Of the 12,147 calls made to the Women's Aid National Helpline in 2004, 33% were related to physical violence and 13% to sexual abuse. Interestingly, however, 44% of the calls related to emotional abuse. This is a startling statistic that brings to mind one of Women's Aid's slogans: "You don't need a bruise to be abused."
Emotionally abusive relationships are widespread in marriages, families and the workplace. The subtle, insidious relationship that "emotional abusers" and their "victims" evolve is extremely damaging and near impossible to prove.
The abuse often builds over a long period of time until it becomes so unbearable that victims lash out in frustration and anger, only to appear unstable and aggressive themselves. Abusers systematically "destabilize" and confuse their victims (with irrational, threatening behaviour that preys on the victims' fears and self-doubts), to isolate and control them and ultimately destroy their identity.
For outside observers (friends and family) recognising this "clean violence" is near impossible. Emotional abusers are often sufferers of the little-recognised, covert disorder; Narcissism.
Narcissists are relentless "predators", incapable of compassion or empathy. They will always blame the victim and never see their actions as wrong. They are also careful not to reveal themselves to anyone else, showing only the false, winning persona (that hooked you) to the rest of the world.
Manipulation is second nature and it's common that they may even turn those closest to the victim against them. Abusers will slowly and methodically erode your sense of self. Victims can find no explanation for their situation or their behaviour, and blame themselves.
Sufferers are advised to get support and leave the relationship if personal, or take legal action if it is professional. This is not easy to execute in every case as emotional abuse is so hard to detect and prove – even the victim finds it hard to grasp what is happening; or believe it.
The International 16 Days of Action Opposing Violence Against Women campaign (November 25 th - December 10th), now in it's 16th year, has grown to have over 2000 organisations participating worldwide since it began in November 1991.
It addresses the problem of abuse against women, and brings about a great surge in awareness. Stressing statistics that are impossible to ignore (e.g. 18% (1 in 5) of Irish women surveyed who had been involved in intimate relationships with men, had been abused by a current or former partner, and international statistics aren't much better).
Woman's Aid receive many requests for local and national radio interviews during the campaign every year. These, along with TV appearances and media events (such as 5 women in wedding dresses who stood outside the Dáil last year to highlight the "1 in 5" statistic) create a huge surge in awareness, and, according to Margaret Martin, Director of Women's Aid; "Our Helpline literally starts to hop."
"The most worrying thing is still the 2 in every 5 calls we are unable to answer. This is increasing year on year," she says. How likely is it that women, perhaps frightened or hesitant to call, will ever ring back if they get no answer? Organisations such as these need more funding, and more must be established or existing ones must expand their horizons.
"On average a woman will be assaulted by her partner or ex-partner 35 times before reporting it to the police." How much less likely a sufferer of emotional abuse would be to report their plight when it is near impossible to recognise; when so few people have even heard of it; when so many sufferers blame themselves?
Abuse in its many forms is a widespread problem, and increased awareness of emotional abuse would protect hundreds of people from severe emotional damage and possible breakdowns. The anguished confusion and self doubt could be avoided, and ties cut before the situation became worse.
"Last year a woman rang our Helpline after I was on the Afternoon Show on RTE to say she was abused for 30 years but never spoke to anyone about it until then."
Siobhan Kavanagh, Co-ordinator of Open Door Network, Kerry (one of the many national supporters of the 16 Days campaign) says "In our work, we see awareness as the first step towards change". Such an attitude would be hugely beneficial to dealing with the problem of emotional abuse, too.
( A very interesting book: http://www.amazon.com/Stalking-Soul-Emotional-Erosion-Identity/dp/1885586531 )