the time, censoring their actions and behaviours just in case there is subtle retribution.
Emotional or as it's also called, psychological abuse occurs when a person in a relationship tries to control information available to another person with intent to manipulate that person’s sense of reality or their view of what is acceptable and unacceptable. Psychological abuse often contains strong emotionally manipulative content and threats designed to force the victim to comply with the abuser’s wishes.
All abuse takes a severe toll on self-esteem. The scary fact is that this leaves wounds and scars that are unseen by others, yet painfully born by the victim. The abused person starts feeling helpless and possibly even hopeless. In addition, most mental abusers are adept at convincing the victim that the abuse is his/her fault. That somehow, they are responsible for what happened.
Something that the relationship between Rob and Helen in The Archers has highlighted has been a more sophisticated form of psychological abuse that is often referred to as “gaslighting.”
This term comes from the 1938 stage play Gas Light, in which a husband attempts to drive his wife crazy by dimming the lights (which were powered by gas) in their home, and then he denies that the lights have changed when his wife points it out. It is an extremely effective form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity, which gives the abusive partner a lot of power (and abuse is about power and control). Once an abusive partner has broken down the victim’s ability to trust their own perceptions, the victim is more likely to stay in the abusive relationship. Gas lighting is subtle and not obvious to others outside the relationship - something that goes a long way to protecting the abuser.
Examples may range simply from the abuser denying that previous abusive incidents ever occurred to staging bizarre events with the intention of confusing the victim. A typical example would be: “but darling, you must remember. I did tell you that yesterday” (said in the full knowledge that nothing I fact was said).
Luckily in the UK a new offence of emotional abuse and controlling behaviour has been introduced by the government and has entered into law. The government has also updated its definition of domestic violence now recognises the impact of threatening behaviour and now protects in law. The government definition of domestic violence and abuse is now:
“any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over (below - child protection act) who are, or have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. The abuse can encompass, but is not limited to:
Controlling behaviour is a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.
Coercive behaviour is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.”
This now means that for the first time, people who control their partners through threats or by restricting their personal or financial freedom, could face prison in the same way they do if they are violent - and that could mean anything up to 5 years in prison.
In Malaysia, following amendments to the 2012 Domestic Violence Act, the definition of domestic violence - a criminal offence - which had emphasised only physical and sexual abuse, has now been expanded to non-physical abuse to include psychological and emotional abuse.
In Singapore domestic violence is referred to as family violence. This also covers emotional abuse and victims are protected by law.
Other gaslighting techniques that an abusive partner might use
Withholding: the abusive partner pretends not to understand or refuses to listen. Ex. “I don’t want to hear this again,” or “You’re trying to confuse me.”
Countering: the abusive partner questions the victim’s memory of events, even when the victim remembers them accurately. Ex. “You’re wrong, you never remember things correctly.”
Blocking/Diverting: the abusive partner changes the subject and/or questions the victim’s thoughts. Ex. “Is that another crazy idea you got from [friend/family member]?” or “You’re imagining things.”
Trivializing: the abusive partner makes the victim’s needs or feelings seem unimportant. Ex. “You’re going to get angry over a little thing like that?” or “You’re too sensitive.”
Forgetting/Denial: the abusive partner pretends to have forgotten what actually occurred or denies things like promises made to the victim. Ex. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” or “You’re just making stuff up.”
A common form of emotional abuse is “I love you, but…” This is an insidious form of disguised criticism and, when you examine it, an implied threat. It indicates, “I love you now, but if you don’t stop this or that, my love will be taken away.” It is designed to strip away self-esteem. Abusers get a lot of reinforcement out of using the word “love” as it seems to become a magic word to control their victim. All the victim wants is love. The abuser knows that and uses it to control. This can also come in the form of actions such as being “nice,” being "complimentary,” “giving a gift". This throws the victim into confusion and for some, seemingly erasing all of the previous bad treatment. This is very much part of the dynamic and cycle of abuse.
In fact, it is rare for abusive relationships to not have these (often intense) moments of feeling good, overly sincere apologies or attempts to make up for the bad behaviour. The victim clings to hope when these moments occur, hoping that this means things have changed - and the abuser knows this and uses it to devastating effect.
There is a long list of what constitutes psychological abuse. This includes:
1. Humiliating or embarrassing the victim
2. Constant put-downs.
4. Refusing to communicate.
5. Ignoring or excluding the victim.
6. Extramarital affairs.
7. Provocative behaviour with opposite sex - obvious flirting etc
8. Use of sarcasm and unpleasant tone of voice.
9. Unreasonable jealousy.
10. Extreme moodiness.
11. Mean jokes or constantly making fun of the victim both in private and public.
12. Saying “I love you but…”
13. Saying things like “If you don’t _____, I will_____.” - I've threatening punitive action if the victim doesn't do what the abuser says
14. Domination and control.
15. Withdrawal of affection.
16. Guilt trips.
17. Making everything the fault of the victim
18. Isolating the victim from friends and family.
19. Using money to control.
20. Constant calling or texting when the victim is absent from the abuser.
21. Threatening to commit suicide if the victim leaves - the ultimate guilt trip!
The abuser, though actions like these, intends the victim to take on responsibility for the abusive behaviour: saying things like "well, if you hadn't done that, I wouldn't have been like this". In effect abrogating all responsibility. It is important to remember that absolutely none of the abusers behaviour is the victims fault.
Abusers are expert manipulators with a knack for getting victims to believe that the way they are being treated is their fault. These people know that everyone has doubts and insecurities, and they use these against them to great effect.
Abusers can convince victims that they don't deserve better treatment or that they are being treated in this way to "help" them improve. The majority of abusers act quite charming and nice in public so that others have a good impression of them. They are great manipulator so. This is very much the case of Rob, who has - with one or two exceptions - won the hearts of many in the village of Ambridge.
It is very important to remember too that emotional abuse can be delivered by either sex. Male victims of abuse often find difficulty in reporting it or doing anything about it because of societies sexist view that men are supposed to cope, and that if they fall victim, they are wimps.
Taking away the sexual divide, many of both genders suffer in silence without realising that they can get help. There are many agencies out there that can provide this. Details for some can be found in the show notes.
Finally, a word about terminology. It is fairly conventional to refer to someone who is seeking therapy for abuse as a "survivor”. The word tends to be used as it is thought of as empowering and that it implies an eventual end to the persons experience. "Victim" is often seen as dis empowering. However, there are political ramifications as to the use of these words. Some identify as a "victim" rather than a "survivor" and object vehemently when the latter term is used. My advice to anyone who works with abuse is to gently find out how the person you are working with wishes to identify them self and stick with that descriptor. Rapport is paramount here. An early challenge to identity can inadvertently strip away locus of control and be abusive in its own right. Of course, as therapy progresses it will be appropriate to challenge dis empowering identities as the person you are working with structures their new empowered sense of self.