He told her that what was going on in their relationship was called domestic violence, and the type of violence he was using on her was emotional abuse; instead of bashing her with his fists, he bashed her with his emotions in order to keep her under control. ‘Then I went to good old Google to Google emotional abuse,’ she recalls, ‘and then up came this list of behaviours, and I actually saw my whole life in a list on a computer.’ Deb’s shock soon turned to anger: ‘I thought, you know, I'm a high functioning, intelligent person—how could I have been in an abusive relationship and not even known?’ Deb’s story is a common one—victims can take years to realise they’re being abused.She’s not just talking about name-calling, or things said in anger. It can be loud and overt, or it can be the little whisper in the ear at a party with friends: “They’re not laughing with you, they’re laughing at you, because you’re an idiot.” ‘The psychological impact of that can be quite extreme,’ says Willis. Because, in the words of American psychiatrist Judith Herman, domestic violence victims are in a state of psychological captivity, like that of a kidnap victim or cult member.Perpetrators create this state of captivity by employing tactics that are so common, it’s like they’re straight out of a textbook.‘It’s like you go to abuse school,’ says Rob Sanasi, a marketing professional who lives in Sydney’s northwest.In Deb’s case, she’d always thought she was to blame for Rob’s behaviour, and had spent years reading books on how to be a better partner.It’s also common for victims—even those living with physical violence and death threats—to see themselves as the strong one and to regard their partner’s abuse as something they simply have to withstand so they can help him overcome his demons.They have no desire to change, because the abuse works for them—they get off on dominating their partners, and will often seduce vulnerable women they think they can abuse.
She’s been working with victims for over 30 years, and says that virtually all of her counselling and trauma work is spent reversing the impacts of verbal abuse.Situations where the perpetrator is a master manipulator can be especially dangerous.These are the men who don’t show up at men’s behaviour change programs or seek counselling.‘I think we all knew that if we hit a woman that's family violence, but there were a lot of other things the men just didn't know.Probably the biggest one was language— the derogatory language.’It’s those words that can hurt victims the most.Domestic violence is a crime that, in the vast majority of cases, is committed by men.What do we really know about men who abuse their partners and how they do it?Experts are adamant on this point: domestic violence is not an anger management problem.When perpetrators believe they’re being defied, they can feel like they’re losing control.That’s because perpetrators often foster an ‘us against the world’ narrative based on the fact they’ve been badly hurt by others in their life.Women in these situations can be manipulated into believing they are the only person who can protect their partner and help them become a better man.