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An Attack On Your Mind: When Abusers Don’t Leave Physical Scars

‘At least he didn’t hit you’ is something victims of emotional abuse are sometimes told when they speak about their injuries, but these survivors would like you to know that not all perpetrators leave a visible scar.

Warning: This story discusses emotional, sexual and physical violence. 

A quarter of Australian women say they have experienced a form of emotional abuse in an intimate relationship, according to 2017 Australian Bureau of Statistics data. 

A common trait of survivors is that many are made to feel like acts of manipulation, isolation and control is all in their head.

These women are bravely sharing their stories in the hope that it will help others to identify patterns of non-physical abuse and enable victims with the knowledge to stop it or escape it.

Alison 

At 26, Alison says she is a two-time survivor of domestic violence.

But she said she struggles to tell her story of emotional abuse as she doesn't feel it is understood in the same way as physical abuse.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘at least he didn’t hit you’ … I just don’t think that grasps the gravity of it,” she told 10 daily. 

Even though I don’t have a bruise, I have that psychological injury in my brain and in my emotional responses now that I carry with me.

Alison said her relationship with her most recent partner started like a fairytale, but it quickly felt more sinister.

At first, she said her boyfriend was “everything you think you could want in a partner” -- wonderful, generous and very charismatic. 

But things started to change and controlling and manipulative behaviours crept in, such as needing to know her every move and restricting who she spent time with. 

Alison says emotional abuse is less understood than physical abuse. Image: Supplied

Then the gaslighting began.

She said her now-ex boyfriend would give her lectures, and downplay her reactions when she showed she was upset. This made her feel as though she was "going crazy".

Because I trusted him so much, I started to doubt myself … I started to stop listening to how I was feeling and start to lean on him.

Despite the controlling behaviours becoming more common, Alison said her ex would still show glimpses of the person she fell for in the beginning, a feeling she held onto and tried her best to see more of.

She claimed it got to the point where she felt her only solution to stop her ex's "lectures" was to have sex with him, so he'd be happy with her again.

I often felt like I had to be intimate with him when I didn’t want to.

I didn’t feel safe — physically, socially and emotionally — in saying no to him.

Alison alleges it was about this time that her ex started to sexually abuse her.

After recognising her alleged abuse, and seeking validation from her close friends, Alison was able to safely leave the relationship.

Source: Getty.

This wasn't the first time Alison had felt trapped in a cycle of abuse.

Years earlier Alison said her high school 'sweetheart' allegedly sexually and emotionally abused her.

"He would often rape me." 

"He was a lot cooler than I was and often threatened to share what he liked to do to me sexually to shame me. He would often get quite angry, and the only way to calm him down was to submit to that request," she claimed. 

She said her alleged abuser's tactics were 'subtle' and felt like an 'attack on her mind'.

She would later develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as a result of trauma from the relationship.

"It wasn't until I got out of that relationship that I realised what it was that had happened to me. That’s when the gravity of everything hit me," she said. 

Today, Alison is still healing. Still impacted by the trauma from her abusive relationships, she said she is trying to hold herself with compassion.

"I used to think that if I was being impacted by my trauma, that the perpetrator was winning -- or they still had control over me," she said.

"But now I understand it's just an injury that I hold. It's not them winning, it's just part of my injury coming forward. "

Tammy 

Tammy, 43, said she was in her late 20s when she was in an emotionally abusive relationship with a transgender partner. 

Tammy identifies as non-binary, and uses the pronoun 'she'.

She said the abuse she suffered was 'insidious' and stripped her of her self-worth and identity.

Tammy claims she experienced emotional abuse at the hands of her ex-partner. Image; Supplied

Similar to Alison, Tammy too said their relationship felt 'a lot like love'.

But within three months things had changed.

Tammy claims the ex started to control where she went and who she spoke to, to the point where they allegedly gave an ultimatum to choose between a friend or the relationship. 

She claims she felt 'brainwashed' into choosing the relationship.

It eroded my self confidence, my identity … you spend so much time walking on eggshells that I became a shell of a person. You literally get swept off your feet, and then come crashing down.

Towards the end of their relationship, Tammy said it started to feel abusive but there was a 'great deal of shame' in admitting it. 

“I didn’t want to admit I was in an abusive relationship," she said. 

“I was stuck in a place of thinking that if I just tried to be a better person, that everything would be okay.” 

But it wasn't okay. Towards the end of the relationship, things got physical.

Tammy said she was grabbed and thrown against a wall during an argument.

More physical violence followed until Tammy's ex broke up with her.

“We are living in a country where on average one woman dies from violence every week, and it’s natural to focus on that level of crisis,” she said.

“But if we can move the conversation to look at how people get to that point, we can intervene a lot sooner.” 

Jacquie

Money is a way some abusers gain control in intimate relationships.

Jacquie, 38, lives with genetic disorder Mosaic Down Syndrome.

She had known her ex-husband since preschool. They got married in her late 20s.

Initially, Jacquie said she trusted her husband enough to give him control of her credit cards. 

But that was a mistake.

Her ex allegedly opened five different credit card accounts in her name, leaving her in $40,000 debt.

“I didn’t have full control of my own cards … he literally did what he wanted with them,” Jacquie told 10 daily. 

She said when she tried to change her bank details to stop her from getting into more debt, her ex would force her to change them back.

"My biggest fear was if I said no, I would have got bashed," she claimed. 

She said her ex is a 'powerful man' who 'wasn't very nice' if he didn't get his way.

Jacquie claims her ex-husband financially abused her. Image: Supplied

She described a vivid memory of a night where he allegedly locked all of the doors in their house so she couldn't leave.

“He was following me around the house all night … I was trying to pick a spot where I could get away, but he just managed to find me,” she claimed. 

“Luckily enough, I grabbed a mobile phone, ran downstairs into a separate toilet and called the cops. As soon as I heard them knock … I was relieved. It was 3:15am in the morning.”

Jacquie said she was able to safely leave her relationship, and the matter went through the courts in the mid 2000s.

Despite this, she claims she never saw any of the money her ex allegedly stole from her.

A History Of Violence

So far this year, 51 Australian women have been killed as a result of violent relationships.

But the web of abuse is complex and the foundations are not always physical.

“We tend to think about domestic violence in the context of somebody who shows signs of physical assault — broken bones, bruises. But domestic violence can be a number of types of abuse,” Domestic Violence NSW's Joanne Yates told 10 daily. 

Yates said emotional abuse is the most common form of partner violence. 

Controlling behaviours are a common form of emotional abuse. Image: Getty

Policymakers are focused on the impacts of coercive control, a term coined by US-based criminal justice and domestic violence researcher Professor Evan Stark. 

Stark says this type of control in relationships is identified by a “pattern of domination that includes tactics to isolate, degrade, exploit and control”, or to “frighten (victims) or hurt them physically”. 

But coercive control is not a criminal offence in Australia. 

This is despite a 2017 review into domestic violence-related homicides in NSW showing that 99 per cent of relationships were characterised by the abuser’s use of controlling behaviours. 

Yates said it's common for emotional abusers to gain their partner's trust by expressing "adoration". They then strip their partner of their autonomy and begin to isolate them from their friends and family.

"He becomes the sole person upon which she relies," Yates said.

"Suddenly she doesn't know what's happening, but she manipulates her own behaviour to keep him from exhibiting the worst parts of his own power and challenge."

The three survivors who were interviewed for this story were assessed by Voices for Change, a Domestic Violence NSW program that connects survivors with the media. 

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, dial 000. If you need help and advice, call 1800Respect on 1800 737 732, or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

A range of domestic and family violence resources based around the country can be found here

For anonymous and free LGBTIQ support and referral, dial 1800 184 527 or head to Q Life

Contact the author ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au