Making Sense of Emotional Abuse in Intimate Heterosexual Relationships

How can (heterosexual and white) men talk about the emotional abuse in intimate relationships that they experience without losing sight of important gender differences? How can we frame what is happening to such men, the emotional and psychological violence they undoubtedly experience, while recognizing the historical, cultural, social, and political context of patriarchy, the inequalities that women are subjected to in their public and private lives, and engage in necessary and nuanced conversations about power?

In her article on the sociology of gaslighting, Paige L. Sweet argues convincingly that “gaslighting is effective when it is rooted in social inequalities, especially gender and sexuality, and executed in power-laden intimate relationships. When perpetrators mobilize gender-based stereotypes, structural inequalities, and institutional vulnerabilities against victims with whom they are in an intimate relationship, gaslighting becomes not only effective, but devastating.”

Paradoxically, despite the significant equality gains that women have made in education and the labor market and the whittling away of gender stereotypes, intimate partner research reveals that “gender inequality in intimate relationships persists.” It is in the sphere of intimate, romantic relationships that the “gender revolution” has “stalled,” and where gender ideology, especially around emotionality, is “remarkably resilient”. Intimate partner abuse therefore continues to take on gendered forms.

Gaslighting, which she defines as “attempts to create a ‘surreal’ social environment by making the other in an intimate relationship seem or feel ‘crazy’” and thereby damaging the victim’s “sense of reality, autonomy, mobility, identity, and social support”, is particularly effective when the victim is also disadvantaged socially, culturally, and politically, so that fewer resources can be mobilized to resist the perpetrator.

Gaslighting does not occur in a power vacuum or outside cultural gender narratives; men who gaslight women, for instance, can draw upon narratives about the irrational, emotional, and (too) sensitive woman as readily available stereotypes in the wider culture to undermine a woman’s resistance, claims, and reality. Examples of rhetorical tactics drawing on the stereotype of female irrationality include: “It’s her crazy behavior that requires him to control her … she is really the abusive partner.” “She is out of touch with reality … maybe she should get some help”. “She is exaggerating or making up the violence … it never happened.”

One woman Paige interviewed told her that her abuser, whenever she showed signs of emotion during a debate, called her “crazy” as a way to undermine her counterarguments and make her appeal unstable, and eventually in need of his control. He contrasted her behavior to his allegedly (masculine) rational and reasoned responses, which made her question her (feminine) state of mind. The “crazy narrative” came up so often in the interviews that Paige started considering it as “the literal discourse of gaslighting.”

Other examples from intimate partner violence research includes men inventing their wives’ infidelities—a tale as old as Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale—as justification for their abuse and control and convincing them these stories are true. The idea that women are overly emotional, irrational, “hysterical”, and not in control of their emotions has a long institutional (e.g., medicine and law) and cultural history that enables accusations of “crazy” to stick to women differently than to men. Paige shows that this is also an embodied phenomenon, such as when abusers suggest that women’s hormones make them inherently unstable.  

In custody disputes some men effectively mobilize the medical, diagnostic, and gendered language of “unstable” and “depressed” to label women as unfit mothers, a label which may stick and follow a mother around throughout the custody proceedings. Race-based stereotypes add yet another layer to such dynamics, increasing a woman’s institutional vulnerability to abuse, and increasing the weight of stereotypes that abusers can mobilize against them.

In addition to gender stereotypes, “cultural ideas about women’s dangerous, unruly sexuality—especially stereotypes surrounding black and Latina women’s ‘bad girl’ sexuality—underline attempts to unmake reality.” Attacks on sexual respectability, Paige’s research shows, were regular tactics used by gas-lighters as justification for their jealous control. Gas-lighters undermine women’s sexual identity to ground their identity by constantly using it against them and pathologizing it. Since women’s sexuality was already “a site of vulnerability subject to gender-based stereotypes”, it easily becomes a feature of gaslighting.        

Women “do not typically have the cultural, economic, and political capital necessary to gaslight men” effectively. This, Paige argues, makes gaslighting a “gendered phenomenon.” While women may use abusive tactics against their male partners, men are less likely to be afraid of women and therefore less likely to change their behavior in response. This distinction in the available research underscores that the “ability to coerce”, leading to entrapment, isolation, and fear, is an important marker of gaslighting as a gendered phenomenon. Gender stereotypes and inequality are the conditions that make gaslighting possible, depriving women of the “social power that would allow them to define men’s reality”.

The “crazy-making tactics” of gaslighting should be considered within the broader context of “intimate terrorism”, “coercive control” and “psychological abuse”, while, however, remaining analytically separate as a sociological phenomenon that can be taken apart. The purpose of such a close analysis is to reveal the particular “dynamics of abuse” inherent to gaslighting and the way in which it entraps women in exhausting cycles of constantly having to refute the abuser’s constructed reality.

Paige encourages us to see her framework for gaslighting as useful in other contexts as well. What we can take from her model is the tools to situate what appear to simply be “bad” interpersonal relationship dynamics within a context of “power-laden intimate relationships” where gender-based stereotypes are mobilized against victims, who may also be experiencing various institutional and intersectional vulnerabilities that make the abuse stick and that allow abusers to coerce and control their partners.

Paige’s framework is echoed by the writing of Evan Stark in his book Coercive Control: How Men Entrap Women in Personal Life”.

Stark defines coercive control as: “Coercive control entails a malevolent course of conduct that subordinates women to an alien will by violating their physical integrity (domestic violence), denying them respect and autonomy (intimidation), depriving them of social connectedness (isolation), and appropriating or denying them access to the resources required for personhood and citizenship (control).”

Stark argues that coercive control is “the emerging strategy of choice for men who seek to dominate female partners in liberal democratic societies” where traditional gender-hierarchies are no longer taken for granted and widely accepted in public discourse. Stark argues that “men have devised coercive control to offset the erosion of sex-based privilege in the face of women’s gains, filling the void created as institutional support for male domination is disassembled by installing patriarchal-controls in personal life.” In other words, lacking institutional support that justifies men’s control over women, men must now “personalize their dominance over women by piecing together the remnants of structural and cultural constraints on which male privilege depended in the past and tailoring the resulting strategy to their individual relationships.”

Stark argues through detailed research that coercive men continue to mobilize the traditional “canon of domesticity” to control women. This canon prescribes “self-renunciation and dependence as moral reference points for a wife’s being, traits that were manifest in service to husbands and other family members.” The canon contrasted women’s alleged “natural subordination” to men with men’s “self-interested and self-regarding autonomy” that propelled men into public life as citizens, while wives labored at home in support of his endeavours and self-actualization.

The stereotypes that this canon was built upon continue to lay the foundation for “comparison between the ideal woman and real wives that inevitably [find] the latter wanting … contributing to a barrage of criticism and ‘correction’ by men and widespread feelings of inadequacy among women.” By suggesting that women’s economic and political exclusion is the result of natural consequences tied to women’s biology, the canon also obscured the sociology of inequality that Paige pointed to in her article.

Finally, Stark makes the important point that the canon “helped ‘domesticate’ the aggression born in market competition and class exploitation by redirecting it toward women and children.” In other words, the revolutionary anger of men exploited under capitalism that could have emerged as strikes, riots, and crime, was redirected into the private realm, with women tasked to “civilize the brutes”, a role that could include “passively absorbing their hostility.” This ideology helped men rationalize their abuse of women as “blowing off steam.” Women, Stark argues, thereby became “human buffers” to maintain the economic system.

In their responsibility towards economically exploited men, women were tasked to create a tranquil private sphere and provide an emotional “haven in a heartless world” by “performing a level of domestic work sufficient to free up time” for men’s “rest, leisure, and self-development.” When this canon was eventually challenged by women and men could no longer rely on women’s complicity in their oppression, “violence was the next line of defense” under the common refrain of “May I not do what I will with my own?” Physical violence became a way for men to “prevent women from bringing equality home.”

As more women entered the workforce, nineteenth century laws adapted and expanded the domestic canon by allowing “conjugal theft”, the practice of men controlling the wages that newly employed women made. Stark points to a widely circulated pamphlet which stated that “The legal act by which a man puts his hand in his wife’s pocket, or draws her money out of the saving’s bank, is perfectly clear, easy, inexpensive … the corresponding process by which the wife can obtain food or clothing from her husband when he neglects to provide it, where may it be?” Women’s employment led to a “double shift” as they simultaneously worked for an employer while continuing to devote the rest of their time to produce, raise, and civilize families and sexually servicing men.

Following years of activism by women against gender-based stereotypes, institutional exclusion, and domestic violence, Stark argues that men eventually could no longer defend their privileges and enforce control over their wives through violence alone. According to Stark, women “have become so much less unequal that a qualitative change in their status has occurred sufficient to prompt a corresponding shift in how men oppress them in personal life.” For this reason, he advocates that we shift our focus from physical violence in conversations about domestic abuse to “coercive control.”

Coercive control draws on the “vestiges” of women’s subordinate status, their consignment to domestic services. Similar to Paige, his research shows that gender-based stereotypes remain resilient to change in intimate relationships. According to Stark, “women’s activities in and around the homes—housework, sex, consumption, childcare, and other forms of personal service—comprise the only arena of female inequality that is susceptible to negotiation in personal life. As such, next to the money entering (or not entering the home), it is the major source of interpersonal conflict and the major object of male control.” Additionally, heterosexual coupling is no longer the only option available to women, who can remain single, form same-sex relationships, divorce, delay marriage and/or childbirth, pursue a career, return to school, take two paying jobs, open a business, or head a family without a husband. The increase of options available to women plays on the anxieties of insecure men who cling to the expectation of male privilege in the face of women who may just leave.  

Men who can no longer rely on the canon of domesticity to reconcile women to their subordinate status, and who can no longer effectively translate physical violence into control, turn to coercive control as a way to “stifle and co-opt women’s gains; foreclose negotiation over the organization, extend, and substance of women’s activities in and around the home; obstruct their access to support; close the spaces in which they can reflect critically on their lives; and reimpose obsolete forms of dependence and personal service by micromanaging the enactment of stereotypic gender roles through ‘sexism with a vengeance’.” Through coercive control, relationships become “a patriarchy in miniature, complete with its own web of rules or codes, rituals of deference, modes of enforcement, sanctions, and forbidden places.” Men who coerce “must effectively stand against the tide of history, degrading women into a position of subservience that the progress of civilization has made obsolete.”

Stark notes that the “tactical regime men employ to oppress women in personal life is chosen with the expectation that women will resist” often leading to exaggerated levels of coercion reflective of women’s personal capacity for resistance or independence.

Women’s status as formally equal to men, and the expectation that they are currently able to live self-directed lives, Stark argues, blinds us to the type of micro-regulation that coercive control involves. It may be inconceivable that in modern, Western countries, “millions of modern women in our midst could be suffering” intolerable practices we like to project onto the past or non-Western cultures. Despite the changes in women’s status and participation in society, Stark notes that coercive control is only possible “because the same societies that now promise women full sovereignty continue to disadvantage them as a sex.”

As previously mentioned, gender-based stereotypes continue to exist in the context of intimate relationships, and can readily be mobilized intentionally by coercive men. According to Stark’s research, “the most dramatic facet of control strategies is their focus on responsibilities linked to women’s default and devalued roles as homemaker, caretaker, and sexual partner, the dimension of sexual inequality that has been least affected by women’s gains in public arenas. Women are still judged as more or less competent by how they perform their second shift.”  

In other words, modern men coercing women continue to draw on the vestiges of the domestic canon and build “on practices that are governed by gender norms in relationships, such as ceding major financial decisions to men or quitting work to “make a home,” or target devalued activities to which women are already consigned, like cooking, cleaning, and childcare.”

What is insidious and confusing for victims when this happens is that “there is enormous ambiguity about where appropriate expectations end and risk begins, even if the woman feels unsafe. Outside observers share this confusion. The injection of high levels of fear into the ordinary round of daily life and the difficulty in fixing its source are among the most remarkable features of coercive control.”

In other words, it becomes difficult to tell where an abuser’s expectations are legitimate, and where they cross the line into territories of abuse, particularly where abusers are great at manipulating and controlling the conversation, as Paige’s research shows. One implication of this twilight-zone existence is that the “entrapment of women in personal life is … hard to discern because many of the rights it violates are so basic—so much a part of the taken-for-granted fabric of the everyday lives we lead as adults, and so embedded in female behaviors that are constrained by their normative consignment to women—that their abridgement passes largely without notice.”

Stark reminds us that women continue to take pride in and feel accomplishment by “sustaining households, civilizing men, caring for family members, and raising and sending out children into the world.” Yet, when men start to regulate these functions, the pride or feeling of accomplishment “from enacting domesticity evaporate[s].” Women then can no longer “claim recognition for their gift of love or service, and the connection of these activities to their sense of mastery and self-worth is severed.” Being degraded back into “stereotypic portrayals of wife, mom, and lover” traps rather than releases creativity.

Stark remarks that for men, the apparent benefits of direct regulation of how women enact domesticity “adds only marginal benefit to chores women would perform on their own.” The benefits of coercive control that men gain may therefore be “solidifying a woman’s generic obedience to male authority: her ‘doing femininity’ in ways that accord with his stereotype of her gender role allow[ing] him to ‘do masculinity’ as he imagines it should or must be done.” Men use coercive control therefore as a way to confirm their gender and sexual identity as influenced by what they perceive the norms of masculinity to be. Proving that they are “not women” becomes a matter of great anxiety that can elicit feelings of panic and rage.

Like Paige, Stark notes that while women abuse and assault men in heterosexual relationships with similar consequences for men, “there is no counterpart in men’s lives to women’s entrapment by men in personal life due to coercive control.” As Paige and Stark showed, what enables abuse to become coercive control are the broader historical context of inequality and gender-based stereotypes—the canon of domesticity—that continue to be available to men.

The frameworks that Paige and Stark provide can be useful to how men discuss emotional abuse in intimate relationships to honor both their own experiences of being abused, while not falling into the trap of equating their position with women’s position in society.

Violence comes in many forms. Emotional abuse is a sub-type of violence that tends to be under-recognized, fading into the background as the more visibly ‘violent’ behaviors populate our cultural imagination. The effects of emotional abuse are “invisible wounds” and are often obscured. As Christy-Dale Sims argues in “Invisible Wounds, Invisible Abuse”, a “police report cannot be filed for a ‘stolen self’, or a ‘broken self-esteem’, and a picture cannot be taken of a ‘bruised and battered soul’.” In this sense, victims of emotional abuse become doubly invisible, bearing invisible wounds that are not widely recognized in public discourse.

Targets of emotional abuse may therefore come to understand their situation in bits and pieces of information and over extended time. In Beverly Engel’s book, The Emotionally Abusive Relationship, for instance, she writes that “often, emotional abuse between couples is denied, made light of, or written off as simple conflicts or ‘love-spats’ when in fact one or both partners are being severely damaged psychologically. Even those who realize they are being emotionally abused tend to blame themselves or make excuses for their partner’s behavior.”

Sims distinguishes emotional abuse from psychological abuse, which she argues is more focused on the “effects of abuse within the psyche of the victim”. Emotional abuse, in comparison, “is a form of violence that is ‘an ongoing process in which one individual systematically diminishes and destroys the inner self of another’ through belittling and denigrating the victim’s ideas, feelings, perceptions, and personality to such an extent that these aspects of the victim’s self erode or disappear.” This destruction of the victim’s sense of self is accomplished by any combination of the following behaviors: “jokes and teasing, blaming, belittling, ridiculing, criticizing, insulting, name-calling, derogatory comments, bickering, quarreling, silence, ignoring, gestures, and threats.”

Sims argues that emotional abuse can be viewed through the lens of rhetoric, which can be defined as “the social function that influences and manages meanings.” Rhetoric is the art of persuasion, and in this sense, abusers can be “rhetors”, attempting to persuade the target that there is one correct way of thinking or doing. Persuasion through violence and abuse is accomplished by undermining a person’s self, the ability to independently make meaning, and replaces the target’s worldview with that of the initiator’s.

Engel likewise defines emotional abuse as “nonphysical behavior that is designed to control, intimidate, subjugate, demean, punish, or isolate another person through the use of degradation, humiliation, or fear” and involves numerous tactics including verbal abuse, intimidation, manipulation, and refusal to be pleased. She adds that emotionally abusive people “need not take any overt action whatsoever” and may simply need to “exhibit an abusive attitude”.

The effects of emotional abuse, according to Engel, include “depression, lack of motivation, confusion, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, low self-esteem, feelings of failure or worthlessness, feeling of hopelessness, self-blame, and self-destructiveness.” Following prolonged emotional abuse, a target may “not only blame themselves for all the problems in the relationship but also believe that they are inadequate, contemptuous, and even unlovable.” There is a sense of “being beaten down emotionally”.

Engel distinguishes emotional abuse from the ways couples may mis-treat each other during conflicts by noting that emotional abuse is “a consistent pattern of hurtful, humiliating, and condescending behavior” rather than single remarks uttered in anger or hurt during a couple’s fight, whose relationships is otherwise free from such behavior. “We are all guilty of using emotionally abusive tactics on our partners from time to time.” While such behavior certainly isn’t right or harmless, it is not “emotional abuse” as defined.  

Attempts to distinguish emotional from psychological abuse link psychological abuse to an effort to undermine the security of an individual’s judgment, and emotional abuse to undermining self-worth (See, e.g., Carson). Similar tactics and behaviors may underlie both forms of abuse. In that emotions are increasingly recognized as playing an important role in judgment, however, it may be unclear how helpful this distinction is. (See, for example, Antonio Damasio’s work).

Men who experience emotional abuse may uniquely struggle to recognize it. Gender-based stereotypes about men and masculinity may make it difficult for men to admit that they are in an abusive relationship. Normative scripts position men as perpetrators and women as victims, and link victimhood to femininity. If men are abused, there may therefore be a perception that he somehow deserves this abuse for provoking his abuser. Men are not expected to be emotional or sensitive; they are rather, in control, above emotion, and generally the stronger sex. Allowing a woman to hurt you means that you are less of a man. If the abuse is emotional, boys and men are faced with remarks such as “why are you letting some names bother you? Letting some woman bully you? Say mean things? Hurt your feelings? What are you, some kind of pussy?”

Such masculinity scripts undermine men reconciling themselves to being abused, and can make it difficult to speak out and give voice to the harm they are experiencing. Men may fear being ridiculed and mocked for their inability to “defend themselves against the ‘little lady’” or may have other men remark that they in some way deserve their abuse for being so weak and unmasculine. Men may also internalize these scripts, concluding that they may deserve it, or that they should be able to endure the pain, as men are supposed to, shrugging it off.

Men may also have a higher burden when trying to explain why they didn’t simply leave the relationship, especially since the institutional barriers that women as a group face that may force them to stay (e.g., economic insecurity), may not exist to the same degree for men.  

Carson’s study about heterosexual men’s experiences of emotional abuse suggests that the emotional abuse men tend to experience from their partners comes in the form of manipulative behavior and disdainful comments. One man remarked, for instance, that “she made me think I was being too sensitive and that I was not masculine enough.” In this scenario, the man was not embodying the ideals of masculinity that his partner thought he needed to demonstrate, and experienced emotional abuse by a woman who used masculinity ideals to undermine his sense of identity, questioning his status as a ‘real man.’ Another man, in order not to be viewed as weak or overly sensitive, eventually began to “accept the physical abuse” he was experiencing.

It is interesting how many men in Carson’s study experienced emotional abuse as behavior that undermined their “manhood” in relation to hegemonic masculinity ideals. This reveals how important masculinity and ideas about what it means to be a man can be for a man’s identity and self-esteem, but also points us to the interesting situation that bell hooks explores in her book, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love.

hooks writes that “[t]he first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.” hooks adds that “[l]earning to wear a mask (that word already embedded in the term “masculinity”) is the first lesson in patriarchal masculinity that a boy learns. He learns that his core feelings cannot be expressed if they do not conform to the acceptable behaviors sexism defines as male. Asked to give up the true self in order to realize the patriarchal ideal, boys learn self-betrayal early and are rewarded for these acts of soul murder.”

Boys and men are socialized and policed in a patriarchal society to not engage with their emotions, as emotions properly belong to the female and feminine. When women internalize these gender stereotypes and turn patriarchal norms back against men by calling them weak or questioning their manhood, they are (un)intentionally perpetuating patriarchal culture.

hooks therefore cautions that “[w]e need to highlight the role women play in perpetuating and sustaining patriarchal culture so that we will recognize patriarchy as a system women and men support equally, even if men receive more rewards from that system. Dismantling and changing patriarchal culture is work that men and women must do together.” I would argue that men have a larger role to play than women in this regard, something I believe she would agree with.

When men experience emotional abuse and struggle to give voice to their hurt, the following formulation by hooks may therefore be useful: “Men do oppress women. People are hurt by rigid sexist role patterns. These two realities coexist. Male oppression of women cannot be excused by the recognition that there are ways men are hurt by rigid sexist roles. Feminist activists should acknowledge that hurt, and work to change it—it exists. It does not erase or lessen male responsibility for supporting and perpetuating their power under patriarchy to exploit and oppress women in a manner far more grievous than the serious psychological stress and emotional pain caused by male conformity to rigid sexist role patterns.”    

As Paige, Stark, hooks, and many others point out, the emotional abuse that men experience in heterosexual intimate relationships is harmful, undermines their self-esteem, and is a form of violence that we should not excuse or minimize. In this sense, violence is violence, and we can and must speak out against it whenever it surfaces in intimate relationships, whether enacted by men or women.

In another very important sense, however, violence is not violence. The emotional abuse, coercion, and physical abuse that women experience occurs in a larger social, political, cultural, and historic context of patriarchy, gender-stereotypes, canons of domesticity, and inequality that have a long history of enabling men to subordinate and oppress women.

Conversations about emotional abuse in intimate relationships must hold these two realities in creative tension. Since gender-stereotypes continue to be most stubbornly present within intimate relationships, they may also be the site where both men and women can most effectively work towards change.

Nora Samaran writes about one version of this change in her article on nurturance culture, arguing that “[t]he opposite of masculine rape culture is masculine nurturance culture: men* increasing their capacity to nurture, and becoming whole.”  

Samaran elaborates that: “Compassion for self and compassion for others grow together and are connected; this means that men finding and recuperating the lost parts of themselves will heal everyone. If a lot of men grow up learning not to love their true selves, learning that their own healthy attachment needs (emotional safety, nurturance, connection, love, trust) are weak and wrong – that anyone’s attachment, or emotional safety, needs are weak and wrong – this can lead to two things.

1. They may be less able to experience women as whole people with intelligible needs and feelings (for autonomy, for emotional safety, for attunement, for trust).

2. They may be less able to make sense of their own needs for connection, transmuting them instead into distorted but more socially mirrored forms.”

What does nurture culture look like as a creative response to emotional abuse? What would emotional nurture look and feel like? Important questions that Samaran’s article provides a useful starting point for.  

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