It started with a crossword puzzle (Abuse series part 4)

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I first noticed something might be wrong in a conversation about a crossword puzzle.

My friend is good at crossword puzzles. I am not. I can stare at them for a long time and not come up with more than maybe a half dozen answers. So when I noticed that she had almost finished a crossword puzzle, I complimented her. Her husband overheard and I noticed that he seemed to get upset, accusing her of showing off. I noticed how she responded too. She seemed ashamed.

I am like almost of all of you. I admire people that can do things I can’t do. My wife can do things I can’t do and I don’t get mad at her. It makes me proud of her. That is normal. What I saw that day was not normal and it led me to very subtly bring up the subject again a week later.

She opened up a little. She confirmed that I had read the situation correctly. Her husband did in fact get angry when she did crossword puzzles. The long and short of it was that he was furious that she could do them better than him. Even though she loved to do them, she rarely did because of his reaction. She hid them from him, only working on them if he was not around. In fact, I had created a problem because I had mentioned in front of him that she had been working on one. My innocent comment caused a bad situation in their home that evening. And the most remarkable thing of all was that she told me all of this without seeming to find it at all abnormal.

Now let me be very clear. Forbidding a spouse to do crossword puzzles is stupid and immature and beyond strange. However in itself, it is not abuse. Not being able to do crossword puzzles is not a legitimate reason to leave a spouse for abuse.

On the other hand, the crossword puzzle situation was significant because as it turned out, it was just one tiny link in a chain and pattern of abuse. In this situation, it opened our eyes to the fact that something might be wrong in that household. Marla and I started to watch more carefully.

Let me stop at this time and define the term abuse. When our society discusses abuse, we tend to think of it as hurting other people. I would have thought the same way a few years ago. However, that is not an accurate understanding of what abuse is.

Experts define abuse as a systematic process of trying to gain control over another person. (Read this for more information.)

Note the two words I highlighted. We all fall; all of us lose our temper at times and say/do things we shouldn’t to those we love. However, abuse in the context I am talking about is an ongoing, relentless pattern of behavior. The ultimate goal is not to harm; rather it is to control.

Abuse can manifest itself in several ways. It can be physical, sexual, emotional, economic, and verbal. In domestic situations, it is always without fail at least partly psychological. In the situation we worked with, several of those forms of abuse were present though it would be a while before we knew that.

Sadly, even though we live in an age where people should know better, many are only hung up on the physical side of abuse. When I discussed it later with people that needed to know such as church leaders, they all wanted to know one thing: did he hit her?

Every time I heard that, I graciously tried to correct their bad thinking but in my mind, I chalked them up as another person who doesn’t understand abuse. Regardless of what people stuck in the 1950’s might want to believe, all of those forms of abuse are dangerous but the most dangerous and damaging is the psychological component. While physical abuse was part of the situation I am discussing, as I have heard my friend say several times, the bruises heal quickly but the damage to the psyche is long lasting and devastating. That is why my friend did not find anything unusual about the crossword puzzle situation. Her psyche was damaged.

To get back to the story, once we started watching, I started researching and I started seeing an uncanny connection between behaviors I saw and what I read from abuse experts. Here is a short list of early warning signs that we were aware of that you may see some day as well:

  • False accusations of giving too much attention to other people and putting those relationships above the victim’s relationship with the abuser.
  • False accusations of romantic interest in people of the opposite sex.
  • Pressure to put on a romantic front in public (lots of public display of affection).
  • Interrogation of behavior (who the victim talked to that day, where they went, searching her phone and email).
  • Isolation (trying to keep the person from socializing with friends or family).
  • Taking car keys and purse to keep the victim from leaving the house.
  • Physically taking steps to prevent the victim from leaving a room or house.
  • When the victim is out, incessant checking on them, pressuring them to come home, setting curfews, etc.
  • Getting angry when the victim gets attention or praise.
  • Discrediting the victim’s accomplishments, interests and friends.
  • Resenting the victim’s successes.
  • Getting upset when the victim has different points of view. Abusers want their victims to think like them and consider it disrespectful if they don’t.

Most of these behaviors are symptoms of what some psychologists call pathological or morbid jealousy and envy. Essentially, they represent a belief system that has gone haywire. All of us prone to getting jealous or envious but some people let those sins grow to a point where they are extremely destructive.

In our situation, the victim was behaving as victims of abuse usually behave. She was trying to get through by pacifying the abuser. For example, if he came home and the house was not clean to his satisfaction, he took his anger out on her. She feared his reaction so much that she would make sure that the kids and she cleaned the house each day a few minutes before he arrived. He wanted to be greeted at the door by an adoring wife and she complied. She was expected to have dinner ready immediately or very close to immediately. She knew exactly what needed to be done to try to keep him happy.

That is one example of many, but in general, the victim was conditioned to deal with the abuse by going to extraordinary lengths to avoid making the abuser angry. This is very common and is sometimes referred to as “walking on eggshells.” While it seems like the only option, it is a behavior that does not work and in fact will makes things worse over time because an abuser is never satisfied. He just moves the goalposts and starts over with his pressure. In the meantime, the victim falls more and more under his control.

Some might wonder what the big deal is. What is wrong with a clean house and having dinner ready for a husband? Of course the answer is nothing but that is missing the point. What actually happens psychologically in abuse situations is very strange. There is a reason why victims don’t leave abusers. There is a reason why victims refuse to tell the truth and cover for their abuser. There is a reason why victims often find it disloyal to even collect evidence against their abuser. I will get into that later.

Over time, we would learn much more about what was going on in that house and the more we learned, the more alarmed we got. I am not going to go into too much detail because it is largely not my story and my friend (the victim) is blogging her own story. However, I will talk about the steps we took next to try to get her help in the next post, including why our church was not an option for her to get help.

Greg Howlett

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