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Emotional abuse is recognised as a damaging element of family violence. The Australian Bureau of Statistics says 3.3 million Australians have experienced emotional abuse by a partner since the age of 15. In migrant communities there are additional barriers which can impact on how the abuse is experienced. Experts stress the need to understand the culture in order to provide support for victims of emotional abuse. So, what exactly is emotional abuse and what are its effects?
By
Iman Riman

20 Oct 2016 - 9:07 AM  UPDATED 20 Oct 2016 - 9:21 AM

Though emotional abuse doesn’t leave physical scars, it can have serious impact on the victims' self-esteem and confidence.

Emotional abuse is one form of abuse that people can experience in a relationship.

Relationships Australia Victoria’s Senior Manager for Practice Development Emily McDonald explains what emotional abuse is.

“It is similar to other forms of abuse in that it is one person maintaining power and control over another person. In intimate relationships it is characterised usually around behaviours such as extreme jealousy and possessiveness, isolating you from your friends and family, using manipulation to make you do things you don’t want to do, trying to control what you think and feel, what even you might wear or who you see.”

Emotional abuse can cover a wide range of behaviours or actions aimed at intimidating, controlling, isolating or manipulating a person.

Sakina is a woman from Pakistan, who married the man she loved in her home country despite the opposition of their parents. He convinced her to join him in Australia and leave her family behind.

Sakina followed her husband from Pakistan. Once in Australia, she says her husband began to display abusive behaviour including financial control, ignoring her needs and blaming her for the difficulties they were experiencing.

“I came here on my own, I spent all of my money just because I used to work overseas in Pakistan, I spent all the money [on] him and his family. I just cried in front of him, that please understand me, he was controlling, he didn’t allow me to go anywhere, he didn’t allow me to open an account.”

Emotional abuse can cover a wide range of behaviours or actions aimed at intimidating, controlling, isolating or manipulating a person.

Monique Toohey is a psychologist and author of the book “Without You: rising above the impact of an abusive relationship”.

The psychologist says emotional abuse is insidious because it is largely invisible.

“So it can involve a regular pattern of nasty comments, and the use of words and or behaviours that  make someone feel threatened, bullying is part of it, so verbal bullying, constant criticism, as well as a really insidious form of emotional abuse which is intimidation, shaming and manipulation, so shaming and manipulation are quite common, and both involve the abuser blaming, it could be a partner or a colleague, or an employee for an action or inaction, when they’ve actually not done anything wrong.”

For migrant women there are a number of additional barriers which impact on how emotional abuse is experienced.

Joumanah El Matrah, is the CEO of Australian Muslim Women’s Centre for Human Rights.

She says that the added problem in migrant communities is the lack of understanding of the support services and interventions available to women.

She stresses the need to understand the culture in order to provide support for victims of emotional abuse.

The language barrier is a problem, but also failing to understand the culture is a problem, and a lot of women for example will believe that in my culture it is OK for a man to guide my behaviour.

“The language barrier is a problem, but also failing to understand the culture is a problem, and a lot of women for example  will believe that in my culture it is OK for a man to guide my behaviour, but what they mean when they say ‘guide my behaviour’ may actually be abusive. In the same way, that some women think that men in their culture are responsible for the money, but actually what they’re doing is financial abuse.”

In an emotionally abusive relationship, a person may feel that there is no way out of the relationship or that without their partner they will have nothing.

Sakina says she tried hard to mend the situation with her husband. She begged him to stay with her, listen to her and respect her as a wife, but his behaviour did not stop. She says his behaviour caused her to lose confidence in herself and to feel worthless.

“That’s the main problem. I still have trauma attacks, I’m still having lack of confidence, and just to save my relation, I was like, don’t give me anything,  just  give me my relation back. I am totally lost, not just because of what had happened to me, but still I am tired of begging in front of him, please give me my relation back.”

The scars of emotional abuse are real and long lasting.

Psychologist Monique Toohey says emotional abuse can leave a person feeling depressed, anxious and even suicidal.

“So in many cases consistent emotional abuse results in depression and anxiety, insomnia, so just staying awake worrying about what to do next, or is there something wrong with me, and in really serious cases, the consequence can be Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I am actually seeing that more and more particularly in workplace emotional abuse.”

In many cases consistent emotional abuse results in depression and anxiety. Sakina expressed a feeling of isolation and despair as a result of the emotional abuse she suffered.

“I lost my weight, I don’t care whatever I am eating, I am totally isolated, and I don’t want to do anything, seriously, I don’t want to do anything, I better die, not to be alive.”

Monique Toohey says it can take some time to recognise emotional abuse, but she recommends seeking help from trusted people.

It can take some time to recognise emotional abuse. Talk to your GP and start to access some support.

“So, often a trustworthy friends and family members who can see more clearly who are outside the dynamics of the relationship you are in with the particular person. But it is really easy first point of people is the internet, it can be easy and quick tool. Your local GP and talking about how a particular relationship is making you feel, and perhaps being referred to a counsellor or psychologist to talk through it and get a qualified opinion and start to access some support about what to do about it.”

Relationships Australia offers a number of counselling models for individuals as well as for couples.

Emily McDonald says that Relationships Australia offers a number of counselling models for individuals as well as for couples; however, she says it important to acknowledge that this is about power and control, and the needs of the victim are paramount.

“It may need that the person experiencing emotional abuse to come on their own first, to work out really what they want to do, because it is a power issue, a power and control issue, it’s not an easy thing to bring your relationship along, when you are the person who is experiencing emotional abuse.”

Sakina currently lives in crisis accommodation.

She says the support she is receiving from the workers there as well as from a trusted person through her employment, is helping her dealing with the consequences of the abuse she has suffered, but there’s a long way to go.

“They help a lot, they help me in many ways, they have given shelter here, they are taking care of me, they are so helpful, they are doing counselling as well, I want to be positive, but there’s still a gap, it’s a long way to go.”

The Department of Human Services lists emotional abuse as a form of family and domestic violence. If a person needs to leave a situation affected by family or domestic violence support systems may include social work counselling and Centrelink assistance.

For counselling, information and support anytime call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732.

Or call Lifeline on 131 114 and in an emergency call 000.

Translated factsheets are available in 28 languages.

For more information visit reachout or beyond blue.

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