by Shannon Cheung
When Frank asked me to write a piece for his website at the beginning of the summer, I was honored and horrified. Somehow, communicating to an audience of more than just a single professor (sorry) changed how I viewed my writing. Paralyzed by perfectionism, I waited a long time to decide on what to write. When Frank extended the offer, again, I sat down to critically analyze why I had put it off. Everything I was passionate about seemed to vanish from my consciousness to prevent me from putting my voice out. Why?
Being seen, read, or heard by an audience leaves you vulnerable to being scrutinized. I anticipated that my subject of choice would invite that bitter, reactive, and unfair scrutiny. That was exactly why I needed to write about it.
Content warning: This piece discusses domestic violence, sexual coercion, rape, and emotional/psychological abuse, gaslighting, and invalidation of survivor experiences.
The past years have seen a considerable increase in widespread conversation about sexual assault and abuse, with the Harvey Weinstein assaults, the Larry Nassar case, People v. Turner (the “Stanford Rape Case”), and the R. Kelly trial, along with many others. During the Kavanaugh-Ford hearing, the National Sexual Assault Hotline experienced a 201% spike in its call volume. Social media campaigns swept Twitter and Facebook, calling attention to the prevalence of sexual assault and domestic violence, as well as the many barriers that prevent survivors from coming forward with their experiences.
While cases of sexual assault and sexual abuse occupy the foreground of our collective attention, it is equally as important to remember that there are issues that we are leaving in the background. October is dedicated to Domestic Violence Awareness and the effects of relationship violence. For the most part, society has come to agree that violence between partners is bad, but we continue to see gaps in understanding what the word “violence” actually covers. When the mainstream definition of partner violence is shoehorned into meaning only physical and sexual violence, we fail to capture – and in doing so, end up gaslighting – the experiences of those whose lives have suffered or are suffering through psychological abuse.
Often used interchangeably with emotional abuse, psychological abuse is often a type of violence that is brushed aside or minimized. Survivors of psychological abuse will hear the same victim-blaming statements made to other survivors. These responses serve to rationalize the abuser’s decisions; minimize the severity of the abuse and harm done to the survivor; blame the survivor for the things said or done to them; and, ultimately, dismiss the uncomfortable idea that someone we know could actually be abusive. The one victim-blaming statement that most often comes up for survivors who try to tell their story of being psychologically abused, however, is one that pits their experience against that of other survivors: “It’s not like he hit/raped you.”
“Gaslighting” is a common manipulative tactic that abusers use with their victims. By withholding, countering, diverting, trivializing, and “forgetting” and denying, an abuser leads an individual to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity. Of course, an abuser has a lot of power to gain in a relationship with someone who feels as though they cannot trust their own perceptions of reality.
Gaslighting, however, is not limited to romantic partnerships. It happens within families, friendships, and professional relationships. In fact, gaslighting is a cultural phenomenon in the context of how we treat people who have been disempowered in general. As a society, the way we treat survivors continues this pattern of gaslighting – the very pattern we applaud survivors for escaping. By trying to qualify the severity of the abuse, we question and trivialize survivors’ experiences. By equating the call for accountability and justice to a “witch hunt,” we are blocking and diverting. In doing so, we are complicit in carrying out the same goals that all abusers have: we silence survivors; we force them to question their reality; and we isolate them.
In early 2016, the second half of my freshman year in college, I found myself grieving the loss of a 3-year relationship. I knew it was normal to feel sadness after a break-up, especially a “first,” but the pain I felt seemed unbearable. I began to avoid any place around campus that I might see him – dining halls, dorm lounges, even buses. I missed meals and skipped classes. I was always watching my back. An outsider would likely attribute these behaviors to a different state of mind. I was afraid and I did not know it.
Two months later, a sudden realization hit me: my partner had coerced me into having sex with him multiple times. He had also raped me. After years of work to treat symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder, I still live the aftermath of that relationship. Coercion and manipulation were thematic elements of our relationship, and they transcended our sexual interactions. I reported to my partner at all hours of the day. Where was I? With whom? Until when? My social network dwindled. I kept all friends at a distance because it was the easiest way to placate my partner. I desperately wanted to avoid accusations of cheating and lying. I became adept at reading his tone and emotions, and yet, I still cried daily because it seemed that I was always making mistakes and stressing my partner out to the point where he would threaten to kill himself.
While I will never know whether my behaviors and thoughts today are more a direct result of my sexual trauma or psychological trauma (it very well may be both in equal parts), I can say this: I hide behind my sexual assault because I know that it gets taken more seriously than psychological abuse, however marginally that may be. In the early days of my healing, when I chose to open up to my friends about what had happened, I was met with “You should’ve fought harder and stood up for yourself,” “You gave him too much power,” and “Why didn’t you just leave?” Certainly, survivors of any type of abuse are no stranger to any of these statements. Still, we continue to conceptualize psychological abuse as something that poses no imminent physical danger or threat, and therefore, is less severe and possibly even “easier” to escape.
This Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we need to acknowledge a truer, more accurate definition of violence – one that honors the many forms that abuse takes on to wreak havoc on people’s well-being.
If you are currently in a psychologically/emotionally abusive relationship, here are some steps you can take, whether you are seeking to leave the relationship or not:
1) Get support. There is a reason one of the hallmarks of an abusive relationship is isolation. An abusive partner has much to gain by making you solely dependent on them. If you are limited in your network, you are also limited in the people you can look to for support. Building this system of support will help you stay safe.
2) Set boundaries. While it may be difficult to maintain boundaries in your relationship, it is still important to maintain boundaries with your support system. Be clear about the role that you would like your supports to play. If you are not open to advice, let them know.
3) Be prepared for strong reactions. Disclosing your experience to loved ones may be upsetting or shocking to them, and they can react in ways that were mentioned earlier in this article. Remember to communicate what you need from them. If they are reacting in a way that is hurtful, let them know.
4) Create a safety plan. Typically, domestic violence advocates promote safety planning that revolved around physical safety, but emotional safety is particularly salient in psychologically abusive relationships. In addition to building a supportive network and asserting boundaries with safe people, take time to identify and work towards achievable goals such as calling a local resource and being mindful of available services. Take steps as you find appropriate for yourself.
5) Remind yourself of your value and be kind to yourself. It is all too easy to forget this about yourself in the face of a partner who seems to be sending the opposite message. Find a space you can call your own. Make it your safe space.
6) Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224 to speak with a confidential advocate about domestic violence, resources or information, or to discuss potentially unhealthy aspects of relationships.
If you have a loved one who you suspect is in an abusive relationship, refer to this list of common warning signs:
- Partner is constantly putting them down or insulting them in front of others.
- They are constantly worried about making their partner angry or upset.
- They make excuses for their partner’s behaviors.
- Their partner is extremely possessive or jealous.
- They have unexplained marks or injuries. They may dress differently to cover them up.
- They have stopped spending time with friends and family.
- They seem depressed or anxious, or you notice changes in their personality.
- They are attached to their phone or seem to be in a hurry whenever their partner is not around.
- They seem less engaged.
If any of the above is true for your loved one, call the Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233 or TTY 1−800−787−3224 to speak with a confidential advocate about how you might be able to help. Do not confront the abusive partner. Express concern to your loved one, listen to and respect their decisions, and ask how you can best support them.
If you are in neither of the above categories, chances are that you actually do know someone who has experienced or is currently experiencing some kind of partner violence. In the U.S., nearly 3 in 10 women and 1 in 10 men have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking and report some related impact on their functioning. The numbers for psychological abuse are staggering as well: nearly half of all women and men in the United States (48.4% and 48.8%, respectively) have experienced psychological aggression by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Given this, steps that the general public can take to contribute to a community free of partner violence revolve around ridding ourselves of a culture that normalizes gaslighting:
- Throw away idea of the “perfect victim/survivor.” We have all internalized myths about violence: who perpetrates it, who is on the receiving end, how both parties act, and what it looks like. Anyone can be an abuser, and anyone can be abused. While domestic violence is known to disproportionately affect women, it does not only affect women. Similarly, while examples of abusive relationships are often given in terms of heterosexual relationship, abusers in LGBTQ relationships make use of the same tactics and can weaponize sexuality and gender identity to gain power and control over their partners.
- Believe survivors. The recent scandals, allegations, and trials have invariably been responded to with the cries of a crowd favorite red herring: what if we ruin innocent people’s lives as a result of false accusations? In the context of the past 20 years of sexual assault accusations alone, 2-10% of them were proven to be fake. Although these false accusations occupy so much of our attention, it turns out that these accusations very rarely lead to convictions or wrongful jail time. Remembering that these statistics are presented in the context of sexual assault, the numbers for psychological abuse are less certain. Believing survivors does not require us to abandon our judicial system. Rather, it is a call to listen to our experiences and respecting what we have to share, without questioning our perceptions and behaviors – to not be dismissive. When vulnerability is met with skepticism and vitriol, we learn, again, that we are not accepted as we are and that we are not safe.
- Challenge the normalization of abusive behaviors. Possessiveness, jealousy, and surveillance are frequently framed as indicators of a loving and romantic partner, as opposed to a controlling and manipulative one. As a consequence, we misrepresent abusive relationships and fail to pay attention to signs that are likely already there.
Shannon Cheung is an MSW/PhD student in the Addiction Counselor Training Certificate program at Rutgers University School of Social Work. A survivor of sexual assault and dating violence, she is passionate about advocating for marginalized and underserved populations. She currently interns at an addiction treatment facility. Shannon’s intersectional identity as an Asian American survivor with various mental health diagnoses pushes her to pursue a career in research on cultural stigma surrounding mental illness and treatment-seeking among children of immigrants in the U.S. She is particularly interested in the underutilization of mental health treatment services among Asian American diaspora. Shannon enjoys rock climbing and reading about cultural sociology.