Controlling Relationships:
A Social View

Tuesday, 10:28 a.m.

Emotional abuse is characterized by the repeated and systematic use of insults, humiliation, intimidation, and coercion by one person towards another, or by one group of people towards another.

Its effects can be just as damaging as, or even more, than those produced by physical abuse.

Verbal abuse is not easily recognizable, but there are often warning signs:

  • constant put-downs and criticism
  • humiliation
  • threats
  • emotional blackmail
  • frightening temper tantrums and unpredictable mood swings
  • continuous blaming
  • brainwashing
  • isolation
  • restrictions to work opportunities, financial resources or social activities
  • ridiculing
  • extreme sense of entitlement
  • “crazy-making” behavior
  • use of “male privilege”

Up to the present, the vast majority of literature on emotional abuse has examined the subject from the following standpoints: a) an intra-psychic masculine phenomenon (psychopath, control freak, victim of childhood abuse, etc.) and/or a female phenomenon (masochism, co-dependency, etc.); b) the effects suffered by the victim (trauma, emotional scars, etc.); c) within limited interpersonal contexts (couple, family of origin, etc.); and/or d) as recommendations for therapists who work with emotionally abused women and violent relationships.

Although very useful, these approaches predominantly reflect individual and/or relational perspectives. Their primarily focus is on ‘curing’ the ‘victim’ and/or ‘reforming’ or ‘rehabilitating’ the ‘aggressor’. For many emotionally abused women who did not recognize it as such, these approaches have helped them identify a previously misunderstood phenomenon. However, I find that these individual approaches do not sufficiently take into account the sociocultural factors that legitimize the existence and persistence of abusive situations.

In my book I analyze some of the principal social mechanisms that facilitate, normalize, and justify gender violence. Emotional abuse is doubly invisible: it is not only imperceptible in its manifestations, but the social context also hampers its recognition by implicitly legitimizing it as a justifiable form of human coexistence.

I maintain that in order to contemplate gender abuse, we need to look beyond the analysis of violent individuals and their alleged personality disorders, as well as the psychology of women who suffer the abuse. My book expands on the social conditions that facilitate, allow, and perpetuate emotional abuse towards women, and helps to rethink ways to look at gender violence.

I question the way in which the established truths about gender “have justified or made invisible the power of some and the oppression of many” and consequently have “benefitted some people and harmed others” (Flax, 1990; Grosz, 1994; Hare-Mustin & Marecek, 1990; Hekman, 1990), and how they arbitrarily position us in dual relationships of domination/subordination, superiority/inferiority, etc.

Via the deconstruction of the established truths about gender, I pretend to encourage new and alternative conversations and readings regarding emotional abuse, so as to expand our vision of the existing gender significations and to promote more equitable actions that allow for the incorporation of new voices and possible interpretative positions.

And last but not least, my book is meant to be a contribution to the mental health field, especially to those professionals who work with gender violence. Therapy, according to Waldegrave (1990) “enshrines patriarchal meanings, supporting rather than challenging hierarchies of gender, race, and class”, and instead of offering relief, they may lead to the operation of “self-reproducing images” (Hare-Mustin, 1994) of violence.


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 Also available in Spanish



Copyright 2009