Monday, September 28, 2015

Toxic: A Journey Through Emotional Abuse




“Emotional abuse” is a term that evokes looks of discomfort and feelings of panic amongst Muslims; kneejerk reactions and defensive declarations of “that stuff doesn’t happen to Muslims!” or even “there’s no such thing!”

Before we discuss the issue further, however, we must first know: what is emotional abuse?

Emotional Abuse: A form of abuse characterized by a person subjecting or exposing another to behavior that may result in psychological trauma, including anxiety, chronic depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.[1][2][3] Such abuse is often associated with situations of power imbalance, such as abusive relationships, bullying, and abuse in the workplace.[1]

Signs of Emotional Abuse[2]:

·        Humiliation, degradation, discounting, negating, judging, criticizing.
·        Domination, control, and shame
·        Accusing and blaming, trivial and unreasonable demands or expectations, denies own shortcomings
·        Emotional distancing and the “silent treatment,” isolation, emotional abandonment or neglect
·        Codependence and enmeshment

Emotional abuse is, arguably, even more widespread in Muslim communities than physical or sexual abuse is. In fact, many emotionally abusive behaviors have long been considered culturally ‘normal’ in both the East and the West, and continue to be implicitly accepted in many so-called Muslim societies. As a result, many Muslim marriages have and continue to suffer in a deeply unhealthy manner that runs in opposition to the Islamic injunction to live together in love and mercy.

It is important to note that all abusive behaviors, whether physical or emotional, are in direct contradiction to the adab and akhlaaq of true Muslims. The Qur’an and the Sunnah of RasulAllah (sallAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), who was the best of creation and was sent to perfect excellence of character, directly prohibit the appalling behavior displayed by emotional abusers.

The signs and symptoms of emotional abuse are easily written off as someone simply being “oversensitive” or unable to handle the “normal challenges” in marriage.  However, there is a huge difference between the natural friction and misunderstandings that occur in a marriage, and consistent long-term behaviors that strip away someone’s identity and self-worth, leaving them internally broken and battered.

Unfortunately, cultural norms and allegedly “Islamic” double-standards have ensured that emotional abuse is rarely, if ever, discussed or even taken seriously by members of the Muslim community. Men and women alike are both perpetrators and victims of emotional abuse, although amongst Muslims, men have the distinct advantage of being able to pronounce talaaq if they wish, without the legal difficulties that women face in requesting a khul’ divorce.  The role of emotional abuse as a legitimate reason for divorce is an even more sensitive subject, with few imams amongst the vast majority of them accepting it as a reason to grant women khul’.

A Journey Through Emotional Abuse

Due to my own experience in a toxic marriage, and to work towards eradicating the stigma and many misconceptions surrounding emotional abuse, I have chosen to share the stories of others who have experienced emotionally abusive relationships.

Isolation & Abuse

It took me a few years to realise [the emotional abuse], as it started very gradually, and built up, and got worse as the years went on. I think it must have taken around 4 to 5 years for it to finally hit home, after the birth of my second child.
By the time I fully realized how he had taken the emotional abuse to such a level, my second child had just been born. I was suffering from post-natal depression. My (now ex-) husband had had an argument with my parents, over something really trivial, and took it out on me. I ended up more or less locked in the house, nowhere to go and nobody to speak to, except his family. Looking back, at the time, I realised that he had already cut me off from so many people. I had lost all my friends as I wasn't allowed to keep in contact with them, and he wouldn't let me make new ones. Visits and phone calls to my family were limited and monitored, so I could never talk to anybody about how I felt or just generally talk about things that mattered to me. If I tried talking to him, he would interrupt and change the subject, so my voice was never heard, my opinions never mattered. I was only 'trusted' with his family. – R.S.

I can’t say when exactly I realized he was emotionally abusive. I was in denial and blamed myself for the problems for a while. I knew something was weird when he would go for days without speaking with me.
My ex had severe mood swings and a horrible temper. He could go for weeks without speaking with me, looking at me and definitely not touching me and nothing I did would soften his heart toward me until ‘he came back.’ That’s how I described it, it’s like he would leave and then come back. He once smashed his fist through a glass door because he was upset with me and when I was away at school, I’d go for up to 5 months without him visiting or picking my calls. He eroded my self-confidence and would scold me, call me names, threaten me and say all sorts of negative stuff to me. Then he would wake up the next morning and hug me, almost in tears, saying how much he loved me and pleading with me to stop doing things to hurt him. – H.M.

I actually didn't realize my ex-wife was emotionally abusive until after our divorce. The entire time I was married to her she had me convinced that I deserved her abuse because I made her do it by not being good enough to her.
I tried many times during our marriage to reason with her, acknowledge her feelings and even begging her to stop. We went to a marriage counselor but she quit when the counselor tried explaining to her that she had to change behaviours. She would change behaviour for a day or two at most then revert to screaming, yelling, controlling my movements, communications, etc.
My ex accused me at various times of molesting both my children(one daughter, one son) She informed me a few times that she was certain I was homosexual (alhamdulillah I am not) but it was all done to break me down. Every wrong number phone was a woman I was sleeping with, every woman in the street was someone who I lusted after and would leave her for. – C.R.


‘Religious’ Justification

Everything he did, he'd tried to justify by finding a hadith or some kind of quote from somewhere that somehow supported him. So, because he was too lazy to find a job he managed to find a hadith that said something along the lines of, if your salaah suffers because you're working, then you should reconsider your job. So he'd use that an an excuse not to work, saying that by being in an office, he wouldn't be able to pray at the masjid.
I once asked him to ask the local mufti, is it halal to [remain] unemployed, not helping in the house or with the children, whilst your wife earns the money, looks after the kids, [and] runs the house? Is it halal to live off your wife's earnings? We all know the answer to this. He spoke to the mufti and came back home and said "Muftisaab said, as long as you're happy to spend your money on the family, then that is fine. And you're happy to do so, aren't you?" And out of fear, I couldn't argue the point. – R.S.

Disagreements were not tolerated. I would often find that a single innocent word would result in him turning his back on me for days on end, and if I did not scramble to figure out what I had said or done wrong and subsequently beg for forgiveness, I was reminded that ungrateful, disobedient wives made up the majority of the inhabitants of Jahannam.
I would break down and wonder why I was such a terrible wife, why it was so impossible for him to be pleased with me. My eman dipped so low that I wondered if I would truly burn in Hell for being unable to ensure my husband’s emotional satisfaction with me. 
I seriously considered counseling and brought it up several times to my husband – only to be denounced as letting Shaytan whisper to me, that counseling is ‘ayb and haraam, and that I was allowing my corrupt Western upbringing to influence me even more. – Z.K.

He said that I was the devil and he used to call me names in Arabic, like 'hypocrite'. He said if I tried to be a Muslim, I would bring bad luck to the religion and he told me not to dare to wear hijab or to ever teach or tell him anything about his religion; that he was born into it and knew more than me about how it should be practised. SubhanAllah. – D.S.

My ex-wife used Islam as an excuse for her abuse constantly. Her favorite was the topic of lowering the gaze. If she had even a twinge of jealousy, I was subjected to a barrage of questioning. When we went out she would only be satisfied if my eyes were on the floor constantly and if she thought there was even a remote possibility of me having noticed a woman, she would berate me in public and force me to take her home immediately so she could scream at without anyone seeing. There were also many examples of physical abuse that went along with this.
If I had turned my head and a woman happened to be there, she would either scream at me or tell me in hushed whispers that "you're a pervert", "you're sick", "you disgust me" and so on. One of her biggest things was using ahadith about kind treatment of wives. If I tried to make her stop, I was being oppressive and so on. I was forbidden from watching TV and was constantly suspected of hiding pornography around the house(I never did). While I was being accused of lusting after women and so on, my ex-wife was herself indulging in pornography on a near daily basis which I didn't find out until much later. – C.R.

Impact on Children

I see that the children have very low self-esteem and confidence and my eldest daughter seems to want to be with boys who show worryingly similar characteristics to her father.
My eldest daughter, who was 7 years old when we left, suffered guilt, because she often used to ask, 'why don't we just leave'? So when I finally managed to start to escape, she tried to stop me, because she thought it was because of her suggestion. He used to get her up in the middle of the night to ask her who was better - him or me? she used to apologise to me in the morning when he was not around, for saying 'him.'
We had to keep the curtains closed during the day and be sure not to make any sound so as not to disturb him. He would get very angry if we disturbed him. Sometimes he refused to let the children go to school in the morning, so we would sneak around and try to get out the front door without waking him. – D.S.

We have a daughter and his two sons from his previous marriage lived with us. My daughter was still little when I left but I felt his first son was affected. He would always cry when one of us was going somewhere, he always asked if the person was coming back. Leaving those two boys behind was very hard for me. – H.M.

I have two children, mashallah. [My daughter] was only 6 when we left him, [and my son] was 3. But they still remember incidents. Emotionally, he abused [my daughter] a lot - he was fixated on making her a hafidha, to the extent that he would threaten her (for example, "I'll light a match in your mouth if you don't pray"). He also caused conflict between them - so for example, he once told her, "You don't like [your brother], do you? Let's put him in a bag, tie him up and throw him in the river." She went through counselling as she was really badly affected by him. She hated seeing him after the separation and would get nightmares and would get really upset or angry. It's taken a long time, and a lot of professional help, to get her back to normal. – R.S.

I have two children with my ex, they were definitely affected by the emotional abuse, especially my five year old son. He watched his mother tear my shirt off me when I was trying to leave our apartment when she was screaming at me. My ex-wife has turned a lot of her abuse on my son especially, allowing her boyfriend to beat him.
I really scared myself as to how much abuse I put up with. My children meant more to me than anything and when I was by myself I would cry for them and myself. – C.R.


[1] Wikipedia; the British Journal of Psychiatry and the book ‘Psychological Abuse in Domestic Relations’ (by Daniel K. O’Leary and Roland D. Maiuro).

[2] PsychCentral.com; Maria Bogdanos.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I want to thank everyone who shared their stories it is incredibly brave and important. Sometimes it takes reading about others experiences to recognize that you are going through the same thing.

Mama of Leo said...

This is a difficult subject.

I see alot of relationships in the middle east intoxicated with emotional abuse. And, unfortunately, it is in the name of Islam. In alot of cases there is one party trying hard to control the other by abusively comparing him/her to an ideal model made of extremely selective Islamic teachings.

This is so sad.

Albert said...

I am an emotional abuser. I have the tendancy to be controlling, jealous, angry with acting out aggression. I am married to a wonderful woman and we have a 17 month old son. I am in therapy but am in between therapists right now due to my other therapist being rude and inconsiderate to my wife. I was raised in an abusive home being verbally abused my whole life (27 years). My father still does it today. I take responsability for my actions and do not blame him but am angry with him and my mother for the way I was raised.

Traumatic Loneliness