Emotional Abuse for Women
The experience of emotional abuse is in many ways the same for both genders. However, there are some special issues you may deal with if you’re a woman. These relate to the expectations that society has of women. Despite the advances of the women’s movement, many families and society in general still follow patriarchal rules about gender. Women are supposed to be the nurturers, the nourishers, the passive ones, and the dependent ones. That can make it difficult for women to validate some of their emotionally abusive experiences and their right to heal from them.
The Control of the Abuser
Many women are still taught, directly and indirectly, that they need to look to others for guidance on what to do and what not to do, what to believe and what not to believe, what to feel and what not to feel. Even when we defy those expectations and insist on expressing ourselves, there may lurk a feeling of it being wrong, like we’re doing something we’re not supposed to do.
Most emotional abusers are out for control. And since so many of us are taught, directly and indirectly, that we’re supposed to be controlled, we may accept the control of the abuser without feeling like we’re allowed to rebel against it. This is different from men, who are taught by society that they have a certain amount of control just for being men. They may feel more comfortable defying an abusive parent’s pressure, which gives them a chance to move beyond their control. Many women survivors who deal with controlling parents may not even try or make inconsistent attempts, again feeling as though they’re doing something they’re not supposed to.
For example, let’s say an abusive parent needs hand-holding when going to doctors’ appointments. More often than not, the adult daughter feels an obligation to do this, even when she has more responsibilities to deal with than her brother. The daughter may have to turn her life upside down to accommodate the parent’s demands and yet still feel guilty for wanting to place some boundaries. If she does stand up for herself, she may feel even more guilty, and often the abusive parent will contribute to this.
Anger is a really important emotion to feel when healing from abuse. It’s the suppression or invalidation of anger that leads to angry outbursts and other destructive behaviors that veil the anger. Emotional abuse is something no one deserves. Our parents let us down, and we have the right to feel angry about it. When we acknowledge that anger and feel it fully, we release the need to hang onto it to validate our pain.
The problem for women is that society doesn’t like to see us angry. We’re allowed to be afraid, sad, confused, and frustrated, but we’re not allowed to be angry. As a result, we deny our anger. We either pretend we’re not angry or we feel guilty for being angry. I’ve heard more arguments about unconditional forgiveness of abusers from women than from men, and I think the taboos revolving around anger have something to do with it. Preaching unconditional forgiveness, meaning acting as though the abuse never happened, dismisses the experience of anger, which denies a natural feeling that any abuse survivor feels.*
Whenever abusive parents do something hurtful to an adult daughter, she may feel the need to chase her anger away by telling herself that they mean well, they can’t help the way they are, and that it doesn’t do her any good to show her anger because it will only make things worse. All of this is true, but it also places a heavy burden on her to invalidate a natural feeling that comes from abuse. That, in turn, prevents her from benefiting from releasing the strong negative energy that anger creates, which interferes with her healing.
Women in general are expected to make more sacrifices to others than men. This is part of social expectations relating to nurturing that people have of women but don’t have of men. With emotionally abusive parents, the demands are endless. An adult daughter may feel the need to give in more than her brother because she carries the belief that it’s her duty to make those sacrifices.
Often emotionally abusive parents’ demands are intrusive. She may be expected to run errands for them, do research on any major decision they need to make, check up on them periodically, take care of their health, and just basically make sure that all of their needs are met. She ends up spending not just time and money but also energy on making sure they’re content. She often neglects at least her own needs, if not also those of her partner and children.
For instance, my mother has two brothers. When my narcissistic (and therefore emotionally abusive) grandmother was alive, she expected my mother, not her sons, to contact her daily to make sure she was all right. My mother was the one who was expected to accompany her to doctors’ appointments. She was the one who was expected to run errands for her and take her shopping when she was bored. And my mother, though resentful of the intrusions on her time, energy, and finances, accepted this, as many adult female abuse survivors do.
In spite of the strides the women’s movement has made in validating a woman’s right to be something other than a nurturer to others, many in society still carry with them ideas about gender roles. For those who grew up or were born after the second wave of the women’s movement in the 1960s, these gender roles may be modified to include a woman’s right to a career and to make major decisions in her life, but many of the traditional female roles still lurk beneath the surface.
For instance, the majority of young women still believe that not getting married or being a mother is something to be ashamed of. It means there’s something wrong with you. They also still accept that they’re expected to sacrifice more of their free time to take care of the house and children. Many may also carry the feeling of sacrifice, giving up on their own needs in favor of their partner’s or children’s needs.
These gender prejudices can lead to a woman being emotionally abused in ways that are different from her brothers, and under certain circumstances, make the emotional abuse even more persistent. For instance, if a woman doesn’t marry or doesn’t marry to her abusive parents’ satisfaction, she may have to constantly deal with put-downs from them that a brother who made the same kinds of choices wouldn’t have to deal with because gender prejudices say that a woman’s family roles are more crucial to her identity than a man’s. Similarly, if a woman doesn’t have children or doesn’t raise them in a way that her abusive parents approve of, she may be harassed more for it than if her brother was in the same situation because she’s not fulfilling the role of nurturer that society expects her to fill.
As much as we’d like to think that the women’s movement freed women from social gender expectations, the reality is that they still exist, sometimes overtly and sometimes covertly. For the woman who’s been emotionally abused, it’s likely that these gender expectations were somehow involved in the abuse she had to suffer as a child and still suffers as an adult. Because society reinforces many of these gender expectations, both directly and indirectly, it can make it especially difficult for us to recognize that we may be validating some of our emotional abuse because it’s consistent with these gender expectations. We can help ourselves heal by believing that just because gender roles are socially accepted doesn’t make it OK for abusive parents to use them against us.
* No doubt many will argue that unconditional forgiveness doesn’t have to deny anger. Perhaps this is true in theory, but in practice, the concept of unconditional forgiveness is often used to skip over the experience of anger, particularly in women survivors.