I am recovering from an emotionally abusive family.
My blog is not primarily about abuse, but I do occasionally write about abuse because it has affected my life. Also, because of what I have experienced, it has become important to me to educate people about abuse and to help other victims.
Mental health experts say that emotional abuse is on the rise in the world so the chances are high that a person will encounter it. An Emotional Abuser could be a parent, sibling, boyfriend/girlfriend, spouse, co-worker, friend, counselor, clergy member. ANYONE. So I think it’s important to learn how to recognize this form of abuse.
Unlike physical abuse, with emotional abuse there are no bruises or broken bones, no frequent trips to the hospital to document. Instead, there is deep emotional trauma that no one can see–and because no one can see it, many people disbelieve it, and because they don’t believe it, victims don’t get the validation or support they need.
Emotional abusers include narcissists, sociopaths, and psychopaths. They are like different shades of the same color. They are often called Emotional Vampires because they feed off attention–good or bad. Adulation, applause, fame, celebrity, notoriety are all what is called “narcissistic supply.” The people who supply attention consistently, reliably, and predictably, are called “Narcissistic Supply Sources.”
It’s easy to blame a person for becoming a victim, but ANYONE can become a victim of an Emotional Abuser. Emotional Abusers target good people who are very empathetic, compassionate, forgiving, highly principled, and willing to see the best in others.
Emotional Abusers can appear extremely loving, nurturing, compassionate, fun. They are masters of disguise, wolves in sheep’s clothing, and are highly skilled at discovering and exploiting a person’s weaknesses and longings. EVERYONE has weaknesses and longings that can be exploited so ANYONE can become a victim. If a person lacked a nurturing parent, or longs for a friend, or is looking for romance, an Emotional Abuser can appear to be the most nurturing parent, the most wonderful kindred spirit, or the greatest romantic lover ever. This is called “love-bombing.” Love is used to gain a person’s trust, discover her (or his) vulnerabilities, and groom her to be the next victim. Most people expect people to be who they appear to be. They do not naturally assume that someone is using love to entrap.
When they have gained a victim’s trust, Emotional Abusers go to the next stage. Experts say they actually use brainwashing techniques to keep a victim confused and undermine her confidence and judgment and reality. They use tactics such as ignoring personal boundaries, making excuses, scapegoating, denial, covert threats, shifting focus, placating, playing the victim or martyr, playing dumb, vilifying the victim, shifting the blame, lying and minimization.
If a person questions or resists an Emotional Abuser in any way, the Emotional Abuser will begin a smear campaign, shredding a victim’s reputation and accusing her of being bitter, unloving, unforgiving, unstable. Many times they will set up a smear campaign before it is needed by “lovingly” saying something like “I’m really worried about [Victim]. She’s becoming unstable/bitter/depressed…” In this way, other people will already be prepared to see the victim as unstable and untrustworthy when she begins to speak up about the abuse.
Many say that Emotional Abusers transfer their bad qualities onto their victim and steal her good traits, claiming to be what their victim is (loving, compassionate, honest) and accusing the victim of being what they actually are.
The stages of this cycle of abuse is described as Idealize (also called Love-bombing), Devalue, Discard. Often an Abuser already has a new victim already prepared to replace the victim he has just discarded. Although Emotional Abusers discard a victim, sometimes they don’t really let the victim go. Some say that since an Emotional Abuser found a victim to be a source of his “Supply” in the past, he will come back to try to get more “Supply” again. Others say that if a victim has escaped, an Emotional Abuser has “lost” and they can’t stand to lose so they will work to draw the victim back in. If a victim allows herself to reconnect and return to the Abuser, then the Abuser has regained his Supply. Many times the cycle of abuse repeats and repeats.
Emotional Abusers develop different types of victims. Closest to him are victims. These people are often condemned as golden children, sycophants, minions, or flying monkeys (after the creatures in the Wizard of Oz who did the witch’s bidding). However, I believe that while some may choose to be the favorite, many are in the “idealization” stage where they are shown only the abuser’s charming, loving side. They cannot see the “dark side” so they fiercely defend the abuser against any criticism, which they believe is unwarranted.
Finally there are people who are completely outside of the abuse, but who ignorantly support the Abuser. The Abuser is skilled at lying, deception, and manipulation. His lies can sound so believable that people believe him and side with him against the real victims. Many times these ignorant people counsel the victim that the Abuser is just wounded, and probably really loves her, and she needs to love and forgive him more.
But that’s not true. Abuse has nothing to do with love. It’s about power and control. Telling a victim of emotional abuse that she just needs to love and forgive is like telling a victim of physical violence that it’s her fault she was raped or beaten up, that her attacker probably really loved her, and she needs to not judge him, and that if she loved and forgave her abuser more, he would stop hitting her or wouldn’t have raped her.
Because an Emotional Abuser lacks empathy and is so skilled at manipulative tactics there is no way for a victim to make him understand her pain, to confront him about his need to change, or to find closure. They can’t be “loved” into changing. In fact, sociopaths and psychopaths have told psychologists in interviews that they consider “unconditional love and forgiveness” from their victims as a weakness that they can exploit.
Dysfunctional families tend to develop certain common characteristics: 1. They have a strong “group-think” mentality in which everyone must believe, say, and do as the group says. 2. They demand absolute loyalty to the family. 3. They have a Code of Silence in place in which no one is allowed to talk about what is happening in the family. 4. Anyone who rebels against the “group-think” or speaks about the abuse–even serious abuse–is accused of being disloyal to the family, unloving, unforgiving, etc. and is punished by the group. Meanwhile, the abusive person is usually defended and protected by the group. Despite these abusive behaviors, members of a dysfunctional family often declare that they are a very loving family. Appearances are vital and the fantasy of a loving family must be preserved at all costs.
Experts say that the only thing a victim can do is to have absolutely No Contact. This prevents the Abuser from using her as a Supply. An Abuser may come back periodically and try to reestablish contact but remaining firm in the No Contact will result in the Abuser seeking easier victims. Those who can’t go No Contact–such as when there are children–can go Low Contact. Emotional abusers may also cut off contact but there is a difference. Abusers give the “silent treatment” for a period of time in order to punish their victim. Victims do not cut off contact in order to punish. They go “No Contact” in order to escape the abuse. Such a decision is not made easily or quickly. Furthermore, when a victim cuts off contact with her abuser, she usually receives a lot of condemnation from others in the family and from friends. Many times the victim loses other relatives and friends in the process.
This is a brief summary of my own story. I’ve only included a few details. More details would require writing a book…and I really don’t want to spend too much time wading through all this. It’s enough for me to just share the basics with a couple of examples.
In my family, my Mom was the Emotional Abuser. There were six kids (now all adults) in the family–one boy and five girls. I was the fifth child. My oldest sister and I were the golden children. My two middle sisters were the scapegoats, and my brother and younger sister were sort of in-betweens, I think–not favorites and not scapegoats.
My Mom worked covertly, behind the scenes. Now I can look back and see the signs, but I couldn’t then because my Mom’s lies seemed absolutely believable.
My Mom used my faith and compassion against me to guilt and control me. She called me “The Caring One” or “The Christian” and would tell me things like “I can expect you to do the right thing because you are the Caring Christian.” The manipulation worked something like this: My Mom often told me that a scapegoat sister (#4) was unbalanced and absolutely hated me. This sister seemed to be exactly what my Mom said. She’d explode about little things and often tore me down. Meanwhile, my Mom would encourage me to love and accept the sister as she was and not make things worse by confronting her (because I was the caring one, the Christian). She made this sound loving, as if I was loving and accepting my sister for who she was. What was hidden was that the sister was reacting to what our Mom was doing when no one could see, and that in telling me to love my sister as she was and not make things worse, my Mom was actually blocking my attempts to work things out with my sister. If we didn’t talk, we couldn’t compare stories and we couldn’t resolve differences. Such hidden manipulation has affected every relationship in my family, destroying relationships between her children and grandchildren.
I didn’t see my Mom’s “dark side” until I got engaged to EJ. I believe that my Mom was trying to establish control over us or to split EJ and I up. Because I had only seen my Mom’s caring side, I was utterly confused when she began to make unreasonable demands on me that were impossible to meet. For example, I was calling her at least once each day and visiting every week or two, but my Mom demanded that I visit her EVERY day. When I asked her to be patient because EJ and I were busy planning our wedding and things would get calmer later, she accused me of being obsessed with EJ and abandoning her. I told my Mom I loved both her and EJ and I begged her not to make me choose between them, but she didn’t back off. I tried, but couldn’t please my Mom. She re-interpreted all of my actions so they appeared bad.
When I tried to share my wedding plans with my Mom, she didn’t want to hear. When I asked for help, she said, “Just go look in a wedding planner book.” However, she told EJ’s family that I refused to tell her any of our plans or let her help with the wedding. Our pastor told us that in all of his 30 years of ministry, he had never encountered a family like mine. I was falsely accused of “not deserving to wear a white wedding gown,” of being “a daughter from hell–the worse daughter a mother could have,” of being “the worst Christian I have ever met.” My Mom turned my Dad and siblings against me with her lies. At one point, my Dad called to shout at me that “it” was all my fault, and I was disloyal and ruining the family. I was quickly discarded and my younger sister took my place as the new golden child. However, my Mom never completely let me go.
After I was married, I reached out to my outcast, scapegoat sisters (siblings #3 and #4). When my Mom learned that #4 and I were forming a friendship, there was an immediate attempt to separate us. Within minutes of my Mom finding out, my younger sister was on the phone to our sister condemning me and defending our Mom. Not long afterwards, my Dad invited himself over to my sister’s for coffee (something he had never done before) to also falsely accuse me. When my sister confronted him with truth, he’d drop a false accusation and attempt another.
Over the years, I have tried and tried to reconcile with my Mom. I eventually began to notice a cycle. EJ and I would experience devaluing and control, so we’d withdraw a bit. Shortly afterwards, my Mom would send me a sweet birthday or Christmas card. We’d think, “Well, maybe she is really trying…” so we’d respond. Then the cycle would start over. If my Mom did not contact me, then my younger sister would call or text me to guilt me into renewing contact. “God wouldn’t want you to be bitter,” she’d sometimes say, using my faith against me. Or she’d tell me that our Mom was in the hospital having tests for a vague condition that could be serious. When I was a “golden child,” I had once heard my Mom plan to write a letter to my scapegoat sister (#4) deliberately making a broken leg sound like cancer to “see if she loves me.” She sounded completely loving when she planned this and didn’t tell any factual lies. In what she hinted, implied, and didn’t say, she turned the truth into lies. Remembering this, I didn’t trust any vague reports about my Mom being in the hospital with a “possibly serious condition.” I have since learned that many Narcissists use illness as a way to draw their victims back into the abuse. And that sort of thing is how they twist reality into a lose-lose situation for the victim: If a victim responds to the sweet cards or news of illnesses, she is drawn back into the abuse. If she doesn’t respond, the abuser tells others that her rotten daughter rejected her love and didn’t even care if she is sick and in the hospital. Either way, the Abuser has won.
This sort of abuse messes with a victim’s sense of reality and erodes her confidence and identity. I felt confused and battered by it. Sometimes I wasn’t sure who I was, whether I was right or wrong, good or evil. I sought help from Christian friends, mentors, and counselors, but they were the “bystanders” who were drawn into the abuse. They assumed that it was a “normal” disagreement, or that I was being petty or unforgiving, and they told me that my Mom was just wounded and she probably actually loved me, and I just needed to love and forgive more. No one ever told me I was being abused or helped me escape. (Which is why I speak out about abuse now.)
This “well-meaning” advice added to the abuser’s message that I was unloving, unforgiving, petty, over-reacting, and everything was my fault. This caused me to stay in the abuse for years, trying and trying and trying to fix an unfixable relationship. It is a hellish cycle to be told that the relationship would get better if only you could love and forgive the Abuser more, and then to try and try but have the Abuser twist everything you do and blame you for the problems in the relationship, then be condemned by his supporters as the awful one and told that if you only were more loving and forgiving, the relationship would get better…
Two incidents made me decide to have No Contact with my family. Both occurred in 2010. The first was when I called my Mom to tell her that I loved her. This enraged her so much that she ripped into me, fiercely telling me what a terrible, rotten, no good daughter I was. Then she started to insult EJ, but I defended him because he’s a good man and didn’t deserve such an attack. When I told her “Don’t you dare speak against my husband!” she said, “I dare, I dare, I dare, oh yes, I dare speak against EJ, yes, I dare, I dare, I dare…” and she repeated it over and over again until I hung up. A couple of months later, my Mom sent me a sweet birthday card as if nothing had happened. I thought, “This is madness.”
My Mom had told me several times that since I was the daughter who had rejected and abandoned her, the burden of reconciliation rested entirely on me–meaning that everything was my fault and I had to work to prove my love for her while she judged if it was enough–and I am sure that only complete submission would be considered “enough.” When I heard that my Mom had said that she considered all my efforts to reconcile to be a “mere drop in a teacup” and that no matter what I did she’d never forgive me, I decided there was no use trying and I decided to have No Contact. It really was a release and relief to stop trying and walk away.
The second incident occurred when my family found a blog in which I had written about my life and the abuse. Writing is a way that I express myself and process thoughts and experiences. I had written to process what was happening and what I was struggling to learn about abuse, love, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
However, when my family found my blog, everyone–the favorites and the scapegoats–got very upset with me and defended our Mom. One scapegoat sister (Sibling #4) tried to tell me exactly what to write and not to write. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this sister was so angry about what I had written that she didn’t answer my calls for about a year. At first I thought I just wasn’t calling at a good time, then I began to wonder if she was angry but had no idea why. Although my scapegoat sisters had often criticized our Mom’s behavior, in the end they defended her, keeping the Code of Silence intact. I became aware that we did not have a good relationship and probably never had. It was illusion.
Unable to write under such negative pressure, I deleted my blog and for a while was unable to write at all. Because writing is my expression, my voice, I eventually created this blog, but I use my, EJ’s and JJ’s initials in an attempt to make it more difficult for my family to find me. However, I occasionally write about abuse because sharing my story might help others–just as their stories have helped me.
As was her habit, when my Mom realized that I was withdrawing, my younger sister sent me guilting calls/texts. I texted her that I wanted No Contact–no texts, no calls, no emails, no visits, no invitations. My younger sister was the only one I specifically told that I wanted No Contact. I knew word would get around to the other favorites in the family.
In December 2014, I received a picture message on my phone with no explanation from an unknown number. I text “Who are you?” and received a reply that it was from my scapegoat sister (Sibling #3). I told her I wanted No Contact. Then the guilting and hoovering began:
This sounds loving, but none of it is true. The truth is that I had never told her that I wanted No Contact. All I did was stop calling–and yet it took her five years to even try to contact me. Even before that, in all my adult years, neither she nor my other scapegoat sister, both of whom I thought were friends, ever called me to chat, dropped in to visit me, or invited me over to visit them. Any contact we had was always initiated by me–I did all the calling, visiting, and inviting. I was not the one with a lack of love. I recognized that my sister was attempting to draw me back into the family and back into the abuse.
Despite what my sister said, my decision to go No Contact is not motivated by bitterness, hatred, or a desire to punish anyone. Neither am I having a pity party and moaning that “everybody hates me, nobody loves me.” I’m not seeking to find out information about what they are doing and I am not hoping they have a miserable life. I no longer feel it’s desirable or possible to have a relationship with my family, but I pray that they will each escape abuse and find healing and wholeness.
I am walking away because I want freedom and peace and healing. I think Emotional Abusers are like black holes. They suck the life from everyone who is near and draw them into their darkness. Eventually, a victim either is destroyed by the Abuser, becomes an Abuser, or walks away from the abuse and works on recovery. I have experienced the turmoil and destruction in/by my family, and I have finally recognized that I do not have to endure toxic relationships. I accept that I can’t change or rescue the others. I can only work on my own recovery and healing. And that begins with walking away from those who do not value me, respect me, or treat me with kindness.
Realistically, it just doesn’t make sense to remain in any relationship–including family–who doesn’t value me and who insults, belittles, manipulates, lies, deceives. It really is quite horrendous that anyone would try to draw another person back into such a relationship. Moving on means accepting that these relationships are toxic, that they cause damage, and that we don’t have to stay in them.
Emotional abuse is on the rise in the world. Emotional Abusers target good people who are very empathetic, compassionate, forgiving, highly principled, and willing to see the best in others. Emotional abusers also target people who have been victimized before because the victims’ boundaries and identity have already been weakened or destroyed.
Over the years, we have encountered others in our lives who were also emotional abusers. EJ believes that these relationships were formed before we understood Emotional Abuse or had firm boundaries in place so it’s not surprising to find that several were toxic/abusive. This multiple abuse is very damaging and triggers trauma. However, each encounter helps me to recognize abusive people and to understand another facet of the abuse and what I must do to recover.
UPDATE: Recognizing that we were experiencing PTSD symptoms (depression, intense anxiety, insomnia, nightmares, etc.) from both JJ’s battle with cancer (2013/2014) and the abuse we had suffered, EJ, JJ, and I moved to a new location in 2015, several hours from my family. We did not tell them we were moving, and soon afterwards we changed our emails addresses and phone numbers, cutting all times with them. We knew this was a necessary decision for us. As we step away from abusive people, we have been educating ourselves on what happened, on recognizing red flags, and on making our boundaries firmer. I have been working on rebuilding my identity, confidence, and self-esteem, which was smashed by the abuse. Our move became a pivotal point for us in which we made the decision that we will not accept abuse and will not keep any toxic people in our lives, no matter who they are. Instead, we seek to fill our lives with truly loving, supportive friends and with activities we enjoy.