One of the most profound Book I have come across as I began to dig deeper into my past was Austin James' book Emotional Abuse: Silent Killer of Marriage. It was profound for 3 reasons. 1) It was the very first book I picked up about the topic and read as I finally began to come out of my shell and get real with the past I had swept under the rug for so many years and refused to deal with. 2) Austin was the abuser! This book gives a whole new direction on other literature I have seen since as he helps us understand and feel more confident that, as victims, we are not to blame. 3) This book is so relative to more than just victims of DV, but such an amazing book for so many couples. We all hate dealing with difficult emotions and worse, it is not a fun game to try and understand the emotions of loved ones when they don't react to stress or problems the way we want them to. To understand that change, not blame, is all that needs to happen to start any sort of resolution to our relationship stressors we all experience is also what I got from this book. For some, that change is ending a relationship and for others it is about finally taking the time to step back and reevaluate ourselves from the inside out. To learn the ability to look deep inside ourselves is tough, but necessary sometimes.
The answers Austin gives below are relative to everyone and his book should be read by everybody, not just victims! I guarantee you that after you read his story, you will look at yourself and your spouse in an entirely different way. Change is possible, but it takes action. Nothing is solved with an idle mind or heart!
1. In your book you speak about how your abuse manifested – please share some ways emotional abuse manifest and how to recognize it.
To help your readers understand abuse a little better, I’ll answer in general terms first and specifically answer your question second.
We abuse because something traumatic happened to us, normally during our childhood and usually under the age of 13, that froze our ability to develop on an emotional level. There are chemicals (serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine) that get released into our brain prior to puberty that help us reason and think abstractly so that we can learn to make decisions as we progress into adulthood. Up until puberty we don’t need this ability because most of our decisions are made for us or as a baby, our entire life consist solely of eating, sleeping, and pooping (with the occasional ‘coo’ just to keep Mom, Dad & family enamored with us).
If our childhood trauma is severe enough to prevent these chemicals from being released we will continue to mature physically but emotionally our development will stop at whatever age the trauma occurred. This is referred to as Arrested Development or sometimes Fixation in the psychology field..
During the entire 30 years I was abusive I thought, reasoned and acted as a child (of approximately twelve years of age) on an emotional level even though physically I was an adult. I was scared to death in my twelve-year-old mind as I progressed through life and took on adult responsibilities. Think how a child reacts when something doesn't go according to their expectations, they get angry and throw a temper-tantrum, right? That’s exactly what I did when my expectations were not met, I threw an adult-sized child-like temper-tantrum.
I used anger and manipulation to control my surroundings because I didn’t know how to operate in those surroundings as a normal adult would. I scrambled to control whatever portion of my world I could, just to feel safe. I was in a constant survival mode to try and cope with my surroundings.
Yet, at the same time, I put on a mask to appear as if I had it all together. After all, I was in an adult body. I had to keep everyone at a distance emotionally out of fear they would peer beneath my mask and expose my inner-child. Anger was the tool I used to accomplish this. There are a few more important components at work, but your readers will have to buy the book to find out what they are [shameless book plug complete].
How did my abuse manifest? I couldn’t accept responsibility for my actions; I always had an excuse for my bad behavior and decisions; I blamed those around me (mostly my wife) for my circumstances. I had zero conflict resolution skills since I wasn’t capable of abstract thinking. I’d either blow up in a rage or shut down and withdrawal during an argument.
I used anger to control because it was the only tool I thought I learned how to master and yet, it ended up mastering ME. I was a 5-star ‘Ninja-master’ at the art of manipulation. I was angry about something nearly every day of my life and I had a Jekyll / Hyde personality - I could be the most delightful, charming man you’d ever want to meet one minute and a raging manic the next if something didn’t go EXACTLY the way I thought it should. I foolishly walked around with this “Me Tarzan, you Jane” attitude 24/7.
Whew! Okay, that about covers a single day in my life as an abuser. Seriously, this is just a fraction of the abusive traits I exhibited over a 30 year time frame. All these behaviors caused my wife and children to walk on eggshells around me. They never knew when I might become angry and explode. Heck, I didn’t either. I was a train wreck waiting to happen Erinn and because of it, I psychologically damaged my wife and children. All the while, I was completely blinded to my affliction. I thought I was a ‘great guy’ and a master communicator.
For the entire 30 years I had no idea I was abusive. All that I described above happened on a subconscious level within me. Of course at times I knew I hurt or used anger or manipulation to get what I wanted, but I had no clue I was abusing and tearing down the very one I loved. I realize this may be very difficult for some of your readers to grasp or even believe. Quite honestly, even today it’s hard for me to understand it as well. I mean, how could I have been so stupid? How could I not know I was abusive? Not know something was broken within me emotionally? I wish I had an answer, but I don’t. The mind is a terribly complex organ that still is not fully understood today. In all that time I never made the connection to emotional abuse nor did I have anyone ever broach the subject of abuse even though Teri and I saw 5 marriage counselors over the years. The only thing I can say is a deceived mind doesn’t know it is being deceived.
2. What exactly was the trigger for you to have this self-realization you needed help as an abuser after your marriage?
In a word – “pain”. Ask just about anyone who has broken free from destructive habits, addictions, or lifestyle and each will say they had to get to a level of emotional pain before real, lasting change could take place. Something, or a series of “something’s” occurred to bring them to a low point in their life where they simply could not go on in their current mode. It’s at this moment of desperation, I believe, we are willing to look anywhere, even within ourselves, for a way out of the pain.
The pain I felt knowing I was going to lose a twenty-four year marriage to the woman I dearly loved began a breaking process within me and was the catalyst I needed to begin looking for honest answers, even if those answers pointed to me rather than everyone else. I was in so much pain at the time I was willing to open myself up to whatever answer would help me not to hurt.
I had reached my “live or die” point, similar to, though from the other side of abuse, to what you described in your story Erinn. Fortunately, even though I battled two separate plans of suicide, I lived.
Specifically, my self-realization came in two forms. The first realization was that the anger issue I knew I had but brushed off as simply a character flaw and “not that bad,” was actually something much deeper and darker than I ever realized. It was something I had allowed to take over and control my life.
The second realization was the life changer for me – it was the realization that my anger led me to a thirty year life of abusive behavior. I can still remember the exact moment the awareness became crystal clear within me that, “Yes, I was abusive” hit me. It simultaneously broke me completely as a man, husband, and father and was the beginning of a complete change within my soul to the much healthier and emotionally stable person I am today.
I have God to thank for the transformation. Also, without Teri having the courage to say “I want a divorce,” I don’t know that I wouldn’t still be abusing today.
I must be clear, it wasn’t the divorce that changed me, it was knowing that Teri was serious in what she said and had reached her pain threshold in our marriage. Hearing her say those words of divorce is what finally woke me up and led to change. During the next seven months that it took for our divorce to be finalized I lived as a changed man and those changes were real, but it was simply “too little too late” for Teri. Seven months of the new Austin could not overcome twenty-four years of the old one. She endured a lot of crap during those years let me tell you.
I mention the above only for your readers who are stuck in an abusive relationship yet deep down inside would like to find a way for the relationship/marriage to continue IF true and lasting change in their abusive mate would occur. Someone being abused must separate themselves physically from the abuse and be willing to do whatever it takes to draw a hard line in the sand and say “no more abuse.” Hopefully, eventually, the abuser will reach their own pain-point and be willing to change. It is rare but it can happen. In many cases divorce may be the answer but in a few cases it doesn’t necessarily have to be the only answer.
3. What is the most common response you get from victims when contacted after they read your book?
Almost every response I get follows the same pattern and two responses:
First, by reading my story many victims see their own story unfold before their eyes. Suddenly they are able to realize, perhaps for the first time, that what they’ve held deep within for so long – that they are a victim of abuse (though many have said they didn’t know that’s what it was called). The truth that it’s not their fault becomes crystal-clear despite what their abusive mate has tried to convince them.
You see, we abusers are masters at manipulation and mind games. We can take just about any situation that is clearly OUR fault and twist, turn, fold, and regurgitate it back to you so that somehow it turns out to be YOUR fault. Do that several hundred (thousand?) times over many years and suddenly the victim of abuse has a hard time differentiating fact from fiction; their reality vs. what they are being told is their reality. They begin to question everything in their own mind and start to believe the lie that somehow it is their fault. As time goes on, manipulation, control, and abuse all become ‘normal’ to the abused. That’s the goal of the abuser and they are very good at what they do.
The second response starts off like this, “What do you suggest I do (or say) to get my spouse to realize what they are doing?” I wish there was an answer to that question. The fact is there isn’t anything, directly, they can do or say to get their spouse to change. The only thing a victim of abuse can do is to ask themselves “What can I do or say to myself to get me to change my circumstances?” A victim must reach their pain-point where they are willing to draw that line in the sand and say “No more!” and do whatever it takes to remove themselves from the situation.
“Easier said than done,” I know. It can be very difficult due to financial dependence, children, isolation from friends or family, transportation, etc., but the sad fact is by staying in the relationship the abuser has zero motivation to change. You see, our primary purpose for the abuse is to control our world and get others (namely our mate) to stay with us within that world. In our sickness we hope by wearing you down to nothing you will lose the will to leave us. Regardless of how lousy the relationship may be, as long as the abused mate stays we have accomplished our goal and are ‘safe’ for another day living as a man-child in our very broken world.
4. I am sure you hear most from victims, but have you found yourself contacted by an abuser who read or heard your story? If so, what words do you have for them?
I have been contacted by several abusers who have read my book. Depending on the flavor of their email my response usually covers the same three points:
First, change CAN happen! I broke free from thirty years of abuse and they can too! They CAN become healthy and whole again IF they are willing to work hard and take FULL responsibility for their actions – past, present, and future (no more blame game). They must be willing to undergo the truth of self-discovery about who/what they’ve become and more importantly, what happened during their childhood to cause them to migrate toward abusive behaviors. That last part is where the real healing takes place, but I can attest it is a tough, tough road to go. Many never find the courage to traverse it.
Second, if they ever find themselves justifying their behavior because of someone else’s behavior a huge red flag better immediately go up. If they catch themselves thinking or saying “Yeah, sometimes I can act like a real jerk, but it’s because she… blah, blah, blah.” Doesn’t matter how the sentence ends because they’ve already taken the focus off themselves and onto someone else. That will not work.
We can never justify our behavior based on what someone else does, doesn’t do, says, or doesn’t say. That doesn’t mean someone else can’t make us very angry - they certainly can - but how we respond to that anger is ours – we own it.
Third, I tell an abuser if they get uncontrollably angry over what someone did or said they need to stop and ask themselves, “What exactly am I feeling here?” As I said before anger is always a secondary response to a primary feeling. We may feel angry, but why? What’s the underlying emotion (normally stemming from our past) that we’re feeling right now? Insecure? Fear of abandonment? Worthlessness? Inadequate, etc.?
Many times we are not consciously aware of these feelings until we dig beyond our anger, but anger is where most of us stop. We simply blame the other person for our feelings and fixate on them rather than the true cause of our anger. It’s only by allowing ourselves to get in touch with our deeper feelings and emotions and go back to our past that we can start to heal from our wounds and become a whole person again.
As men we have been told our whole lives to stuff our feelings, forget about them and “get back in the game,” or “Quit whining and be a man!” It is very difficult for men to do what is required to get healthy. It goes against everything we’ve been told and taught – usually for generations.
That’s why men are normally the abusers, many of us don’t know how to get in touch with our inner emotions, beginning in childhood. Nope, as a man it’s far easier to keep the past sealed off, “man up,” and look for other answers to our problems. And that answer is to normally blame you for the current issue in the hopes that you’ll somehow accept the blame and move on.
5. Of all the facts you discuss in your book, what one fact or piece of information would you want someone to know who suspects a loved one is being abused?
It’s important for your readers to understand as I answer this, I do not buy into the notion that a victim of abuse somehow ‘enables’ the abuse by their behavior. They do not! An abuser abuses because they are broken – nothing a victim did “turned on” the abuse and nothing they do, directly, will turn it off.
Having said that, someone who stays in a long-term abusive relationship usually has some issues with codependency. A codependent person is relying on someone else for his or her happiness or feels they are responsible for that other person’s happiness. Their thinking and focus centers around the other person and they begin to react to that person’s external cues rather than their own internal cues.
Normally, a codependent has a hard time with setting personal boundaries. Emotional abuse starts subtly and progresses to full-blown control and manipulation over time. It’s these subtle progressions that a codependent has a hard time recognizing as their boundaries become more and more transparent.
Here’s a fact – the abuse will NOT go away on its own. If someone being abused thinks they need to ‘try harder’, or ‘do more things right’, or ‘love a little more’, they run the risk of slowly being suffocated in the quicksand of abuse at the hands of their soul-sucking mate.
As I stated before, as time goes on, manipulation, control, and abuse all become ‘normal’ to the abused - that’s our goal as an abuser Someone being abused must remove themselves from the situation in order to think clearly and heal. It’s finding that “enough is enough” point that is very difficult for someone with codependency issues to face.
If I suspected someone I loved was being abused I would offer my support and then help them find a way to remove themselves from the situation - be it the offer of temporary housing, financial support, or if the situation warrants, legal intervention. In a couple words “get involved!” This may require a LOT of effort and perhaps a bit of risk for the person willing to help, but they must realize that in many cases the victim of abuse feels trapped, perhaps doesn’t think anyone believes them (it’s “all their fault” after all), and has no clue how to get out of the situation and survive.
I would also suggest they immediately get professional help if they have the option, or at least get some good books on codependency and setting boundaries. Chances are, something happened in their own childhood that caused codependency roots to grow. The only way for them to heal is to get at those childhood roots and remove them.
Lastly, I would say “be honest” in all you tell the loved one. It’s been so long since they’ve heard the truth and they may have a very hard time separating fact from fiction at this point in their life. As the Bible says, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” Have the courage to be truthful as you speak to them yet tactful. They must try and get the focus away from their abusive mate and onto themselves. This is not the time to tell them what they think they want to hear out of fear they may get mad at you. In the end I believe they will thank you for having the courage to speak up when most of their other friends remained silent.
6. Any closing thoughts?
I want to thank you Erinn for dedicating this month on your blog to Domestic Violence, and for having the courage to share your personal story. Living in my post-abusive world I witness varying degrees of abuse on nearly a daily basis. I’ve come to the conclusion that our culture has somehow become numb to the abuse occurring all around and we simply ignore it in the hopes it will go away. Domestic Violence in the U.S is at epidemic proportions I’m afraid.
It’s only when people such as yourself have the courage to step forward to focus attention on this epidemic that we can ever hope to raise the consciousness level of people to how destructive DV is. Not only for the victims but to their children as well - many of whom will carry some traits of the abuse into their own adulthood relationship, breading a new generation of this cancer.
My email is austin.f.james [at] gmail [dot] com. If I can help a reader in any way, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. Many times a victim of abuse who read my book will email just to vent to someone who can relate to their situation and know that what is occurring in their relationship is not a “You need to love them more” situation. I encourage contact if it will help whether someone reads my book or not.
If you think you may be an abuser and have reached your pain-point and know you need to change but don’t know where to turn, feel free to email me as well. I’d be honored to come alongside and help you to get on the right track or find resources that may help you.
Thanks again Erinn for allowing me to be part of this. God bless you.
**Austin has generously offered a copy of his book (eBook) to one lucky reader! To enter, visit my Giveaway Event Page!