In late 2018, Kelsey Baker found the courage to do something she never thought possible: escape from her emotionally abusive relationship. Afterwards, the full-time college student and single mom did something equally as courageous. She shared her story with the world.
“Maybe he doesn’t hit you, but he makes you apologize for getting upset after something he did to hurt you.
Maybe he doesn’t hit you, but you have to walk on eggshells every day to ensure he is satisfied enough to remain calm and happy.
Maybe he doesn’t hit you, but he steals your sense of comfort and security leaving you paranoid and “crazy”.
Y’all….. this is so serious.”
Kelsey goes on to describe the emotional rollercoaster her abuser created, as well as the shame, confusion, and hurt that came from being in such a toxic relationship. Brief yet powerful, she concluded her story with a message to anyone who shared her experience:
“Maybe you did everything right but he still wants to victimize himself just so he doesn’t have to put in effort to right his wrongs.
This is not okay. And you are not at fault.
Do not apologize for his mistakes. Do not let him tear you apart to build himself higher. You are worthy of love and happiness and respect.
Please don’t wait for him to change as he carelessly rips apart your soul and everything that is you. Please don’t tell yourself it’s okay or ever allow yourself to get used to it.
He is broken. Do not let him break you.”
Kelsey was indeed not alone. As of this writing, Kelsey’s post has been shared over 134,000 times, and generated over 17,000 comments of gratitude, support, empathy, and encouragement.
There’s something galvanizing about genuine moral outrage, such as the exposure of abuse. Few people could be confronted by Kelsey’s story and not experience a potent mixture of rage and sadness. We want Kelsey to be free, and we want her abuser to be punished. Virtually any other response defies the very definition of human decency. In Kelsey’s case, the abuse is obvious. We read her story, and can all immediately perceive that something awful is taking place. When we read “This is not ok,” we all agree with her assessment. Like her, we conclude that no healthy person acts the way her abuser did, and no healthy relationship exists in such an unstable and corrosive environment. We also tell ourselves that we would identify such behavior if we saw it, and protect not only ourselves, but our friends and loved ones as well. All this moral certitude, yet we turn a blind eye to it every single day.
Abusers: Goals & Strategies
What if I were to tell you that emotional abuse is not only widespread, but has become so ubiquitous, that virtually everyone in the United States is currently experiencing it in some form or another? Some of us are victims, and some of us are perpetrators. Many have unwittingly become both. To support such an outlandish assertion, let’s first look at the profile of an abuser.
-the need to always be “right” or feel “in control.”
-other pathologies, such as undiagnosed mental disorders
Abusers can have a history of being abused themselves, or simply have deep-seeded maladaptive behavioral patterns and cognitive distortions. Whatever the emotions or perceptions that fuel the abuse, the manifest behavior almost always points to the same goal: power and control. In pursuit of this goal (which may never even manifest itself as a consciously-stated realization), abusers employ a number of strategies in pursuit of power over their relationships. These strategies of control can be broadly categorized as methods that “discredit, isolate, and silence” their victims. Here are some examples of the strategies abusers employ, though these are not linear or exhaustive in manifestation. Abusers can begin their quest for control with any or all of these tactics, often with significant overlap.
Those who can do no right tend to remain silent
Abusers will shame, insult, critique, and second-guess everything about the victim, their life, and their choices. No amount of effort by the victim will serve to placate the abuser. As Kelsey said in her Facebook post: “Maybe you did everything right but he still wants to victimize himself just so he doesn’t have to put in effort to right his wrongs.” Attempts to engage with these criticisms as constructive and in good-faith only serve to fuel the abuser’s power. The victim has now bought into the legitimacy of the abuser’s claims.
Those cut off from outside perspectives become trapped in abuse
Commanding and questioning the victim’s loyalty is a large part of an abuser’s success in long-term relationships. As the victim is confronted with a steady stream of personal attacks and criticisms, the abuser uses accusations of infidelity to prevent the victim from seeking outside information or input. All relationships are called into question, and are used to accuse the victim of disloyalty. To disprove these accusations, victims increasingly isolate themselves. Ultimately, this leaves only the abuser as the victim’s primary source of input into their life, and more importantly, their perception of reality.
Those in a constant state of confusion hold a discredited perspective of reality
Abusers are often able to reinforce and maintain control by becoming the very lens with which victims understand reality. Abusers do this by strategically gaslighting the victim, causing them to perpetually doubt their understanding of reality. Gaslighting often begins subtly, with expressions of disbelief or confusion about the victim’s choices or perspectives. Assuming the abuser’s sincerity, the victim attempts to explain the situation or perspective, only to be met with defensive postures and accusations of over-sensitivity. This is fundamentally destabilizing for the victim, causing them to grow increasingly suspicious of their own ability to discern between right and wrong, friend or foe, and true from false.
Victims: Experiences & Perspectives
Now let’s look at the profile for a victim of emotional abuse. For many reasons (including some previously mentioned), victims can be unaware they are in an abusive relationship. However, once a victim has identified they are in an abusive relationship, it can still be extremely difficult for them to leave. In fact, victims of physically abusive relationships endure an average of seven attacks before leaving the relationship. With emotional abuse having so few clear-cut indicators of abuse (i.e. “they hit me”), these relationships can be even more difficult to escape from, especially if there is a perceived threat of violence that never actually manifests. Here is a checklist (again, non-linear and non-exhaustive) of indicators you might be in an abusive relationship:
-You feel as if you’re incapable of doing anything right. Any effort you make to improve is met with skepticism, critique, and a general sense that “it’ll never be good enough.” When mistakes or shortcoming are forgiven, they are often used to fuel critiques and accusations in later interactions, or used to create leverage with guilt or shame.
-You do not feel comfortable expressing disagreement or difference of opinion, even if you are confident that you’re correct. In situations where you do not know exactly how the abuser feels about something, you feel anxiety over the possibility of having the “wrong answer.” As Kelsey put it, “Maybe he doesn’t hit you, but you have to walk on eggshells every day to ensure he is satisfied enough to remain calm and happy.” The “walking on eggshells” feeling causes you to ‘go along to get along.’ When you do express disagreement (or even ask simple questions) the abuser accuses you of being “overly sensitive,” expresses hurt, or becomes angry. These responses instill in you an even greater sense of guilt and self-doubt, making disagreement more difficult in the future.
-You feel emotionally, morally, or intellectually inferior in the relationship. Unlike feeling only uncomfortable, you have lost all confidence in expressing your thoughts, feelings, or perspectives. You have a sense that you don’t (and won’t) “measure up” to the standards given to you. You have a sense of failure, remorse, and confusion at your inability to meet what ends up being an ever-changing set of standards. You don’t feel like you’re on “equal footing” in the relationship, but rather at the mercies of the abuser.
-You make excuses for bad behavior. These excuses can be rooted in guilt and shame, or a genuine delusion about the “rightness” of the abuser’s actions. Either way, you justify the abuser’s actions when they are hurtful towards you or others. You find yourself repeating their reasons back to yourself or others when seeking to explain actions you would otherwise condemn. You find it easier to accept blame or justify the abuse, rather than confront the abuser about their behavior. You may also simply lie or minimize the bad behavior, thus removing the need to excuse it.
A brief note on victims, and the “staying power” of abuse. Victims remain in abusive relationships for a myriad of reasons. If leaving abusers was a task that could be simply executed, there wouldn’t be so many resources dedicated to helping victims flee. So why do victims stay in abusive relationships? The primary reason is dependency. The lowering of their self-worth, coupled with increased isolation, causes victims to gradually become dependent upon the abuser for validation, a sense of self, security, and orientation within an ever-weakening grasp on reality. Remember, the tactics of abusers may vary, but the goals are always the same: power and control. Once abusers have obtained power and control over a victim, by definition it becomes difficult for the victim to seize back enough “control” over themselves to leave the relationship. Couple the examples listed above with other factors such as threat of violence, potential loss of finances, or the presence of children, and it can be almost impossible for many individuals to escape abuse, and that’s when there is only one abuser. What happens when there’s more than one?
Atmospheres of Abuse
Whenever humans group together, they inevitably develop a culture within that organization. No matter how small the group, or how informal the umbrella under which they put themselves under, organizational habits and cultures develop. Those in the military will tell you that the organizational culture of their platoon is probably very different from the organizational culture of a local group of gardening enthusiasts.
In a more formal context, one management textbook broadly explains the development of organizational cultures as such:
“Organizational cultures are created by a variety of factors, including founders’ values and preferences, industry demands, and early values, goals, and assumptions. Culture is maintained through attraction-selection-attrition, new employee onboarding, leadership, and organizational reward systems. Signs of a company’s culture include the organization’s mission statement, stories, physical layout, rules and policies, and rituals.”
In his book ‘The Power of Habit,’ Charles Duhigg explains how organizations can subconsciously develop habits and routines, some of which can end up being extraordinarily harmful. Duhigg’s examples primarily describe habit of action, rather than attitude, though the example of Rhode Island Hospital and the King’s Cross Fire clearly exemplifies the development of both, and how an organization’s cultural attitudes end up fueling their habits.
Duhigg’s book, as well as resources on changing organizational culture indicate that the genesis of most organizational cultures are the leaders of those organizations. The managers directly under the boss emulate the boss, those under the managers emulate the managers, and so on. But a top-down directing of organizational culture isn’t always these things manifest. As Founder and CEO of Firespring, Jay Wilkinson puts it:
“If you don’t intentionally build a culture by design, one will be established by default based on who is the loudest.”
Regardless of how the culture is established, once it is in place, natural selection weeds out those who don’t fit, insulating the organizational culture into a veritable echo chamber.
For example, consider the toxic work environment former New York Times writer Bari Weiss described in her scathing resignation letter:
“…a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else…My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views. They have called me a Nazi and a racist; I have learned to brush off comments about how I’m “writing about the Jews again.” Several colleagues perceived to be friendly with me were badgered by coworkers.”
Weiss describes her daily work situation with this damning recognition of the obvious:
“Showing up for work as a centrist at an American newspaper should not require bravery.”
And yet, it did require bravery. Why? Well, when does one need to be brave? When you’re threatened, that’s when. In Bari’s case, these threats manifested socially- with the occasional violent innuendo on her work slack channels. The organizational culture Weiss described at The New York Times was one seemingly created by an amalgam of the loudest voices (she credits Progressive Twitter), and a few de facto leaders (my assumption being The 1619 Project czar, Nikole Hannah-Jones, though Weiss is savvy enough to not mention anyone specifically).
Practically speaking, how did this environment impact those who were within it? Again, Weiss paints a clear, but bleak picture:
“Part of me wishes I could say that my experience was unique. But the truth is that intellectual curiosity — let alone risk-taking — is now a liability at The Times…And so self-censorship has become the norm. What rules that remain at The Times are applied with extreme selectivity. If a person’s ideology is in keeping with the new orthodoxy, they and their work remain unscrutinized. Everyone else lives in fear of the digital thunderdome. Online venom is excused so long as it is directed at the proper targets.”
Self-censorship. Fear of stepping out of line. Bullying. Shaming unapproved or heterodox ideas. Sound familiar? “Maybe he doesn’t hit you, but you have to walk on eggshells every day to ensure he is satisfied enough to remain calm and happy.”
Kelsey’s story of escaping an emotionally abusive relationship should not bear such striking parallels to an accomplished writer’s resignation letter, but it does. Moreover, very few of us are unable to relate to Bari’s experience. As just one of many examples, a July 2020 Cato Institute poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans are afraid to express their political views for fear of offending someone. To borrow from Andrew Sullivan’s fantastic 2018 piece: “We all work at The New York Times now.”
There is much, much more that can be said on this topic, and I’ve opened many doors that have yet to be closed. However, this seems like a good place to leave it for now. I’ll end with this: many say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I believe in many cases, this is true. That said, with our current social situation, I’d like to offer a different picture. Those living in constant fear of saying the wrong thing, expressing doubt in the unapproved direction, or being found to hold any of the latest forms of wrongthink, their road looks different. For the weary individuals being compelled by a social zeitgeist they didn’t ask for, under a vague (but very real) rubric of pressures to obey ever-changing rules they never agreed to, for those exhausted and fearful souls, the road they walk is paved with eggshells.
This article was originally published by Return to Reason.