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How Even Smart People Can Fall Prey to Emotional Abuse

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No matter how smart or educated you are, you could be a victim of emotional abuse.

No matter how smart or educated you are, you could be a victim of emotional abuse.

Why Would They Tolerate Abuse?

Intelligent women and men might be reduced to tiptoeing through their lives, tolerating a bullying partner, because:

  • It's often hard for them to find partners and they are willing to adjust in order to keep the relationship, even if the adjustments are unhealthy.
  • They have heard and accept that marriage requires compromise, even if it's always only one of them who compromises.
  • When facing verbal abuse and accusations they might try to defend themselves with logic, reasoning, and proofs.
  • They think that ending the relationship means they failed, and they think they shouldn't fail at anything.
  • They believe they have the smarts to win the battle.
  • They have read about psychology and will try using its tactics to understand the abuser and fix the situation.
  • They believe they'll discover or invent a solution.

Although you'd think they'd be smart enough to leave, intelligent and even highly educated women and men suffer from their partners' abuse. More common than physical abuse is verbal abuse and "emotional terrorism," which is treating the relationship as if it were a power struggle instead of a partnership. A study done in the U.S. found that women with careers are twice as likely to be abused by their partners, possibly because they threaten the partner's authority. A sociological study done in Norway found that women earning 67 percent or more of the household income were seven times more likely to be abused than women earning 33 percent or less.

Marriage often changes the power dynamic in a relationship. The partner, sometimes even on the honeymoon, might change into a controller and abuser with traits and behaviors not shown before the commitment: jealousy, tantrums and rages, sexual abuse or shutdown, behavioral abuse (he leaves her stranded on a roadside, or goes through her closet throwing out the clothes he doesn't like), and economic abuse, now a recognized category.

The Sex Wars

The abuser, once a charming lover, might develop strict rules regarding sex, such as: Always at night. Always at his instigation. Always in bed and in the same position. Always in the dark. She must shower immediately before. The wife might comply to make the partner happy--after all, he couldn't function if he wasn't--but also risks becoming sexually bored. Suggesting variations to their sex life generates anger and accusations that she is criticizing him or her desires aren't normal. Mutual resentment can render a marriage or partnership sexless, as about 15 to 20 percent of U.S. marriages are, according to a US National Health and Social Life Survey.

Even without sex, the marital bed might be a minefield because the abuser can criticize the way the partner sleeps. While sleeping she might unknowingly turn her back to her partner, which he interprets as a deliberate and conscious act of rejection. She might unwittingly monopolize the blanket. It is logical to suggest then that each of them have their own blanket. But the abuser says they can't afford it, or his parents shared a blanket their whole lives with no problem. She is the problem.

If the abuser accuses the spouse of cheating, the intelligent spouse might try to reason with him that she doesn't have the opportunity or desire to cheat. He might pop in at her workplace, or examine her car's odometer, or obsessively ask "Who is it?" Even when there is no evidence that she's cheating, or if they go to counseling, the relationship at this stage is in fact unsalvageable. Yet intelligent people will seek out websites and self-help books to try to placate the spouse and "cope with" or "survive" this.

He Wants Her to Change Her Looks

After the relationship has been established, the abuser might nag the spouse to grow or cut her hair. He hates those business shoes (pumps) with no ties or straps; she should not wear them. He can't stand piercings; the idea of holes punched in the body sickens him. She is too fat, or a bag of bones. Her skirts are too long or too short. The intelligent woman, seeking to keep the peace, knowing it's mature to compromise, might offer to take him shopping so he can approve of her apparel.

A husband on such a shopping trip complained of boredom. He gave his spouse 10 minutes to complete her purchasing while he waited in the car. At the checkout counter, tense and worried about the deadline and long queue of customers, she waited. After exactly 10 minutes he drove home without her.

The abused spouse is not allowed to suggest what the abuser might wear, whether it's expensive suits, or a mullet and jeans. One wife saw that her husband's boxer briefs hung in rags. She bought him new ones, choosing the same style, brand, and color, and washing them first to soften them. He was furious.

Only an abuser will think hemlines or underwear are reasons for fury.

Verbal abusers prefer to abuse with no witnesses present, and the couple's friends cannot believe that such a nice civilized person could be abusive. The abuser might even tell friends that the partner is the abusive one, or crazy.


The Abuser Has Boundaries; You Don't

Abusers who share quarters with their partners seek control, and sometimes society supports this. A young married woman read in a Mars and Venus book that husbands really need their own space, a "man cave," for their emotional health, and she encouraged him to take the extra room in their house as his den.

He furnished it with a lounge chair, computer, and TV, and said she'd better not interrupt his after-work nap and decompression time, 4 to 5:30 p.m. She mustn't flush the toilet during that time, because it disturbed him, or go in and out of the house because the screen door whined and she "always" slammed it. She promised to be more careful.

But she couldn't win. Any sound she made, even unintentionally, woke and bothered him, he said. The complaint expanded and took on momentum, like an avalanche. He accused her of wanting him sequestered in a den, shut away so she could have the rest of the house to herself, and she was such a b----, a Hitler, insane, and so on.

Well, she thought, they do say the first year of marriage is an adjustment.

If a minor issue triggers a volcanic eruption of verbal abuse, your partner is an abuser, no matter what degrees he holds, how physically handicapped he is, no matter how bad his childhood was, or how much money he has.

It is not unusual for abusers to authorize their opinions or abuse by pointing to a verse in the Bible or Qur'an, or claiming that the marriage should work like his parents' marriage.

Abuse is not rational. It cannot be defeated by intelligence, reason, kindness, or even obedience.

Financial/Economic Abuse

An executive making $70,000 a year had an intelligent and educated husband employed in finance. He asked for control of their accounts so he could manage and maximize her income by investing in stocks and mutual funds. She agreed; she worked in health care and he was more qualified to do this. He soon quit his job and managed her money full-time. He knew how to hide from his wife his own expenditures and payouts. Divorcing this embezzler cost her $40,000.

An example of an abusive female: A stay-at-home wife developed a gambling addiction. When the husband discovered the joint accounts depleted by $50,000, he talked her into treatment, and she and the casino signed off a promise not to return there. She started up again but explained that it was on a very small scale. One day he returned home, opened the garage, and his $3000 Kubota lawnmower was gone. She'd put it out on the street with a sign saying "$200," and sold it and gambled the money. He told her he was moving out and filing for divorce; a good decision. She then sold her husband's purebred dogs while he was at work.

Relationship Games and Toxic Self-Help

A career woman in her late 30s married a 41-year-old man, mostly because she wanted children. Her loving husband became snappish and irritable over dripping faucets and toothpaste tubes and kids' stuff left on the floors. From the library she brought home books titled The Irritable Male, Emotional Terrorism, and The Couples' Journey, and pamphlets about male depression (because she went on the Internet and read that his irritability might actually be depression) and a book called Sex Over 40, because he said he was too old to bother with sex. She read these books and left them where he could see them, hoping he'd open one. He didn't, but she heard later how she was trying to manipulate and shame him.

She'd answer, as the books had advised her, "I feel anxious when you raise your voice." He'd yell, "I'm not raising my voice!" She began recording conversations so he could not misquote her and to prove he raised his voice. He argued that it wasn't what she said, but the way she said it, that was so unbearable and provoking. If it wasn't her tone, it was the look in her eyes.

Finally they stopped speaking and avoided each other. The woman devised a set of 52 cards saying things like "Let's talk later," "I'm sorry," "I had a bad day," "I feel ignored," "Let's talk about the kids." Instead of speaking, they were supposed to lay the appropriate card out on a table where the spouse would see it and respond with another card. It was a brilliant idea, but the marriage had so deteriorated in a welter of self-help it could end only in divorce.

You Cannot Win

Nothing will fix a toxic relationship. The situation cannot be fixed with reasoning or therapy. You can try classifying your abuser as a "narcissist," or "depressed," or "dry drunk" or "child from a broken home," and re-frame the situation, but it will not improve. It is more likely to escalate.

While you wrestle with logic and conflicting advice and information, trying to cope and placate and not to fail, your abuser enjoys outwitting and shaming a partner of intelligence and status.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Rula Lenski