How I Broke Free

Even smart, strong women can become victims. Six women share how they went from feeling helpless and crazy to seeing the truth of emotional abuse.

Emmy Allen* was pushing her 1-year-old daughter in a housewares-store cart when her husband, who’d wandered off to “pick up some things” he needed, reappeared and strolled casually beside her. She glanced into his cart — and froze. “He had extra-large trash bags, duct tape, gallons of bleach, a tire iron, zip ties and a dozen boxes of a pain reliever he knew I was allergic to,” she says. “My doctor warned me that if I took it, I could die.” At home, Emmy confronted him: “Why did you buy that stuff? Are you trying to scare me?” She’ll never forget his reply: “See, this is just another example of how insane you are. If I was planning to kill you, I wouldn’t be so obvious.”

Emmy, 28, of Huntsville, Alabama, met her husband when he was a newly enlisted Army recruit and she was a senior in high school — young enough to be flattered by his constant texting and calling, but too inexperienced to heed the signs of emotional abuse that cropped up even before they said “I do” eight months later. “He’d call me stupid and accuse me of wanting to sleep with my friends, both male and female,” she recalls. “I wanted to be loved so badly, I ignored his mean side. He always wanted to be around me… I got caught up in his constant attention.”

After their wedding, the put-downs and name-calling escalated: You’re crazy, you’re a terrible wife, you’re a whore.

After their wedding, the put-downs and name-calling escalated: You’re crazy, you’re a terrible wife, you’re a whore. He’d call her a worthless, lazy bitch for not working, but if Emmy talked about getting a job, he’d tell her she was too stupid. Having sex with him was akin to rape; he terrified her by slapping and choking her, and she dodged it as often as she could. But there was no way to avoid his mind games.

Belongings that were meaningful to her, such as jewelry, a diary and even keepsake T-shirts, started disappearing, and he blamed it on her forgetfulness. Before trips to the mall, he’d tell her what she could buy, down to each item’s price, but once they got there, he’d say, “Why would you think you could buy something? You don’t deserve anything new.”

roll of duct tape domestic violence abuse

On the rare occasions when she went out with friends, he’d call and say there was something wrong with their daughter. When she rushed back, he’d say, “You’re home so early. Were you not having fun?”

“On one level, I knew I wasn’t crazy, but he wore me down,” says Emmy. “After a few years, I felt totally hopeless and worthless. He was literally destroying me. I started to feel like suicide was my only way out.”

Beyond Violence

Emmy was a victim of gaslighting, a type of emotional abuse that takes its name from the 1944 thriller Gaslight, about a woman whose husband gradually manipulates her into believing she’s going insane. “At first, victims of gaslighting try to defend themselves,” says Robin Stern, Ph.D., associate director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of The Gaslight Effect. “But when the person you love persistently tries to redefine your reality and nothing you do or say makes a difference, you begin to see yourself through their eyes. Maybe I am forgetful. Maybe I am stupid. Maybe I am crazy. You start mistrusting or second-guessing yourself.”

Actress Ingrid Bergman, as opera singer Paula Alquist Anton, and American actor Joseph Cotten, as Scotland Yard's police officer Brian Cameron, in a scene from the whodunit 'Gaslight'. USA, 1944.

Joseph Cotten and Ingrid Bergman in a scene from the 1944 film ‘Gaslight.’
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Gaslighting may leave less obvious wounds than those inflicted by physical violence, but it’s not uncommon: In a survey of more than 2,500 women who called a national domestic-abuse hotline, 74% said they believed their partners deliberately did things to make them feel as if they were losing their minds.

And gaslighting is just one under-the-radar tactic abusers use to undermine a woman’s sense of worth, confidence and independence, preventing her from reaching out for help or leaving. Other methods include financial abuse (limiting a partner’s access to money, ruining her credit, interfering with her job) and spiritual abuse (misusing religious beliefs to coerce a partner into submission).

“Taking total control of the money or calling you names doesn’t leave bruises or broken bones, but that doesn’t mean those behaviors aren’t dangerous,” says Carole Warshaw, M.D., director of the National Center on Domestic Violence, Trauma & Mental Health. Harmful on its own, emotional abuse often is a warning sign of future physical violence. The underlying goal of all abuse is the same: to gain and maintain power and control.

Nearly one-quarter of women in the U.S. are victims of severe physical violence at the hands of their partners at some point in their lives, but nearly twice as many endure psychological aggression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. The hallmark of the latter is a pattern of behavior that goes well beyond the nasty comments even well-adjusted couples may stoop to in anger. “Emotional abuse can be chronic. It’s about intimidation, and one person getting his or her needs met at the other’s expense,” says Robert Geffner, Ph.D., president of the Institute on Violence, Abuse and Trauma in San Diego.

Nearly one-quarter of women in the U.S. are victims of severe physical violence at the hands of their partners, but nearly twice as many endure psychological aggression.​

Some research shows that emotional abuse can take an even greater toll than hitting or pushing. Physical injuries leave marks that validate your experience to the outside world, which lets you know you’re not crazy, explains Mindy Mechanic, Ph.D., professor of psychology at California State University, Fullerton, whose study of 413 abused women found that emotional violence causes severe PTSD and depression above and beyond that caused by physical violence. Some women’s self-esteem becomes so severely eroded that they no longer trust themselves to be able to function outside the abusive relationship.

It’s been almost seven years since Brenda Kaufman, 37, of Seattle, left the boyfriend who abused her physically and emotionally for nearly 14 years, and she’s still dealing with the financial repercussions: “We never married because he told me I wasn’t good enough to be his wife, but over the years he made me put everything in my name — gas cards, credit cards — and he maxed them out buying food and furniture for his family and friends. He also talked me into financing a $38,000 car — I’m still paying that off. He told me the debt had to be mine, because I was nothing. My kids and I are in hiding from him. We exist on Social Security, disability for my PTSD and help from my mom and dad. I’d love to become an RN, but I’m just trying to survive.”

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Trapped at Home

Many wonder why women don’t leave abusive relationships — or, even more perplexing, why when they do leave, they come back an average of seven times. Loss of self-esteem is one reason. But lack of financial resources is a huge factor, too. In fact, the leading predictor of whether a victim will leave for good is whether she has an independent income.

domestic violence finances money control cutting credit cards

Financial abuse is such an effective form of control that most abusers (99%, according to Michigan State University researchers) employ it in one way or another. “Some make partners account for every penny they spend, some ruin their wife’s credit rating and others sabotage their partner’s job — turning off the alarm clock so she oversleeps, destroying her clothes or harassing her at work,” says Judy Postmus, Ph.D., director of Rutgers University’s Center on Violence Against Women and Children. The end result is that the woman becomes increasingly dependent, disempowered and trapped.

When Pamela Blake, 55, married her second husband in 2000, he persuaded her to give up her job as a city employee, sell her house and live with him and his 7-year-old daughter on his Nebraska farm. “He took care of the finances and had me cancel my credit cards because he had a higher credit limit,” she says. “He was wealthy, so I didn’t think much about it until I realized I couldn’t do anything without his say-so.”

​I wanted to be loved so badly, I ignored his mean side. I felt totally hopeless and worthless.”

At 5′ 9″ and 125 pounds, Pamela was slim, but after several years of marriage and fertility treatments, she wasn’t as thin as she had been, so in order for her to get her “weekly allowance,” her husband made her step on a scale. “He’d pay me $500 if I lost weight,” she says. If she didn’t meet his goals, he’d pinch her stomach and tell her she was disgusting. “He constantly told me I was fat and worthless and insisted on seeing receipts for anything I bought, especially food,” she says. “After we adopted our son, my husband referred to him as ‘the child I bought for you’ and warned me he’d get custody if I left him.”

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To get money for herself, Pamela started buying clothes for her husband’s daughter and returning them for cash as well as swiping $100 or so every week from the $3,000 her husband kept wrapped in foil in the freezer. “I stashed the money inside a zippered sofa cushion, but I was worried he’d find it, so I eventually sent it to my aunt, who knew a little about what was going on and opened a bank account for me,” she says.

By the time Pamela’s husband pointed a gun at her and said, “You just never know when you might have to use one of these things,” she was ready to make her move. She had secretly gotten several credit cards in her name and talked to a counselor who encouraged her to leave. She fled with her son soon afterward. “Those credit cards were my salvation,” says Pamela. “They helped me live on my own and go to school to get my teaching credential. Without them, I would have been stuck. You can’t start a new life without some financial independence.”

domestic violence march issue money

Maintaining Control

Before they married in 1987, the plan was for Anna Gardner, now 50, and her husband to attend Bible college together. But on the way back from seeing the school after they tied the knot, he told her, “Women can’t go into the ministry. You’ll work and pay for me to go to school,” she says. “I was heartbroken. I’d had my sights set on Bible college for years.”

Still, she was a shy woman and felt happy to have a husband, especially one who could be charming and charismatic, so she acquiesced, a choice she quickly regretted. “Shortly after we were married, I had my first concussion from him, and it went downhill from there,” says Anna. “He’d use the Bible to justify his violent behavior, saying the man is the head of the household, wives should be subservient, ‘You need to obey me and do what I say.'”

When she turned to their church for help, she was blamed. “A pastoral counselor told me the abuse was my fault because I was too controlling,” recalls Anna. “When my husband pushed me into a dresser, herniating one of my discs, an elder’s wife asked me, ‘What did you do to provoke him?’ At that point, I quit reaching out and started praying I’d find a way out.”

That didn’t happen until she’d been married to her husband for nearly 10 years. “Several years after our second daughter was born, my doctor asked about abuse, and I told him,” says Anna. “I didn’t realize he had to report it. I went to family court, and a judge gave me an order of protection.” They divorced, but he has visitation with their daughters three times a week. “What people do not understand about domestic violence, especially when you have children, is that divorce doesn’t end the abuse; it merely changes it,” says Anna. “The verbal abuse no longer happens in your living room, but in the driveway, or on the phone, or at the kids’ soccer games.”

What people do not understand is that divorce doesn’t end the abuse; it merely changes it. The verbal abuse no longer happens in your living room, but in the driveway, or on the phone, or at the kids’ soccer games.”​

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Rates of abuse are about the same in religious and secular families. The difference: Religious women may stay in abusive marriages longer. “The myth of the happy family puts a lot of pressure on religious women to stay, even if it’s risky,” says Nancy Nason-Clark, Ph.D., coauthor of No Place for Abuse: Biblical & Practical Resources to Counteract Domestic Violence. Most religious leaders don’t minimize abused women’s suffering, she adds, “but many don’t know how to help and are not aware of the resources available in their communities.”

It wasn’t until Katie Rogers, 40, sought counseling from a pastor outside her own church in Ohio that she was able to leave her husband of almost five years. “My ex would always tell me, ‘God gave you to me; you belong to me and you need to do as I say,'” she recalls. “I was like his slave, sexually and physically. But I hid it because I was embarrassed and I didn’t want the marriage to fail.”

Katie suffered in secret until she told the pastor’s wife at a nearby church what was happening. “She gave me pamphlets about abuse, and that’s when the lightbulb went on,” she says. Strengthened by counseling she received at that church, she told her parents and her pastor that she was preparing to file for divorce. “One evening, I dropped my sons off at my parents’ house after Bible study and told my husband he had 30 days to find somewhere else to live and that in the meantime I’d be at my parents’ home,” she says. “He left that night. I know God was with me. God is love, and love is not abuse.”

church steeple domestic violence abuse

“I have a good job as a caregiver. I’m taking care of our four kids. I’ve been on my own for almost three years. And I still have thoughts like I can’t make it without him,” says Lucy Everest, 36, of Phoenix. “That’s how badly emotional abuse gets in your head. It’s like it changes your brain and you can’t sort out what you think from what he told you to think.”

For 11 years, off and on, her husband told her she was stupid and incompetent and terrorized her by letting her sleep only a few hours every night. “He’d jump on the bed and blare music and threaten to wake up the kids. He insisted I make eye contact with him and answer his questions. The only way he’d let me go to sleep was if I had sex with him,” she says. “Because I was so sleep-deprived, it was easy for him to distort my reality. Once he held a gun to my head and played Russian roulette. Later, he told me it never happened — and I thought maybe he was right.”

Lucy grew up in a troubled home, with a father who verbally abused her mother, and that early exposure may have put her at increased risk for later abuse. People who are victims of violence or who witness it in the home as children are more likely to experience intimate-partner violence as adults, whether as victims or as perpetrators, say experts. Role modeling likely plays a part, but brain development may, too. “There’s evidence that children raised in abusive households have a difficult time dealing with stress, for instance,” says one study leader, Kibby McMahon of Duke University.

Breaking the Cycle

Young people may be more vulnerable to abuse, since they are still trying to figure out what a healthy relationship is. Emmy Allen, whose husband terrified her by buying duct tape and other menacing items, believes her age and naïveté when she met him made it more difficult to recognize the danger that lay ahead. But having children helped her see her circumstances more clearly. “By the time my daughter was 3 and I was pregnant with twins, I finally saw the gravity of the situation,” she says. “I told him we needed therapy. I’m sure he thought he could fool the counselor into thinking he was a great guy, so he agreed. But the therapist wanted to see us separately.”

Emmy opened up to the therapist, who connected her to a victim advocate who helped her plan her escape. She also got assistance from her parents and filed a report about the abuse with the military. His superiors set him up with a place to stay, but they believed his story over hers — and the courts mandated co-parenting counseling and shared custody.

Now, almost two years after her divorce, Emmy still sees her ex for therapy and when she drops off the kids. “He lies, threatens — it’s exhausting,” she says. Still, she has started a new life, with a job at a store and kind, encouraging people around her. “I’m learning what real love looks like,” she says. “It’s supporting each other to be your best selves. I’m trying hard to teach that to my children. If I don’t do anything in this life except raise them to be adults who never become victims or abusers, I’ll consider myself a success.”

*Women’s names and locations have been changed.

This story originally appeared in the March 2016 issue of Good Housekeeping and is part of an ongoing series about domestic violence and abuse. If you or someone you know is at risk, reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233. If you are in danger, call 911. More information and resources are available at the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence or the National Online Resource Center for Violence Against Women.